Welcome to Insight to Ashland

Ashland’s Natural Wonders – The Savanna


Ashland’s Natural Wonders – The Savanna

By Peter Kleinhenz

Let’s face it, Ashland is about as cool as it gets. Home to excellent dining, a diverse array of shops, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, tourists flock here for good reason. However, most tourists, and even many natives, may not be aware that the area around Ashland has some of the most interesting natural features and creatures in Oregon.

To start out, we need to head to the savanna. No, we are not heading to the airport and flying to Africa. The savanna, believe it or not, is only twenty minutes north of Ashland. Instead of acacia trees and elephants, this savanna is dominated by oak trees and small rodents known as pocket gophers.

During late summer and fall, the savannas are golden-brown and seemingly-lifeless. The ghosts of living grass wave in the breeze and the only sounds are the melodic whistles of western meadowlarks. In spring, however, the savanna undergoes a dramatic transformation.

Dry Vernal Pool

Dry Vernal Pool at the Whetstone Savanna Reserve

Winter brings rain to the savanna, and rain brings life. Grasses become green, wildflowers bloom, and, by the time spring arrives, small pools of water dot the plains. These small ponds, known as vernal pools, form in areas where especially tough clay prevents water from escaping underground. One plant, known as the large-flowered wooly meadowfoam, is found only on the edges of these vernal pools in the savannas north of Ashland. Almost unbelievably, these pools also cause life to literally burst out of the ground.

On especially rainy nights, male Pacific tree frogs that have been living in soil cracks climb to the surface, gather on the pool edges, and sing loudly to attract females. Eggs are laid and, surprisingly, the tadpoles have a feast awaiting them when they hatch a couple weeks later.

Small cysts, patiently awaiting the presence of water, have opened and released small crustaceans called fairy shrimp into the pools. These shrimp, as well as a unique order of water fleas, are found nowhere else on Earth and allow for a temporary food chain to develop in the savanna. The small invertebrates feed the tadpoles, the tadpoles feed snakes and waterfowl, and these subsequently feed Great Egrets and Peregrine Falcons that are attracted to the pool-side smorgasbord.

Whether you want to experience the savanna when life abounds or when its stark, silent beauty is fully apparent, it is worth a visit at any time of the year. The best example may be found at The Nature Conservancy’s Whetstone Savanna Preserve. Directions are listed below.

In our next installment, we will venture to the hills above Ashland, where North America’s largest owl and one of the most fascinating predators in the state stalks their prey. Stay tuned…

Directions to Whetstone Savanna Preserve: From Interstate 5 take Central Point exit 33, drive east on Biddle Road 1 mile, turn left on Table Rock Road, and drive 4.5 miles to the Rogue River.  Just before you cross the river, take a left on Kirtland Road and drive approximately 2 miles.  Turn left on High Banks Road and drive until you come to a right angle turn that takes you left onto Newland Road.  Drive approximately 1 mile until you see the sign and a small pull off.