The Pacific Northwest region, that is Oregon, Idaho, Washington and the province of British Columbia, is well-known and well-loved for offering pure adventure. And yet maybe it is because flights from Sydney go directly to LA that our trips are always dominated by travel in California.
Luckily, my fiancé, Luke, spent 6 months in 2005, studying and playing rugby at Oregon State University and so he has significant emotional and physical ties, by way of strong friendships, to the green state of Oregon. The last time we were in Oregon was 2009 and we stuck mainly to the coast as we were road tripping up to Seattle. We did have a night or two skiing and snowboarding at Mount Bachelor, but that was it. This time, we were determined to explore more.
Central Oregon sits at the convergence point of several geologic regions and has the Deschutes River running through it. Historically, it is a volcanic region. Put altogether, it means that this area is amazingly diverse and incredibly beautiful. Just over an hour's drive and you can cover flourishing forests and waterfalls, desolate-looking lava beds and glimpses of the Cascades. And that is exactly what we did, thanks to Luke's friend Casey's recommendation...
1.Sahalie and Koosah Falls Loop Click for Google Maps
This is an easy and accessible 2.6 mile loop, with only a 400-ft elevation gain, that snakes along the roaring McKenzie River and connects 100-ft Sahalie Falls and 70-ft Koosah Falls.
These waterfalls were created when heavy lava flows dammed the nearby Clear Lake and sent it flooding into the river. After driving all morning from Portland, it was refreshing and relaxing to stretch the legs in such pretty surroundings. Luke even went for a swim further down from Koosah Falls...TWICE.
Thuc's Tips: There are pit toilets here. The walk is more of a stroll and passes through cool, damp forest so I definitely recommend a light layer and proper walking shoes. Casey also told us the most invaluable tip of all; go in the late afternoon to avoid the crowds. These waterfalls are remarkable and you will want them as much to yourselves as possible.
Getting There: From Interstate 5 exit 194a in Eugene, drive McKenzie Highway 126 east 68 miles. Beyond McKenzie Bridge 19 miles, near milepost 5, pull into the large, well-marked Sahalie Falls parking area. (from Oregon.com) Click for Google Maps
2. Proxy Falls Loop Click for Google Maps
Just 30 mints from Sahalie Falls and Koosah Falls, Proxy Falls is allegedly Oregon's most photographed waterfall and it isn't hard to see why. This 1.6 mile loop takes you through both lower and upper Proxy Falls and is again, an easy and accessible walk; though there are portions of the trail obstructed by fallen trees.
When we arrived at the lower falls, I felt as though we had walked into a moss and fern-filled fairyland. Everything was impossibly green and the sheer size of the waterfall is so grand that it is something you just cannot hold in your memory. The sight definitely initially stops you in your tracks then brings out a childlike curiosity that sends you off exploring. You can walk right up to the falls on your left-hand side and peer into the pool at the base. It is honestly one of the most beautiful waterfalls that I have ever seen. The flow of Nevada Falls and Vernal Falls in Yosemite was impressive but Proxy Falls is just gorgeous in every way.
Thuc's Tips: There are pit toilets here. As with Sahalie Falls and Koosah Falls, come in off-peak times. We were the only ones on the trail and the only ones at the falls as we arrived just before 8am. The upper falls are cool in that the water doesn't flow anywhere; it just sits there at the base, seeping into the porous lava beneath. But the lower falls is inarguably where it's at.
Getting There: From McKenzie Bridge, OR, travel east on Highway 126 to Highway 242. Travel east on Highway 242 for 9 miles to Proxy Falls Trailhead. (from Forest Service Website)
3. Dee Wright Observatory Click for Google Maps
The Dee Wright Observatory is absolutely unmissable.
After Proxy Falls, the highway climbs up several switchbacks and then levels out amidst an expansive field of lava flow. At the peak of McKenzie Pass sits this dome-like structure made out of black lava stone and this is the Observatory. Here, there is black lava rock for as far as the eye can see. It looked quite barren and reminded me of the scenes when Frodo crosses into Mordor...but in actual fact, there were a few straggly-looking pines sprouted out of the lava flow and it was fascinating to see life and colour out of something so bleak. The lava rock itself is interesting; it is very porous and moves as you step on them so walking across becomes like a dainty ballet sequence. (It also hurts and really takes the skin off, should you scratch yourself on lava rock).
Once in the Observatory, there are little peepholes out to the Cascades, labelled with the feature's name. I was most captivated by North and Middle Sister, because we would hiking South Sister in a day's time.
We arrived at the Observatory in the early evening with enough time to explore in the last remnants of daylight. Casey had packed us dinner from the previous night's leftovers and it was special to be able to dine in our van with this panoramic view of lava rock, watched over by North and Middle Sister.
When night fell, the temperatures dropped and the wind was howling. But that didn't stop the keen astrophotographers who would emerge out of the dark with their tripods and blankets. It had also been my plan to do some astrophotography. I like astrophotography because of the solitude amongst the grandiose beauty that it offers; you are usually alone and the photographs themselves looking out there, into the unknown, make you feel alone. I wasn't pleased to have this ritual-like experience of mine ruined by giggling women and a man who kept speaking loudly about his settings, so I actually took my photos somewhere along the trail up to the Observatory. Luke and I were reclined directly (and uncomfortably) on the lava rock and I balanced my camera on, you guess it, lava rock. We could only hear the wind rushing past as we stared up at this seemingly infinite blanket of stars; so many stars all shining so brightly. I had never seen the night sky like that before. It made me realise what we miss out in urban areas and how important it is to protect the night sky.
We actually slept in our van that night, parked next to the pit toilets at the Observatory. When we woke up the next morning, it was so quiet and still that we might as well have been in the wilderness, and not right next to the highway.
Thuc's Tips: bring a windproof jacket as I suspect that there might always be strong, chilly winds since the Observatory sits at the summit of McKenzie Pass. And again, go in off-peak times.
Getting There: From McKenzie Bridge, OR travel east on Highway 126 for about 5 miles; turn right on Highway 242. Continue on Highway 242 for 22 miles to the Dee Wright Observatory at the top of the McKenzie Pass. From Sisters, OR travel west on Highway 242 for 15 miles to the Dee Wright Observatory. (From Forest Service Website)
We said to ourselves that next time we travel to the US, we will fly straight into Portland and spend our stay around Oregon, crossing into Washington and maybe even Canada. Hopefully, we make that happen and this little waterfall-chasing, star-gazing adventure is just the tip of the iceberg of our Pacific Northwest travels.