Five Easy Hikes to Incredible Waterfalls In Oregon
The first time I saw Multnomah Falls was on a family outing to the Columbia Gorge from our home in Salem, OR. The journey was an event for the family. My grandparents were visiting from southern Oregon. So, there were eight of us crowded into the car: Mom and Dad, Grandma and Grandpa, and the four of us kids. The time was early spring in 1956. I was still only six-years-old.
My brother and I watched with excitement as a line of log trucks carrying sections of a single tree went past. There were eight log trucks in all. I knew that because I counted them with my newly learned skill with numbers.
“You know,” my Grandmother said, “there were no trees like that in Oklahoma.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Big trees like that don’t grow there,” she said, then she sighed.
“Trees grow everywhere,” I argued.
“Not trees like that,” she said.
I could not imagine a place without trees. Of course, being born and raised in Oregon, I did not know a place without trees.
We passed through Portland with all its shops, big signs, and busy cars buzzing about like bees. I was growing tired of the drive when we stopped beside the road. Everybody piled out of the vehicle, our knees aching from the long ride. We stretched, walked a while, came to a bridge, and there it was, Multnomah Falls.
It was my first sight of a real waterfall. I had seen pictures and paintings, but nothing like this. The sound of it beat against me, and I could smell the water like it was alive. The water plunged from high above us, crashed on the rocks into a pool where the water boiled or looked like it boiled. I knew it was not hot; I could feel the cold truth of it. I turned away only to see another waterfall plunge under us in a second fall on its way to the Columbia River visible in the distance. I gasped at it, and it roared back at me, letting me know my place.
I felt my grandparents standing behind me.
“Did you ever think we would see such a thing?” my grandfather said.
I turned to see them standing there, his arm around her shoulders while she stood, her mouth gaping in wonder. My grandfather’s eyes opened wide, closed, and opened again as they switched back and forth, taking in the whole of Multnomah Falls.
I wondered about that years later when I learned their story. They were victims of the dustbowl days when farmers were run out of their homes by lung-gripping dust and sand. They were tough people that suffered and persevered through countless travails without complaint. These two came to Oregon with their four children and became itinerant dairy farmers, moving from job to job, often squatting in abandoned buildings to keep their family safe.
I once took the time to wander the trails above Multnomah Falls. I quickly realized that my grandparents, at the age of 65, would never have walked those trails. I soon learned of other Oregon waterfalls, an incredible number of them, in Oregon. When my daughter and I looked for things to do with Lennon, my grandson, during the spring and summer, we decided on a set of five Oregon waterfalls.
We set out on a spring weekend for Shellburg Falls. Though the waterfall is only 17 miles from Salem, I never visited it before taking my daughter, Selene, and her son for our first trip of the year.
“How long is this going to take?” I heard from the back seat.
“As long as it takes,” Selene said.
“I don’t wanna go.”
“Well, too bad, Lennon. We are going, and that is that.”
“There are actually two waterfalls in the Shellburg Falls system,” I said.
“Ahhh, we gotta go to two of them? This will never end.”
The back seat groaned as I drove the short distance to the waterfalls.
The new trail to Upper Shellburg Falls is only a half-mile. I led the expedition/ Lennon was second, kicking at the dirt and tripping over roots as we went along. Selene brought up the rear, making sure Lennon stayed on track. We walked through a maze of moss-covered tree trunks and boulders to a grotto-like bowl where the sound of Upper Shellburg Falls washes over you like a tsunami. The Falls create a distinct sound during the spring months when the rain in Oregon swells the flow of Stout Creek, of which the Shellburg Falls system is but a slice.
“Have you ever wondered how these places were created?” I asked Lennon.
“No. Can we go now?” he replied with a sullen tone.
“No, we can’t,” I whispered back to him, making him strain to hear my reply.
He threw himself down onto the mossy mat and exclaimed at the feel of the cold, wet, dampness he found there.
Lennon grunted and got back on his feet.
“These falls are 100 feet high,” I said to him.
“You will never grow that tall.”
“Don’t want to.”
I moved along the trail to discover a natural hollow behind the waterfall.
“This is cool,” said Lennon.
Moss clung to the rooftop as far as the sun could reach. I got great photos of the waterfall from behind and under. The smell of clean water mixed with the rich odor of moss and lichen clung to us as we exited the cavern.
“Finally,” said Lennon.
A little further down the road, we found the Lower Shellburg Falls Trailhead. Taking the well-marked trail, we discovered Lower Shellburg Falls a short distance away from the trailhead. The Lower Falls dance down the slope across rocks shifting this way and that for a 30-foot tumble into a small pond before Stout Creek flows on. The area is filled with trees downed by storms and left to complete their natural decay. Moss covers every surface, adding to the natural green darkness that the overhanging trees provide. The area felt close as the trees hovered above us.
“Creepy,” said Lennon.
“No. Wonderful,” said Selene.
Lennon shook his head. We stood beside the falls, got some excellent photos, and left as Lennon was anxious to get home and get on the net.
We waited until June to visit Silver Falls State Park. I know Silver Falls well. South Falls is the most famous and the most visited waterfall close to Salem. South Falls is hugely accessible, which makes it a crowded feature during the summer months. The whole of the Silver Creek Falls system is a State Park and is well-tended. I first took the trail behind the South Falls when I was 12 years old. I was aware of the sensory overload, even at that age. The South Falls plummets 177 feet from a granite top into a giant pool. Though this waterfall is one of the most visited in the country, it is still worth the effort to experience the power of falling water. The loop around the South Falls is only an eighth of a mile with a bridge crossing Silver Creek at the lowest point of the hike. The trail has plenty of benches to sit, rest, and contemplate a scene not often seen anymore.
“Why do we have to go to these things?” asked Lennon.
“Again, because I said so,” said Selene as she smiled to me.
“I looked this place up. It ain’t much,” said Lennon.
“We’ll see,” said Selene.
The drive from Salem is a short one. Regardless, I could feel the impatience from the back seat. We arrived, paid our way into the park, and got out of the car. The trees surrounding us were some of the highest you will see in an open area. They add to the majestic feel of the park.
We walked the short trail behind the solid curtain of water that is the South Falls. I stopped directly behind the waterfall, letting the sound, mist, and power of the moment take me for a while. Lennon stood beside me in silence. When I turned to go on, he hesitated.
“Let’s go,” said Selene to Lennon.
“I don’t want to,” he shouted back, shaking his head.
I turned back to him and smiled. I knew what he was experiencing for the first time. It was something he could never get from a video or a game.
“There are more, if you want to see them,” I said.
We walked on to the bridge.
For those more adventurous, like Lennon had suddenly become, a trail breaks off, called the Ten Falls Trail, from the bridge below South Falls. It leads to the remaining ten waterfalls in the park. We took this 8.7-mile trail without any complaints for the rest of the day. Of the ten Oregon waterfalls in the system, four have an amphitheater-like setting, which is wide enough to allow the trail to wander behind each of them. The 8.7-mile path is not an easy one, but the value of the experience was reflected in Lennon later.
When we returned home, he climbed out of the car, pulled out his backpack, and took it into the house. He went immediately to the pantry and grabbed a couple of plastic bowls with lids and the trail mix, some crackers, and a box of raisins.
“What are you doing?” Selene asked.
“Getting ready for the next one,” Lennon replied.
I turned away, smiling to myself, and chuckled.
Hike: 0.8 Miles around the South Falls circuit. 8.7 miles on the full trail along all ten Oregon waterfalls
Height: South Falls = 177-foot; Lower South Falls = 93-foot; Upper North Falls = 56-foot; North Falls = 136-foot; Middle North Falls = 106-foot; Lower North Falls = 30-foot; Double Falls = 178-foot; Drake Falls = 27-foot; Twin Falls = 31-foot
Best Season to View: Winter, Spring
Distance from Salem: 20 miles
Just after the Fourth of July, we took off for Henline Falls. The drive is up what we call “The Canyon.” The route travels up the Santiam River to Detroit Dam and beyond to Gates. Not many people stop here, which is why the parking spaces are so few.
Henline Falls is a hidden gem known to few outside Oregon. The waterfall is the opening feature of the Opal Creek Wilderness Area. The trail to Henline Falls is an easy one; it elevates only 200 feet over a mile hike. The hike is through an area that was cleared of trees in an earlier age. At the time, the wood industry held sway over the economy of the region and clear-cut most areas. As we trod the trail, I explained to Lennon the evolution of logging methods in the Pacific Northwest. What began as a one-person operation ended up as a state-wide industry with immense economic, social, and political power. Eventually, entire valleys were cleared in one swoop, clearing the area from one ridgetop to the next. I pointed out the tops of the ridges and the deep valleys as we walked.
“Huh, you mean they cut down every tree as far as they could see?” he asked.
“Yes, that is what I mean. Not always, at least not in the beginning, but later on, when the industry was at full bore, they took everything they could find, left the stuff they thought of as trash and burned it before replanting.”
“It made economic sense.”
“Doesn’t to me.”
We walked on as he thought about a whole valley leveled of trees, momentarily shaking his head.
The first section of the trail is an old forest service road. I pointed out the swathes where equipment was stored or where bypasses were made for log trucks to move past each other and keep the traffic moving smoothly. Halfway up the trail, we began to hear Henline Falls as a distant echo bouncing from the hillsides and amongst the trees. At the final turn, the path veered from the old road and hugged the side of the hill. The trail became rocky just before the sound of Henline Falls hits us like a thunderclap. The waterfall is a mass of water that plunges 126 feet over a 50-foot wide surface. The water strikes outcrops creating imaginative patterns with sprays of mist that bounce upward before dropping into the large pond below. Henline Falls is the gateway to a Wilderness Area, so there were no benches on which to sit. We stood there, in wonder, as the day progressed. A rainbow formed, drifted, and vanished as the sun passed overhead. With reluctance, we turned away, losing the scent of clean water, and walked back to the civilization from whence we came.
Arriving home, Lennon had only one thing to say.
“That was epic.”
Hike: 1.8 miles there and back
Best Season to View: Spring, Early Summer
Distance from Salem: 35 miles
Drift Creek Falls
One of the great things about living in Salem, OR, is the location. We can drive one-hour to the west and walk the golden sands of the Pacific beaches. We can go one-and-a-half hours to the east and snowboard on the mountains, or we can continue east to the high desert of Central and Eastern Oregon. In Drift Creek Falls, the drive is to the west as the waterfall is just outside the coastal Oregon town of Lincoln City.
After visiting the beach for an hour to run in the sand and challenge the waves, we drove to the trailhead. The one-and-a-half-mile hike to the Falls is through a coastal forest. The walk is a quiet one, except for the chirp of birds, the buzz of insects, and the occasional sound of movement in the underbrush. Breathing seems to invade the wonders of nature that surround you. The area is thick with trees, shrubs, ivy, and moss. As we trudge along, squirrels, chipmunks, and the occasional garter snake cross our path. The path is their land, not ours.
“We should not be here,” Lennon said.
“Why is that?” I asked.
“It is not our home. It belongs to them, the squirrels and insects and birds.”
“Then, we will act as guests,” I said.
Our journey took us deeper into the forest; the silence grew deafening. When we turned the final corner, we saw a wood path before us. I stepped onto it, testing its firmness. Suddenly, the dull roar hit me, and I motioned Lennon and Selene forward. We stepped onto the wood surface to discover handrails on either side. We were on a bridge. Not just any bridge, it was a suspension bridge swinging 100 feet above a chasm.
“Whoa,” said Lennon.
“Yeah, be careful,” said Selene.
We slowly moved forward to hear the full deep-throated roar of Drift Creek Falls. We looked for the other end of the bridge. The distance from one end to the other was 240 feet, but it felt much further than that.
In the center, we stopped and turned for the first time to look at the waterfall. My eyes were drawn to a white spray of water emerging from a rough chasm ground through a black basalt cliff to plunge into the startling blue pool 66 feet below.
“Where did that come from?” Lennon shouted.
“It hides here. All of this is invisible to us as we go about our days. It hides amid civilization, a deep reminder to all that see it of the power of nature.”
We went no further, acknowledging that our presence was an invasion.
We returned home in silence. Not the deafening silence of the forest, but a silence that said all that needed to be said.
Hike: 2.6 miles there and back
Best Season to View: Winter, Spring, and Early Summer
Distance from Salem: 59 miles
Lower Soda Creek Falls
Before I noticed a waterfall mark on my Oregon forest service map, I never knew that Lower Soda Creek Falls existed. My grandson and daughter wanted to explore another area that I had never visited. We loaded up our packs, climbed into the car, and drove 66 miles east, up the Cascade foothills, to Cascadia. Three-Finger Jack and Mount Jefferson stared us in the face at every turn. Finally, we found the trailhead for the waterfall on the side of the highway, an indistinct widening of the road’s shoulder with a small sign pointing the way.
We stopped, climbed out of the car, and peered toward the trees. Luckily, the path was clearly marked by the sign. Otherwise, we would not have known where to start; the shadowed openings into the forest all looked the same.
“Weird,” said my grandson.
“Yes, but the untrod path is always the most interesting,” I said.
“Huh, yeah, sure Grampy.”
I smiled to myself, recognizing that his 11-year-old spirit was growing into his five-foot six-inch frame. He flexed his shoulders under his pack, making himself comfortable.
“This time, you lead the way,” I said.
He turned and looked at me, questioning, then he looked to his mother. She nodded.
He grunted, moved to the edge of the forest, and stopped long enough to peer into the deep shadows of the woods. He shrugged and stepped onto the path. We followed him, his mother immediately behind with her heavy pack, and me taking up the rear.
Entering the forest was like stepping into a different world. Unlike most previously harvested forests in the area, this area was reseeded through the natural process. Loggers left standing what they called “parent trees.” That is, they left mature trees of different species to produce seeds that were blown by winds to land hundreds of yards from the original tree. Not all the seeds took root, but enough sprouted and found purchase to create this forest. The forest was a mixture of Douglas Fir, Cedar, and Western Hemlock. As we walked, I talked about the prominent use of this method of replanting used 100 years before our time.
“You mean this forest is 100 years old?” asked my grandson.
“Not necessarily. Some still use that method today. What I said was that it was the prevailing method used 100 years ago. But this forest does look mature, which could mean that some of these trees may be 50 years old or more.”
He stopped and looked up. The canopy was complete. Sun poked through here and there when a fleeting breeze brushed limbs aside, but most of the forest was in deep shadow.
“Scary,” Lennon said.
“Not so scary,” said Selene. “It is nice, cozy, a wondrous sight.”
“Scary,” he repeated.
He turned and stepped back onto the path. As we went forward, Soda Creek showed up time and again, washing beside us, slowly winding its way down a gentle slope. The water hardly made a sound as we passed. The trail seemed to emerge from the forest as we walked through. There did not appear to be a plan; the pathway simply moved along with us. The trees were wonderfully asymmetrical. We stepped around one trunk only to step aside for another. Roots bulged on the surface of the path, and gentle rolls in the hill alternated our steps from upward to downward as we walked along.
“This must be how the Elves felt. You know, the ones Tolkien wrote about? When they first walked through the forests of Middle Earth?” Selene said.
“Well, I don’t know about them, but I certainly like the feel of this,” I said.
“Scary,” said Lennon.
“Isn’t there supposed to be a waterfall around here?” asked Selene.
“Should be here, somewhere,” I said.
“Seems like we would have heard it by now,” she said.
“Scary,” said Lennon.
We turned a corner flanked by several trees, and suddenly, the blue and white of the waterfall was there before us. I heard Lennon suck in his breath. The trees seemed to bend away from the waterfall, leaving a space where the full sun danced across the surface of the water. The sound at first was a slow bubbling rather than a roar. We stepped forward in wonder.
Looking up, we could see the full reach of the waterfall. The blue waters of Soda Creek entered the fall through a small funnel, slid down the rock at a slight incline, hit a bend, rolled over on itself, and gained speed. The water bent back and forth through repeated curves in the rock surface, rushing towards a climax at the pool, only to be interrupted by an outcropping on which the blue water shattered into hundreds of white drops that sprayed into the air, landing lightly on the smooth surface of the pond beneath. The impact was not a roar; it was a gentle laugh or even a giggle that lightened the feel of the trees.
“Truly, Elvish,” said Selene.
My grandson stood, transfixed, his mouth open, unable to say a word.
We stayed, exploring every inch of the area along Soda Creek. We saw how the waters wound their way through tree roots, sometimes wallowing, sometimes dancing, but always moving.
“That’s the way it is, isn’t it,” asked Lennon.
“The way what is?” I asked.
“Life,” he said.
I stopped, thought, and answered, “Yes,” To myself, I thought, “You are growing up so fast.”
We left, taking the same trail we had when we arrived. The path was clear to us now. Though it bent and wandered amongst the trees and beside the creek, it was a straight path. One only seen in Oregon.
Hike: 1.4 miles there and back
Best Season to View: Anytime
Distance from Salem: 66 miles
What Goes Before and Comes After Remains in Oregon
When we returned home from this last journey of the summer, my grandson thanked me for all the trips, the fun, and the sights.
“It was fun,” he said.
“Sure, anytime,” I said.
He danced away, a big boy growing into a man. I wondered for a while if that was how my grandparents thought of me. They did not live long after that trip to Multnomah Falls. Cancer took them from us, but the memory of what was on their faces when they saw that grand sight still exists.
I know, I watched it grow throughout the summer in my grandson. It was etched in stone on his face at Lower Soda Creek Falls.