Off the Beaten Trail

Spring has sprung! by Matt Reeder

It’s been a little bit since I’ve checked in here, because I’ve been out on the trail. What else would you expect? I’ll try to not make it so long the next time.

The spring so far has been marked by some fantastic new hikes as well as return to trips to some old favorites. Most of my hiking, as is usually the case, has been in the Columbia River Gorge. Without a new book to write I have been free to explore to my heart’s desire, and I’ve really tried to seek out the most interesting adventures each time I go out. I’ve been fortunate enough to get out a good amount, as I have many weekdays free for adventure. As luck would have it, I’ve hit the trail for 11 different adventures since the beginning of spring.

They are:

  • March 23 - Catherine Creek and Tracy Hill

  • March 24 - Klickitat River Trail

  • March 27-28 - Blue Pool and Clear Lake

  • March 31 - Deschutes River via Free Bridge Road

  • April 2 - Mitchell Point and Spirit Falls

  • April 9 - Columbia Hills State Park Loop

  • April 12 - Memaloose Hills

  • April 18 - Mosier Plateau, Lost Lake and Punchbowl Falls

  • April 20 - Road’s End and Munson Creek Falls

  • April 25 - Angels Rest and Bridal Veil Falls

  • April 27 - Cottonwood Canyon State Park

May is looking to be a lot of fun and full of lots of new adventures. I can’t wait!

7. Silver Falls Backcountry Loop by Matt Reeder

Distance: 9.3 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,000 feet
Trailhead elevation: 1,363 feet
Trail high point: 2,374 feet
Season: all year (you may hit snow in winter)
Best: March – May, October - November
Map: follow the park map of the trail system
Pass: State Park Pass ($30 annual, $5 day, purchase on site)
Drivetime from Portland: 80 minutes

• From Portland, drive southeast on OR 213 for 30 miles towards Molalla and Silverton. Stay on OR 213, following signs for Silverton.
• In downtown Silverton, turn left on OR 214 and follow signs to Silver Falls State Park a total of 15.7 miles to a four-way junction signed for the South Falls Lodge.
• Turn left instead, onto a road signed for Overnight Facilities and the Campground.
• You will soon arrive at a fee booth. If you do not own the annual State Parks Pass, you can purchase a day pass for $5 at the fee booth.
• Continue straight to a T-junction. Turn left here, following signs for Overnight Facilities and the Conference Center.
• Drive 0.6 mile of paved road to a junction with a gravel road, signed for Howard Creek Horse Camp. Turn left here.
• Drive 0.1 mile to a turnoff for the Howard Creek Trailhead on your left.
• Turn left and drive into the trailhead, where you will find another fee booth should you still need to purchase a pass.

Everybody comes to Silver Falls State Park for the waterfalls. Can you blame them? Where else can you find 10 waterfalls in a narrow, verdant canyon so close to civilization? But the Silver Falls canyon is most definitely not off the beaten trail. Most people never visit the trails in the interior of the park, and
that’s a shame! While lacking in waterfalls, the interior of the park is home to impressive stands of ancient forest, woodland wildflowers, nice displays of fall color and the kind of solitude that really speaks to the heart. This lovely loop doesn’t go anywhere – there are no waterfalls, no views and no destination of note – but it does take you deep into the woods, into the solitary backcountry of the park. Even though you’ll
mostly be on abandoned logging roads, you will most definitely be off the beaten trail.

Begin at the Howard Creek Trailhead. From the signboard, walk straight to a junction and turn left. You’ll hike 0.6 mile (ignore signs for the horse camp, which just take you back to the trailhead) to a junction near Howard Creek signed for the Buck Mountain Loop. Turn left and begin hiking north until you reach another
junction at 1 mile. Turn right to stay on the Buck Mountain Loop and begin climbing up into the woods. The trail ascends into deep forest, passing occasional ancient trees that survived the logging prevalent in this area once upon a time. The forest is overwhelmingly green, but never more so than in early spring – the forest comes to life, glowing in the rebirth that spring brings. It will not surprise you to learn that this is an excellent hike on a rainy day.

Deep in the Silver Falls backcountry on a rainy day.

At 2.3 miles, 3.5 miles and 4.7 miles, you will reach junctions that may or may not be well-signed; in all three cases, keep right to continue this loop. You will reach the trail’s high point around the last of these junctions, where you may find snow in the winter months. Once you pass the third junction just after 4.7 miles, the trail begins a gradual descent to a junction at 5.4 miles. Here you keep right again and continue losing elevation to a junction with the Smith Creek Trail at 5.7 miles. Keep right yet again and drop down to a junction at 6.3 miles, where you are at last faced with a decision. The shortest way back to the trailhead would be to keep right again, staying on the Buck Mountain Loop to its end back near where you started; but the prettiest way is left, down into Smith Creek’s canyon. I recommend turning left on the Cutoff Trail. This short trail drops steeply down to a junction near a bridge over Smith Creek, just opposite the Silver Falls Conference Center. At 7.1 miles from the start of your hike, it’s not a bad idea to cross the bridge and
walk into the Conference Center, where you’ll find bathrooms, picnic tables…and people. If you’re not crossing the bridge, keep right here to stay on the loop. Continuing your hike, you’ll follow Howard Creek north, passing several enormous trees along the way, to a reunion with the Buck Mountain Loop at 8.5 miles. Keep left, cross a bridge over Howard Creek and reach a junction. Turn left and hike 0.7 mile to the Howard Creek Trailhead.

24. Deschutes River Trail by Matt Reeder

Distance: 11.2 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 200 feet
Trailhead elevation: 217 feet
Trail high point: 331 feet
Season: January - May, October - December
Best: January - April
Map: none needed
Pass: none ($5 fee if parked overnight)
Drivetime from Portland: 95 minutes

• From Portland, drive 75 miles to The Dalles on Interstate 84 and continue another 13 miles to Exit 97.
• Following signs for the Deschutes Recreation Area, leave the freeway at Exit 97 and arrive at a junction.
• Turn left and drive 3 miles to Deschutes State Park.
• Cross the river and turn right into the campground.
• Drive through the campground and park at the south end of the B campground loop, near the camp host and bathrooms. The trail is straight ahead at the end of a grassy field.

Hike: Just 90 minutes from the Portland metro area, the transition from wet Western Oregon to dry, desert-like Eastern Oregon culminates at the mouth of the Deschutes River. Follow an old road and riverside trail up this gorgeous, nearly treeless canyon to a plethora of great campsites and fantastic views of the river. A fire burned this canyon in the summer of 2018 but the vegetation is already returning; in some ways this hike is even prettier now than it was before the fire. Just make sure you avoid this canyon in the summer when it bakes in 100º heat; this is often the hottest place in the state of Oregon.

A snowy Deschutes River canyon, February 2019.

The trail begins on the lawn at the end of the B-Loop in Deschutes State Park Campground. Look for a trail heading upstream that follows the river. Shortly you will reach a junction with a trail darting uphill; this is the way to the road and a possible return trail. Here you are presented with a dilemma; the trail ahead follows the river closely but is in spots poorly defined. The fire cleared much of the brush here, making the trail easier to follow. If you are interested in the most scenic hike, follow the river. You will pass a narrow
spot at about 2 miles, where the trail climbs a bit to avoid a boulder field. Look uphill to an arch on the canyon wall above. At a little over 3 miles, come to the first campsite at Colorado Rapids, complete with a vault toilet. Here the user trail ends, as the canyon narrows upstream; instead follow the access road up to the road bed above. If you’ve arrived here by hiking the road and wish to visit this nice campsite, head downhill on the access road towards the bathroom. If you’re camping, there are plenty of spaces to pitch a tent.

The narrow spot in the Deschutes River canyon about 2 miles from the trailhead.

From here join the road as it climbs above the river next to an incredible basalt cliff. Notice how the rock has formed in numerous strange and phantasmagoric formations, among them a bizarre eye of radiating basalt emanating out of a cave about 30 feet above the road. The canyon here is stunning with basalt cliffs, green treeless slopes and, amazingly, what look like tide pools in the river below. The road parallels the river from this vantage point for a mile before opening back up again into the sunshine. At 5.6 miles from the trailhead you will come to an open spot. Until the 2018 fire, an abandoned wooden boxcar stood here, just off the trail to your right. This is still the recommended turnaround spot, but it isn’t as exciting now that the boxcar is gone. Maybe some day Oregon State Parks will see fit to place another boxcar or some sort of memorial here; we can all hope. Return the way you came.

In memorium: The Deschutes River Trail boxcar, January 2018. The boxcar burned in the Substation Fire during the summer of 2018.

14. Lower Lewis River Trail by Matt Reeder

Distance: 11.4 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 600 feet
Trailhead Elevation: 1,247 feet
Trail High Point: 1,312 feet
Season: March - November
Best: April - June, October
Map: Lone Butte (Green Trails #365)
Pass: NW Forest Pass
Drivetime from PDX: 110 minutes

• From Portland, drive east on Interstate 84 to Cascade Locks.
• Leave the freeway at exit 44 and follow the off-ramp to the Bridge of the Gods.
• Pay the $2 toll and cross the river.
• On the far side, turn right at a junction with WA 14.
• Drive 5.9 miles, passing through Stevenson along the way, to a junction signed for Carson and the Wind River Road. Turn left here.
• Drive the Wind River Road north for 14.2 miles to a T-Junction. Turn right here to stay on the Wind River Road.
• Continue 12.9 miles of winding road to a junction with the Curly Creek Road on your left, just after the Wind River Road crosses over Old Man Pass.
• Turn left and drive the Curly Creek Road downhill for 5.1 miles to its end at a junction with FR 90, the Lewis River Road. Turn right.
• Drive FR 90 for just 0.9 miles to a junction with FR 9039 on the left. As the road leaves at a very sharp angle, this junction may be difficult to see, so watch your mileage closely.
• Turn sharply to the left here and drive downhill to a bridge over the Lewis River. Cross the river and continue uphill. At 0.9 mile from FR 90, turn left into the Curly Creek Falls Trailhead. The Lewis River Trail begins here.
• Note: You can also drive here via Cougar and around Swift Lake. This approach will take you at least 20 minutes longer, and is much more winding and curvy than the approach described above. Nevertheless, if you’re visiting this area in the winter, this is a safer approach as it stays at a much lower elevation.

Hike: After the Eagle Creek Fire in September 2017, the waterfalls on the Lewis River became the place to be. People flocked to Lower Lewis River Falls the most, bringing their campers, coolers and everything else you would associate more with a day at the beach. Amazingly, the crowds never discovered that the Lewis River Trail downstream of the falls passes through one of the finest groves of ancient forest in the Pacific Northwest. Because there are no waterfalls to be found, this portion of the Lewis River Trail has
remained relatively quiet. Hikers can follow the river upstream to a restored shelter in a riverside flat ideal for camping. Energetic hikers can continue upstream past some of the largest cedar trees you’ll ever see until you reach a campsite at a trail junction. And if you really want to see waterfalls, there are two within a short walk of the trailhead.

Begin at the Curly Creek Trailhead. Follow a wide trail downhill to a junction with the Lewis River Trail. Right will quickly take you to both Curly Creek Falls and Miller Creek Falls, both of which tumble into the Lewis River. Save this short detour for the end of your hike. So turn left and follow the Lewis River Trail upstream a little less than a half-mile to a crossing of FR 9039 beside the bridge. You could park here instead, saving yourself a little bit of hiking, but there isn’t much parking and you miss Curly Creek Falls. Locate the Lewis
River Trail and follow it through the woods along the river. The trail mostly stays to the slopes above the river, but you will have the occasional chance to ramble down to beaches and viewpoints. Along the way you will pass some truly huge trees, both Douglas fir and Western red cedar. At 3.1 miles from the trailhead, you will reach Bolt Camp Shelter. The shelter was first built in 1931 and was eventually restored in 1991. The shelter that stands here now was restored anew in 2013, and appears to be brand new. Hikers looking
for a easy hike or a quick backpacking trip should turn around here.

Bolt Camp Shelter.

Bolt Camp Shelter.

Beyond the shelter, the trail passes a huge, park-like flats along the Lewis River. Here the old growth becomes truly stupendous, with eight to ten-foot-thick Douglas firs and Western red cedars reigning supreme over the flats. Your neck may grow sore from looking up. This stretch of trail is even more scenic in the fall, as the undergrowth here is primarily vine maple, which turns many shades of yellow and orange. At 5.6 miles, the Lewis River Trail reaches a junction with the Speed Trail on your right. There is a nice campsite here if you’re backpacking. Ignore the Speed Trail – this path crosses the Lewis River and heads
uphill to FR 90. The crossing is dangerous and not recommended at any point other than late summer. Instead, return the way you came. You can keep going upstream as far as you wish, but unless you’ve arranged a car shuttle, every mile you hike upstream is a mile you have to hike downstream.

Hike 14 - Lower Lewis River 003.JPG

If you still have a little energy when you reach the junction near the trailhead, take the time to visit Curly Creek and Miller Creek Falls. Continue past the junction another 100 yards to Curly Creek Falls. The falls is a natural wonder: a 75-foot plunge into the Lewis River through a natural arch. It must be seen to be believed. Continue downstream another 100 yards to Miller Creek Falls, also on a stream emptying into the river; note how the creek divides in two just after the plunge pool. Both streams run extremely low in the summer, but in winter and spring they should be exceptionally scenic. When you’ve finished visiting these falls, return the way you came.

Curly Creek Falls

Curly Creek Falls

33. Fifteenmile Creek by Matt Reeder

Distance: 11.6 mile loop
Elevation Gain: 1,900 feet
Trailhead elevation: 4,627 feet
Trail high point: 4,627 feet
Season: June - October
Best: June - July
Map: Flag Point (Green Trails #463)
Pass: none needed
Drivetime from Portland: 110 minutes

* From Portland drive US 26 east to a junction with OR 35 on the side of Mt. Hood
* Turn onto OR 35 and continue for 13.5 miles to a junction with FR 44 (Dufur Mill Rd.) between mileposts 70 and 71.
* Turn right and continue on FR 44 for 5.2 miles.
* At a junction, turn right and continue on FR 44 for 3.1 miles.
* Turn right on unsigned but paved FR 4420 and continue for 2.2 miles to a junction.
* Drive straight, now on paved FR 2730 for 2.1 miles to rustic but charming Fifteenmile Campground. The trail departs from a sign on the left side of the campground, near the outhouse.

Hike: Traveling east out of the Cascades, the transition from wet, western forest to dry, high desert is rapid. Hike this outstanding loop on both sides of spectacular Fifteenmile Creek and you can experience an almost full transition and back in just 10 miles of hiking. There is a catch: you have to hike downhill first. While the thought of descending a canyon for five miles and then climbing back out might not be your cup of coffee, consider this: the way back is never steep, and the scenery is better on the second half of the loop. Because you have to climb out of the canyon later in the day, avoid this hike on hot days – it won’t be as nice when you’re climbing out in 95º heat.

Head out from the delightful Fifteenmile Campground into the pine forests above rushing Fifteenmile Creek, which Congress designated a Wild and Scenic River in 2009. In early summer look for a bouquet of flowers along the charming, stair-stepping creek. After half a mile reach a junction with the Cedar Creek Trail and turn right to begin the loop, crossing the creek and ascending slightly up to the ridge. From here it’s all downhill until your reunion with the Fifteenmile Trail. After 1.5 miles of descent you will reach Onion Flat, a park-like meadow dominated by old-growth Ponderosa pines. From here on down you can feel the transition into Central Oregon high desert as the terrain changes with each step. Look over the ridgeline across the canyon for views of Mount Adams and at one spot, the tip of Mount Hood. Also be on the lookout for peach-colored large leaf Collomia, very rare for this part of the Pacific Northwest, as well as bitterroot, which grows on the dry slopes on this trail in June. Cross a decommissioned road at 3.5 miles and begin a steep descent down into the canyon, finally crossing Fifteenmile Creek and reaching a reunion with the Fifteenmile trail exactly 5 miles from the campground. A beautiful cedar grove here along the glassy, crystal-clear creek immediately before the junction provides an excellent resting spot. Though unmarked, the Underhill Trail (Hike 32) also reaches this junction from the north; look for this faint trail heading uphill from the sign at the junction of the Cedar Creek and Fifteenmile Trails. After lunch it is well worth it to continue downstream (to the right) on the Fifteenmile Trail another 0.3 mile to Pinegate Meadow, surrounded by a cluster of tall, arching Ponderosa pines. Return then to the junction with the Cedar Creek Trail and continue straight.

Now on the Fifteenmile Trail, the climb out of the canyon begins with a relatively level stretch through flower gardens along Fifteenmile Creek. In summer look for large whitish-pink Cascade lilies, a showy flower that grows profusely down in this canyon. Above you ancient ponderosas reign supreme. Before you begin your ascent in earnest, pass several large black Cottonwood trees in a cedar grove along Fifteenmile Creek. Shortly after, begin your ascent. You may have competition for the trail from a few descending mountain bikers but they are few and far between. The climb uphill is mostly gradual with a few switchbacks and a relatively easy grade. 2.5 miles from the junction at the bottom of the canyon, reach an open meadow where you can look across the canyon while large Ponderosa pines beg to be photographed. Keen eyes may spot the Cedar Creek Trail on the ridge across the canyon. From this point on the climbing becomes even more gradual while the many wildflowers make you grab for your camera; look for scarlet gilia (also known as skyrocket), paintbrush, yellow balsamroot, stonecrop and many more. Pass by a road to your right (keep on the trail) and re-enter the forest. From here you’ll eventually turn left on the remains of an old road and continue uphill, always climbing gradually. At about 3.8 miles from the trail junction (or about 1.5 miles downhill from the campground) you reach a scenic rock outcrop known as Pat’s Point. There is an excellent view across Fifteenmile Creek’s canyon. Listen for the roar of the creek and what I assume is a waterfall in the canyon below. If you’ve still got some energy, the many and varied rock formations here invite exploration. Once past Pat’s Point, the Fifteenmile trail then returns to the forest and gradually climbs another mile to a reunion with the Cedar Creek Trail on the left. Continue straight another 0.5 mile to the campground and your vehicle.