Locations: Santiam Foothills, Santiam Pass, McKenzie Foothills, McKenzie River National Trail, Central Oregon Cascades, Shellburg Falls, Tamolitch Pool, hot springs
Friday, February 5, 2016
We piled into the car at 9am, an hour later than we intended, but we work late so for us this was getting a good start. Our first stop of the trip was Shellburg Falls in the Santiam Foothills. This trail has been on my list for a long time, but like many things on my many lists I just couldn’t seem to make it happen until now. Strange, since it’s only an hour and twenty minutes from Portland.
(Click – Shellburg Falls – for trail write-up)
The most alluring thing about Shellburg Falls is its proximity to Silver Falls State Park, making it somewhat overlooked. This 5.7-mile trail is a quiet, fairy land gem with two huge waterfalls. After parking in the gravel lot, we walked uphill to the right past the locked yellow gate to begin the 1.3 mile road-walk through beautiful farmland to the actual trailhead. The trail starts out with a bang as Lower Shellburg Falls is right at the trailhead and it’s all nature prizes from there on out. Trees dripping in mossy branches frame every gorgeous scene and there’s a magnificent cavern you walk through behind Shellburg Falls. It was supposed to rain, but we were grateful for just a cloudy day and had all but given up on the chance of sun when bam! Every green, damp surface glittered in light candy. We were high on good fortune, though at one point, the trail kept forking off and got so twisty we had to keep consulting our map to make sure we were on track. There are technically three waterfalls on this trail. The third, Stassel Falls, is on private land and there is an unmarked, scrambling side trail to a viewpoint, but for time issues we had to skip it this time. We knew we better get to our campground on the summit of the snow and ice covered Santiam Pass before it got dark.
We were back on the road by 2:30pm with only an hour-and-a-half to our destination. The drive on 22 through the Santiam Foothills, along the Santiam River and Detroit Lake was unbelievable. The sun electrifying the greens and blues, steaming the thick snowbeds and blinding us to the road. I thank my lucky stars all the time when I can see Mt. Hood, Mount St. Helens and occasionally Mt. Adams from Portland, but driving through the Central Cascades is a whole other dazzling world. The gnarled hand of Three-Fingered Jack, the taloned witch’s finger that is Mt. Washington, the soft & plump-seeming slopes of the Three Sisters and hulking Mt. Jefferson, every bit as grand as Mt. Hood. It’s as if every turn of Highway 22 and 20 brings a new peak stunningly into view like some drama queen jack-in-the-box flying out at you. It’s hard to see things like this and just know they are there all of the time, that they aren’t magicked into view. That something as puny as hills, smaller mountains or, sadly, air pollution can somehow shield something so grand from our view.
It’s a good thing we decided not to challenge the last of the light because we couldn’t find the damn campground. I had maps and intermittent cell phone reception, but we tacked on a whole hour of driving before we realized the only campground turn-off we saw that said “Suttle Lake Campground” actually said “Campgrounds.” We drove past it four times before seeing this error and it was just starting to get dark. We felt like luck shined down upon us once again. We got to the campground, Link Creek, knowing full well there would be a wood stove instead of a heater and no electricity, which sounded fun to us because we’ve gotten really weird the last few years and think things like sleeping on the ground and pooping into a self-dug hole is fun. Here we’d have a bed! And be near an actual toilet! Luxury! We found our yurt and were confused about the October dates on the place card. We knew it was likely just not updated, but there was still the fear of potentially walking into someone else’s yurt. Turns out, we had bigger things to worry about. It was indeed our yurt. Our dirty, unswept, old trash on the floor, yurt. There was no key or the usual campground information pamphlet on the filthy, beer can-ringed table or instructions to the wood stove, so I set out to the camp host. This was when I realized the bathroom, about a hundred yards away, had no clear path in the two-three feet of snow. The camp host was polite, but unhelpful. He explained that there were no keys because “nothing bad has ever happened here.” Phew! Nothing to worry about! As for special instructions to the wood stove, “do it how you always do.” This last part seemed reasonable as I have used wood stoves a few times, but see, I’ve got this huge little problem: a terrible memory. Thanks, PTSD! Something I know front to back one day can be gone the next and back again the day after. It sucks and it’s embarrassing and there isn’t much I can do when I forget something, but wait until it comes back to me. Or use Google, which I couldn’t do without cell reception. We were cranky and starving and things felt kind of hopeless, but we ate an incredible dinner of Chile Verde expertly cooked the night before by Brie and we did get the wood stove going, but I knew we were forgetting something because we mostly froze until it was time for bed. We were grateful for exhaustion and the only nice camping gear we own: good sleeping bags.
Saturday, February 6, 2016
We slept shockingly well, bolstering our spirits. We had a big day to look forward to. However, after discovering that I left our french press at home (horror) and that the potable water at the campground was frozen (what the actual fuck were we even paying $40 a night for?!) we decided to treat ourselves to brunch and coffee (coffee! coffee! coffee!) in the nearby town of Sisters. The only good thing I can say about our yurt was the location. It’s on stunning, huge and delightfully frozen, Suttle Lake, and it’s surrounded in mountains and only minutes from Sisters and the McKenzie River National Trail, where we’d be spending our day. We packed up our Good Sleeping Bags as opposed to leaving them in the unlocked shit hole and hit the road. The descent into tiny, olde time-y Sisters, Oregon, with the Sisters Mountains looming above our minuscule human existence was a real hallelujah moment. We fueled up on some insane gravy-slathered breakfast burrito scenario and coffee (!!!) and were off to the McKenzie River Trail.
After turning west on Highway 126, we made our first stop at the Sahalie Falls trailhead, a tiny 2.2 mile scenic trail off of the McKenzie River Trail. Despite calling the ranger district a week before our trip and being assured that everything we wanted to do was open, the “trail” was actually an icy path atop two feet of snow that we’d occasionally plunge through. It’s one of those things that’s funny at first and then really, really not funny. The trail was so short we decided to just bear down and do it. I’ve seen many photos of Sahalie Falls, but only seeing it in person translates how marvelous it is. We proceeded along, me falling every few yards and Brie magically staying upright as if affixed to a string attached to The Universe’s finger. She wasn’t even wearing hiking boots! I started to lose faith in finishing this itty bitty baby trail, but Koosah Falls was only 0.5 mile further so we pressed on deciding that would be our turnaround point instead. We had a lot more to do and it was already past noon.
Our next stop was the Tamolitch Pool, aka Blue Pool, leg of the McKenzie River Trail. Even though it’s only a dozen or so miles west of Sahalie Falls, it was enough of an elevation loss for the snow to be miraculously gone. (Note to self: buy snowshoes and/or crampons before next winter. Hiking boots, schmiking boots.) This 4.2-mile trail did not disappoint. I am completely helpless to an old growth forest. A Doug Fir giant cuts right through me. A twisty snag home to more lichen than I can possibly identify blows my heart open. The trail follows eastward along the river, the climb gentle. As we inched toward the top, there was more of that icy snow I’d already gotten to know so well. Once again Brie glided along like a little rosy-cheeked snow elf and I resumed falling on my ass like some clumsy clown at a child’s birthday party. We reached Tamolitch Pool, which was just exquisite beyond words.
(Click – Tamolitch Pool – for trail write-up)
We were cold and sore when we got back to the car—I was sore. Brie had the serene glow of a job well done. It was already 3:30pm, but it was more than enough time to get a soak in at nearby Belknap Hot Springs before heading back to Hell Yurt. I didn’t love Belknap, but only because I’m a weirdo loner who wants to close her eyes and be quiet and possibly nude and this place is more like a fully clothed, family-friendly, community bath house, but in a really good way. It’s perfect for a post-adventure soak and reasonably priced: $7 per person an hour or $12 all day. We soaked for an hour and it really did the trick. I was feeling soft and warm, positive and excited about all of the magic and beauty we’d experienced so far. The yurt didn’t even seem so bad in that moment. We decided we’d go back into Sisters to get more firewood, some yogurt (I had an idea that required a cup I could punch holes in) and wine. Yay, wine! The drive back to the campground was dark and terrifying in that pitch-black-mountain-pass-with-only-the-blinding-headlights-of-super-tall-trucks kind of way, but as we got close it came to me: The flue! We needed to open the flue! In no time we were eating another delicious dinner cooked by Brie, gloriously sweating by the heat of the wood stove and drinking wine as we played candle-lit card games until bed.
Sunday, February 7, 2016
We’d had an exceptional night in the yurt, but were no less excited to abandon it as soon as we woke. I fashioned a pour over coffee situation out of the yogurt cups, so no need for another trip to Sisters. First stop: Deer Creek Hot Springs, aka Bigelow Hot Springs. We drove up to find one car there. Shit, were we about to bust up someone’s intimate jam? As we approached the path, the people from said car came out confirming what we thought would be true, the river was too high for it to be at all warm. Still, Brie and I wanted to check it out. It was an unreal scene. Just a tiny rock-sectioned pool big enough for maybe four adults right on the McKenzie River. Moss and ferns hung over the rocky cliff edge above it. There was steam coming from somewhere, but the water was completely freezing. We definitely want to go back and try again, but it’s so small I imagine there are always people there when it’s usable. Next and last planned stop: Terwilliger Hot Springs, aka Cougar Hot Springs.
Deer Creek Hot Springs
The drive up to Terwilliger Hot Springs is winding, slow and kind of scary with some horrific potholes just before the actual entrance. The adjacent Cougar Reservoir is how the hot springs got it’s other name. In the distance, there’s a huge waterfall unofficially known as Terwilliger Falls. As we approached the entrance, the person taking money said, “have a great time, ladies!” We were confused. “Don’t we have to pay?” He said, “Oh, I thought you were with that other lady. She just paid for both of you.” Dawn, the incredible stranger who paid our way believes in paying it forward. It’s something she does often. We were so touched by the gesture. What a way to make people feel special! The quarter-mile walk to the hot springs was some straight-up glorious Lord of the Rings shit and the actual soaking area itself was somehow even more divine. Five large rock-lined descending tubs, the topmost being the hottest and each pool below gradually more cool. The water was a silty light blue, like glacial river water. We hung out in the top two pools. I absolutely loved it, which was a relief because I’d heard mixed reviews. Nothing super notable, just the usual stories of other people trying to make their experience your experience, i.e. drunk people with bad boundaries. Basically, the same garbage that happens at all hot springs and swimming holes, but we lucked out today. Just a couple of guys who talked too much to anyone in their eye line. The usual.
Terwilliger Hot Springs
It was nearing 1:30pm and Portland was feeling further and further away. Reluctantly, it was time to go. We drove along the McKenzie River toward Eugene where we’d catch I-5 North, rehashing every last detail, from the awful to the hilarious to the unbelievably beautiful. I fell hard and fast for Central Oregon and I know I’ve barely scratched the surface.