Umpqua National Forest: Oregon’s waterfall alley

“People are drawn to waterfalls as places of wonder, relaxation, and inspiration” -Umpqua National Forest brochure, “Thundering Waters”

I remember an old sage I once camped with in Baja, Mexico referring to campfires as being “nature’s televisions”. As we all sat circled around the dancing flames mirthfully sharing a bottle of tequila and eating freshly caught fish, I decided that a well-built campfire is, in its singular ability to capture the rapt attention of a silent crowd, nature’s equivalent to a 48-inch plasma.

For the last 8 years of my traveling life I have held this as the truth.

That was until yesterday. As I start a 10 day road trip across the United States to explore “10 days, 10 states, 10 great American sights” my faith in what comprises nature’s television has suddenly been knocked to the curb.

I say this because here in Oregon, deep inside the Umpqua National Forest, I have found a challenger to the title of nature’s television in the complex combination of rivers and gravity we creatively call the waterfall.

You read it here first: Waterfalls are nature’s television, and here in Umpqua National Forest, I find myself literally swimming in them.

Sandwiched between Crater Lake National Park in the south and the vineyards of Willamette Valley in the North, Umpqua National Forest is a little-visited ribbon of America that features every type of waterfall you could ever imagine, all within easy strolling distance of the 172 mile Rogue-Umpqua Scenic Byway. In Umpqua, you cannot drive or hike more than a few miles without running into a well maintained trailhead for a thundering display of water and rock. Along the drive, no fewer than 15 named waterfalls spring from both sides of the road.

%Gallery-138321%Only 60 years ago, this remote and rugged part of Central Oregon still didn’t even have any paved roads, making it a relatively new attraction for those exploring the soggy and serene Pacific Northwest. For those with time to linger, the 79-mile North Umpqua Trail provides a wooded footpath that hugs the banks of the meandering North Umpqua River. Though the falls trickle along even through the autumn and winter, it’s the springtime snow melt that truly makes the valley thunder.

The enchanting thing about waterfalls is the fact that, like snowflakes, no two waterfalls are alike. Horsetail, cascade, segmented, fans, and tiers are all various waterfall structures prominently on display in Umpqua. In a dense green canyon dripping in moss, a two-tiered fall plunges 120 ft. into a pool that is so placid the local Umpqua Indians bestowed upon it the name of Toketee, indigenous for “pretty” or “graceful”. Thousands of years later, Toketee Falls is the most famous waterfall in the region and greatly lives up to its name.

Just up the road, 50 ft. Susan Creek Falls blasts through a dark and narrow canyon which sits just below a collection of native Indian mounds where adolescent boys would camp during their quest towards manhood. Further up towards the top of the valley, a 1.5 mile stroll on the North Umpqua Trail brings you to Lemolo Falls, a 102 ft. horsetail waterfall that explodes over the towering precipice above. To the Umpqua people, Lemolo means “wild and untamed”, and as the mists erupt off of the slippery rocks below, the native moniker couldn’t be more apt.

Finally, for those who like their waterfalls narrow and high, 272 ft. tall Watson Falls is the highest waterfall in southwest Oregon and is located a mere .3 miles walk from the road. Unlike the more popular and heavily visited Columbia River Gorge-Oregon’s most famous waterfall alley and home to Multnomah Falls, a tour bus and souvenir stand outpost of fun-it’s still possible to sit at the base of Watson Falls and listen to nothing but the sounds of the forest.

Although it’s possible to blow through Umpqua National Forest in little more than an afternoon, a well-maintained system of campgrounds is scattered throughout the forest and provides a relaxing getaway far away from the crowds.

So next time you’re in the soggy Northwest, consider pitching a tent far up the Umpqua river valley and taking to the woods for a bit. Throw on an early morning flannel, heat up a pot of coffee on the camp stove, and disappear for a while in one of the dwindling places in the West where it’s still possible to have waterfalls all to yourself.

Follow Kyle on the rest of his series as he explores “10 days, 10 states, 10 great American sights”