Oregon is overflowing with waterfalls, particularly west of the (well-named) Cascade Range.
There’s the Columbia River Gorge, where falls are so abundant that one section is known as Waterfall Alley. There’s Silver Falls State Park, which features what has to be one of the finest trails you’ll find anywhere, with 10 waterfalls, including four that you can walk behind. And there’s the Umpqua River Corridor, with an array of waterfalls that warrants a brochure of its own.
But if you had to recognize one waterfall as the best the state has to offer — the one waterfall you would want a visitor to see — my vote goes to Lower Proxy Falls. And there’s more than seeing Lower Proxy Falls. The viewpoint is a jumping-off point for exploration. Bring sandals.
The Proxy Falls trail starts at the western end of the Old McKenzie Highway — a steep, windy road that cuts through the Cascades — about an hour and a half east of Eugene. This highway is only open about four months each year, so the drive around takes many hours from Central Oregon most of the year. It’s an easier trip from the mid-Willamette Valley. When conditions are snowy or icy, the road is blocked a couple miles before the trailhead, so a longer hike is required in the winter. Though the falls are a spectacle when frozen, summer really is the best time for a visit.
The trail makes a 1.7-mile loop through a mix of thick forest and lava rock, with short spurs to each waterfall. Most people start out by heading right, likely because the obvious path begins next to the informational board and map. My suggestion is to walk a little bit east and make a clockwise loop, starting at the more hidden trail outlet. That way, you warm up by seeing the fine-but-outclassed Upper Proxy Falls first, then make the quick trek to Lower Proxy Falls, where you’ll surely want explore (or at least picnic).
Not that Upper Proxy Falls should be skipped. The split creek cascades about 100 feet down a boulder-strewn incline, then combines where some fallen logs have gathered. The pool at the bottom is of interest because it doesn’t have a visible outlet, likely seeping into the ground and springing up elsewhere. This, however, is just an appetizer.
A quarter-mile down the trail, the roar of a waterfall can be heard. It stays hidden until you reach a large fallen tree trunk, which doubles as an overlook bench. Here, a natural opening in the forest frames Lower Proxy Falls, a 200-foot, diamond-shaped drop down a face of moss-covered columnar basalt, a bulb of which splits the the creek in two. Many turn around here, which is a shame.
While the waterfall appears tall and skinny from the trail, picking your way down various paths to the stream offers a different vantage point, where the falls appear to fan out in the shape of a triangle. It looks far more massive than from above. The creek doesn’t run deep, so if you’re willing to negotiate fallen logs and slippery rocks, you can follow boot paths up either side of the waterfall. There, you can appreciate the small details — a close-up look at the water skipping from one basalt ledge to the next, tiny flowers sprouting out of the thick moss. It’s also a great place for a shower on a hot day.
I’m not the hiker I used to be. That was clear to me even before I set out on an overnight trip into the Eagle Cap Wilderness.
For one thing, circumstances allowed me to start my trek at the well-named Tenderfoot Trailhead, at 6,500 feet elevation, cutting out about 2,000 feet of uphill slog. A slog I used to relish. Secondly, I chose to bring along hiking poles, which I’d never used before. But I hadn’t carried that much weight for a couple years, and I figured they’d be helpful for any stream crossings. And what a funny decision that turned out to be.
With my family staying in cabins at Wallowa Lake, I could be dropped off for a through hike instead of an out-and-back. It’s always nice to be able to cover more ground in the same amount of time. My goal was to reach Bonny Lakes or Dollar Lake and camp for the night, then head down to Aneroid Lake and pop out at the Wallowa Lake Trailhead. The hike would total 14 miles, none of which I had seen previously.
On our way back toward Joseph from the Hells Canyon Overlook, we took the short detour to the Tenderfoot Trailhead, on the east edge of the Eagle Cap Wilderness. I knew that Forest Road 100 would climb three miles before ending at the trailhead; I didn’t know how bumpy and narrow it would be, with trees and bushes making friends with both sides of the car. You have to look closely just to find the turnoff. It was slow-going, but there was no cliff-hanging. On summer weekends, it’s difficult to find a parking spot at the Wallowa Lake Trailhead. Same with Two Pan Trailhead. On this Monday, there was a single car parked at Tenderfoot. Maybe that’s why the Forest Service doesn’t require a pass to park there.
After detailing my plans and projected arrival time, I was left with my backpack, my poles, the car, a trail post and a vast alpine expanse. I filled out the wilderness permit, attached a copy to my pack, grabbed my poles and charged forward. Then, after 500 feet, I stopped at Big Sheep Creek. Now, Big Sheep Creek isn’t exactly big. At it’s deepest, my calves would have gotten wet. But I didn’t feel like soaking my socks with many miles still ahead of me. Fortunately, a log bridged the creek to the other side, and I surmised that this log could easily carry my weight. Still, when you step on a log with 30 to 40 pounds on your back and $3,500 of camera gear around your neck, there’s some trepidation. Particularly if you’re a bit of a klutz. But the poles. I HAD THE POLES!
So I hoisted myself up on the log, treading lightly, balancing myself. The log was high enough that my poles couldn’t reach the bottom of the creek, so I leaned on a couple smaller branches that paralleled the log. About halfway across, one pole drifted between the log and a branch, and when I pulled up for my next step, the bottom leg of the pole popped off and began tumbling downstream. I watched hopelessly from the log. There would be no retrieving it. So, 500 feet in, I was down to one and a half poles. Off to a great start. Apparently, I hadn’t tightened the pole enough. But I managed to stay dry.
I couldn’t stay annoyed for long, as blue, purple, red, white and yellow flowers dotted the green meadows patched along the path. The creek cross-crossed the trail a few more times, and I just plowed through one, choosing wet shoes over balancing on a narrow log. Whitebark pines topped the ridge, standing out against the brilliant blue sky. Blocks of columnar basalt jutted out of a few locations in the forest.
Four miles in, I emerged from the trees to find Lower Bonny Lake, unveiling mountain ridges to both the left and right. Flowers of yellow and purple lined the shore, with Aneroid and Dollar mountains reflecting in the shallow pool. Aside from the mosquitoes, Lower Bonny Lake made an ideal place to spend an afternoon and evening, but it was too early to stop and would have left a long way to go the following morning.
I set my sights on Dollar Lake, and promptly passed Upper Bonny Lake without even realizing it. Turns out that “upper” is an apt description, as it sits on a small plateau above the trail. I finally saw it when looking behind me a mile and a half later as I climbed toward Dollar Pass. At the 8,400-foot ridge, the view forward included bowl-shaped Petes Point and the massive wall of Bonneville Mountain. It also included, six miles in, my first look at another person — a couple and their dog greeted me at Dollar Pass and pointed me toward Dollar Lake, a quarter-mile off the trail.
Reunited with solitude, I relaxed and ate a sandwich at Dollar Lake. With a snowy ridge as a backdrop, I thought I could just as easily be in Iceland. It felt like another good place to camp, but, being at the top of a ridge, there was a lot of wind. There also was a chance of thunderstorms that night, and I didn’t want to be at a high point if there was lightning. Somewhat regrettably, I hoisted my pack back on and started the descent to Aneroid Lake. I didn’t want to camp there, but I figured it would be the best place to be if a storm rolled in. Getting there before sunset would also cut down on my hike out in the morning.
Turns out, it’s a pretty steep drop from Dollar Pass down to the Wallowa River valley, losing 600 feet in less than a mile. I was happy to be hiking down and not up. En route, I passed the couple I had seen earlier, than ran into a group that had ridden horses up to their camping spot. They assured me I’d be at Aneroid in 20 minutes.
Aneroid Lake is one of the most popular in the area, chiefly because it’s the closest one to Wallowa Lake. There are nice campgrounds and even some privately owned cabins. Aside from some kids a quarter-mile down dumping rocks into the lake, there were no disturbances. I didn’t even run into anybody there, despite it being July and the high season for hikers in the Wallowas. The green-blue lake is a pleasant spot, but Bonneville Mountain towering over its west shore steals the show, especially when reflected at sunrise.
The trail out follows the east fork of the Wallowa River, with an incredibly consistent grade down 3,000 feet and six miles to Wallowa Lake. The first couple of miles were remarkable, passing Roger Lake and flower-filled meadows. But once down in the thicker forest, there was less to see. That’s was OK, though, because there were a couple of obstacles that constantly needed to be avoided. This section of trail is the one most-frequented by horseback riders, so not only was it dusty, it also featured a fair share of horse droppings. Add in the jagged rocks that jut out at every shape and angle, and I was thrilled to still have one hiking pole to balance with. It was a portion of trail that I was happy to not have to traverse twice.
And so the last two miles were the worst, but that didn’t take away from the amazing scenery, solitude and fresh air of the first 12. The Wallowa Mountains, as always, were a joy to explore.
No, it’s probably not as jaw-dropping as the Grand Canyon (still haven’t seen that one in person), but Hells Canyon is pretty grand in its own right. It just happens to be in the middle of nowhere, and that makes finding a good view difficult.
The deepest gorge in North America, Hells Canyon straddles the Oregon-Idaho border, with the Snake River continuing to carve a path through the large mounds of rock at the bottom. The rim consistently sits a mile above the Snake River on the Oregon side, and is even higher on the east side. After 35 years, it was time to finally see it.
Before getting to the canyon, however, there was Imnaha. We were taking the long and dusty scenic route to Hells Canyon in order to see some old homesteads outside the tiny community, which itself is 30 miles from the town of Joseph. As much as anything, Imnaha is known as the place where the pavement ends. There are only a handful of buildings and a dozen people in the town proper, with less than 200 folks in the surrounding area. It’s a popular (for Imnaha) retreat for hunters and fishermen. From the bridge over the Imnaha River, there are three paths, all of which quickly turn to gravel or dirt. But all eventually lead to Hells Canyon.
After a stop at the post office to send some postcards and gather information from the friendly employee there, we headed south along Imnaha River Road, which follows the river for 30 miles and passes a number of homesteads before reconnecting with pavement and the Hells Canyon Overlook. The gravel was good enough to safely drive 30 mph, except when a group of cows decided that the road was theirs. That was OK, though. The slower you go, the longer you have to take in the views of the rocky plateaus that rise on either side of the river like a mini-Hells Canyon. It’s hard to believe that anybody makes a living out there, but every couple of miles we spotted a house or ranch. A couple of buildings are so close to the banks that the river must be a threat after heavy rains, but those same properties featured massive, impressive gardens that clearly could sustain a family through the summer. Winter must be a different story.
Consider that drive one of luxury. The “road” that heads north out of Imnaha to Dug Bar supposedly requires two hours of bumps and steep turns to navigate 25 miles. It follows the path that Chief Joseph took when his tribe was forced out of its homeland, and the road is the only way to drive to the Snake River shore on the Oregon side of Hells Canyon. Next time, it might be worth the effort.
That’s because the Hells Canyon Overlook, less than 10 paved miles east of where Imnaha River Road ends, offers the most-accessible but probably least-spectacular place to view the canyon. Sure, the vast array of rippled mountains and twisted valleys seemingly go on forever, but even so close, the canyon feels distant. (You can’t see the Snake River from this overlook.) You’re not supposed to walk out past the paved trail to the brink, and trees somewhat block the nearest drop. There’s a toilet, picnic tables, interpretive signs and a look at the Seven Devils Mountains in Idaho, but that’s about it. The overlook is essentially a parking lot with nothing to do and no places to explore, like it’s trying to constrain your appreciation.
If the Hells Canyon Overlook is your only chance to see the canyon, of course it’s worth the postcard view. But that’s a long way to go for 15 minutes of fresh air.