Waterfalls are an intrinsic part of the Northwest landscape. We are drawn to them not only for their natural beauty but perhaps for more primal and instinctive reasons as well. They visually and auditorily announce a water source, along with a potential gathering place for fish and game. Take it a step further, and you can bring the mood-enhancing negative ions they produce into the discussion.
Whatever their particular pull might be for you, there’s a ton of waterfalls here, and we’re lucky for that. Beyond Tumalo, Central Oregon happens to be blessed with some prime regional specimens. Cast a broader net into day-trip range, and you can enjoy an exceptionally diverse array of waterfall hikes on both sides of the Cascades. Here are some highlights that include Instagram all-stars, as well as some that might have escaped your attention up to this point.
The Falls of McDowell Creek Park
Linn County near Sweet Home
McDowell Creek Park is a family-friendly paradise that flies way beneath the recreational radar of most waterfall fans. It is, however, a stunner of a hike highlighted by a pair of impressive waterfalls, some legitimate old-growth forest and a grotto reminiscent of an Ewok village.
The 1.6-mile-loop hike first visits Royal Terrace Falls, where water flows like lacey ribbons over 119 feet and three tiers. Next up, the invitingly named Crystal Pool and its small but attractive namesake waterfall are a nice opening act for what comes next. Just a few hundred feet beyond the Crystal Pool, the trail enters a verdant, thickly mossed mini–box canyon. An elevated wooden walkway crosses the creek and delivers you to a viewing platform of Majestic Falls. Not the tallest cascade in the world, but the setting is in fact, quite majestic.
Directions: From Sisters, take Highway 20 west for 73.7 miles and make a right onto Quartzville Road. Follow signs for another 7 miles to McDowell Creek Falls County Park.
Tips This is perhaps the most family-friendly of the bunch, with ample restrooms and picnic tables, but bring water. Also, geology buffs should note that the substrate around these falls is different from the lava flows responsible for most cascades around the state. These pour over layers of volcanic breccia, sandstone and diabase.
Restrooms and Regulations Restrooms at trailheads, no applicable fees.
At a thundering 67 feet high and 80 feet wide, Chush Falls is a uniquely powerful cascade worthy of your time. On top of that, an unmaintained but easily navigable trail leads a short distance beyond the Chush viewpoint to a middle and comparably scenic upper falls. The area that the trail traverses now bears the scars of the Pole Creek Fire, which also permanently re-routed and lengthened the hike to a five-mile out and back. However, a visit now provides a firsthand look at a post-wildfire forest in active rebirth.
The gentle ascent to Chush intermittently affords views of Broken Top, the Three Sisters, and the wild canyon holding Whychus Creek—vistas that may have actually been improved as a result of the recent fires. Whether or not that is straining hard for a silver lining, the fact is that this place has a striking beauty all its own. It should also be pointed out, however, that the view of the falls from the official end of the trail isn’t exactly unobscured. The vantage you see in photos is only earned after a steepish, 250-foot scramble down the side of the canyon to the creek below. It’s well-worn though, and there are a number of sturdy handholds. So if you’re up to it, walk to the right of the “Trail Ends Here” sign and pick up the boot path leading down to the base of the falls. Take a breather and some photos, you earned them.
Directions: From the town of Sisters, head south on Elm Street/NF-16 and drive for 7.4 miles and turn right onto gravel road NF-1514. Drive 4.7 miles on the occasionally rough road, staying right at a fork around the 2.8-mile mark. Just before a bridge crossing Whychus Creek, make a left on the easy to miss FR-600 and slowly drive the final 0.9-mile of very bumpy road to its end at the trailhead.
Rating Easy to moderate, depending on if you choose to include the scramble to the base of the upper falls.
Tips Sunscreen and water are a must. There are a few sections of the trail that offer no shade.
Restrooms and Regulations No restrooms, so go in Sisters! A free, self-issue day-use Wilderness Permit needs to be filled out for each party at the trailhead from Memorial Day – October 31. A valid recreation pass is also required.
Umpqua national forest
This trio of photogenic waterfalls are all within a handful of miles of one another in the Umpqua National Forest. If you have the time, you should really hit all three in the same go. All of them offer up a strong potentiality for solitude, and foolproof signage combined with excellent gravel roads help to make these remote falls a joy to visit. The first of the three is Spirit Falls.
Alex Creek tumbles over a 40-foot cliff as Spirit Falls. The area that extends out from the base of the cascade invites relaxed contemplation. That and a well-placed picnic bench make it a place where you can spend a considerable amount of quality time. The falls themselves, like many, take on a wildly different appearance based on time of year and water flow. For Spirit Falls all are appealing, with its late summer presentation being more that of a Zen water wall than a waterfall. Please note that this watershed is what provides Cottage Grove with its water supply, so no camping or swimming is allowed.
The same creek that produces Spirit Falls downstream produces the striking Moon Falls—spreading out and veiling across a broad wall of basalt for nearly 100 feet. It then collects itself and plunges in side-by-side falls, crashing into boulders below and becoming Alex Creek again. And just like Spirit Falls, Moon Falls is a great spot for a picnic break.
Pinard Falls drops through a narrow slot before broadening slightly and falling gracefully over 100 feet to a semi-hidden pool below. Flanked by moss-covered rocks and drooping cedars, it might not be a good spot for a swim or a picnic, but it’s framed nicely for photos.
Directions: From I-5 south of Eugene, take exit 174 east toward Dorena Lake. At 18.5 miles from I-5, make a slight left onto FR 17 (also known as Layng Creek Road). Drive 8.7 miles to where the pavement ends and turn right onto gravel FR 1790. All three falls are accessed from this point.
Rating Easy, all three hikes total around three miles of hiking.
Tips If you don’t bring your own picnic, hit Jack Sprats or Big Stuff BBQ in Cottage Grove.
Restrooms and Regulations No restrooms and no fees.
This 2.8-mile-loop hike is very popular, but for very good reasons. It visits two massive, high-volume waterfalls, a quintessentially clean, cold, and rushing Northwest river, and viewpoint after viewpoint. Please note that at this location (as well as a growing number of hikes around the state), off-trail foot traffic has caused governing agencies to put up fencing or signage with the expressed objective of keeping people back and allowing the landscape to recover. Please abide by any and all posted signs or regulations at the trailhead.
From the parking area, walk a couple of hundred feet down to the lower viewpoint of Sahalie Falls. Continue downriver to the left. The water here runs swiftly, but occasionally swirls into deep, unimaginably vibrant pools of blue and green. After 0.5-mile you’ll pass the equally impressive Koosah Falls. The words Sahalie and Koosah both mean “high” or “heaven” in Northwest Chinook jargon—fitting descriptions for both. The loop eventually crosses the river and comes back up via the McKenzie River Trail, providing distractingly gorgeous viewpoints of the falls as well as the river along the way.
Directions: From Sisters, take Highway 20 west for 29 miles and make a left onto Highway 126 east, then an immediate left onto 126 west. Proceed 5.2 miles to the Sahalie Falls parking area on the right.
Tips If you want to extend the outing, continue north or south on the McKenzie River Trail as long as you like before doubling back. Also, this place becomes the Central Oregon version of Multnomah Falls during the summer—especially on weekends. Parking is relatively limited at the trailhead, and parking on the shoulder of the highway is dangerous and not recommended. Go on a weekday and go early, if possible.
Restrooms and Regulations There are restrooms, but no potable water sources. No parking or day-use fees apply.
Strawberry Mountain Wilderness
Strawberry Falls is perhaps the only notable waterfall accessible by maintained trail residing in the heart of eastern Oregon. In addition to the 50-foot cascade, this 6.5-mile out and back hike into the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness also visits a pair of very swimmable lakes and the opportunity for further backcountry explorations. Along the way, you’ll be treated to views of exposed craggy ridgelines, summer wildflowers and huckleberries by the thousands.
In addition to the aforementioned, an attractive dry climate forest comprised of grand fir, Ponderosa and lodgepole pine, along with western larch, make it easy to understand why the hike to Strawberry Lake and Little Strawberry Lake is so popular. That said, if you covet the trail less traveled and the word “popular” sends you moving onto the next hike, fear not. It’s popular by eastern Oregon standards. This is not the Gorge. If you show up on a weekday morning, even in the summer, there’s still a chance you’ll be making this trek without too many more souls.
Directions: From Prairie City, head south on Bridge Street, following signs for Strawberry Lake. Continue 11 miles to the end of the road and the day-use Strawberry Basin Trailhead, across from the campground. Along the way, the paved road will transition into a broad, very driveable gravel Country Road 60, and then a narrow, very bumpy FR-6001 best handled by high-clearance vehicles, but technically passable in passenger vehicles.
Tips Feel free to bring or hike in a swimsuit, if you are so inclined. There are some excellent beach areas along Strawberry Lake.
Restrooms and Regulations There are restrooms at the trailhead. A free, self-issue day-use Wilderness Permit needs to be filled out for each party at the trailhead.
Editor’s Note: Be aware of occasional closures to natural areas around waterfalls, for habitat restoration, trail maintenance or public safety. Always respect “area closed” signage.