Hellgate on the Rogue River
By Dr. Tom Atzet
About 20 years ago, Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon’s roles in “The River Wild”, helped make Hellgate Canyon, just 10 miles west of Merlin, famous. Over 200 feet deep, the deepest gorge on the Rogue River, demonstrates the power of water in an extraordinary geologic setting. The overlook on Merlin-Galice road provides an encompassing view including the Canyon, the unique geology, the new bridge (the old one was smashed during the 1964 flood) and a peek of the east end of Indian Mary Park, one of our State’s finest.
The Rogue originates at Crater Lake and passes through another remarkably narrow gorge near Beckie’s Café (great fresh pies) at Union Creek along highway 62. Early along its 200 mile trek, it has not amassed much volume or power, but the local cataract is non-the-less impressive.
Serpentine and greenstone, often associated with deep seated faults, make up Hellgate's canyon walls. But if you look across the canyon from the viewpoint, more “normal” metamorphosed marine sediments of the Galice Formation sandwich the serpentine inclusions. The juxtaposition and intergradation of typically common rocks and unusually rare serpentines produce a gradation of habitats supporting a rich list of species and varieties. Each has refined its genome to perfectly extract its resource needs from small microenvironments. Yet no one is ever home free. Ever changing temperature and moisture extremes leave any non-adaptive individuals in grave jeopardy. The basic rule of evolution, those that adapt survive, those that don’t perish, applies.
Chinook salmon and steelhead use the Canyon to access the upper Rogue. Local trout linger. Consequently, Hog Creek boat landing (just a quarter mile upstream) is usually busy and fishermen line nearby banks.
Willows and other riparian plants provide some shade but do not block access. Incense-cedar, Jeffrey pine, Port-Orford-cedar, and Pacific madrone commonly survive the iron magnesium rich soils which can be toxic. Douglas-fir and Ponderosa pine, on the other hand, are less tolerant and relegated to the nearby Galice sediments. Manzanita, both white and greenleaf can be found mixed with pine mat manzanita, not much taller than a shag rug. Iris adds spring color and rock fern provides a very sparse but interesting little ground cover. Species variety will challenge any botanist, even using a plant key.
Zane Grey occasionally occupied a cabin on the mid Rogue during the twenties and thirties. Presumably navigating Hellgate for access. But getting past Rainie falls and Blossom bar is likely what gave Hellgate its name.