Falls of the McKenzie

On the western slope of the High Cascades, a rushing river flows from headwaters in a lake so clear that the trunks of a forest submerged 3,000 years ago are still visible 100 feet below the surface. The cold, blue torrent drops over rapids and falls in a lush, volcanic landscape. It is volcanism that has made this river so reliable: lava flows upslope cache the water in their permeable geology, consistently releasing it down through this tributary of the Willamette. High in its course, the river is raucous and spectacular, forming rapids and falls that dance in a dense forest of Douglas fir, western hemlock, and western red cedar. It’s a grand display on the banks of the McKenzie River.

the edge of Koosah Falls

There’s more snow than I expected. At around 2,800 feet, I’m surpised to find a foot of packed snow in the shade throughout much of this forest. I’ll soon find out that my waterproof boots are no longer waterproof, but that’s alright. The water in the river will take my mind off the water in my shoes. This is a stretch of the McKenzie I’ve yet to behold, though I’ve driven past it a number of times. Now, with spring snowmelt pouring down from the mountains, it’s a perfect time to hike from waterfall to waterfall.

Sahalie Falls is my trailhead, the beginning and end of an out and back walk. After just a few steps into the woods, the trees open on an amphitheater framing the thundering cascade. The river is running with impressive force, a testament to a grand winter. Mist radiates from the foot of the falls, watering the flora that cling to the rocks around the river. Just a few miles away lie vast and barren lava fields. The rain and snow that falls on that porous geology percolates underground before emerging in the McKenzie River. The same lava underlies the landscape I survey now, but the blessing of constant hydration has transformed this into a lush northwest forest.

Sahalie Falls

If I am to complete this nine-mile adventure in a timely manner, I have to drag myself away from Sahalie. More wonders lie downstream. Indeed, just beyond a tumultuous section of rapids and clear turquoise river lies the next grand descent: Koosah Falls. The McKenzie plummets again, fanning out across a basalt ledge before leaping down into another amphitheater. My first encounter is at the brink without a view of the entire scene. The river rushes ahead, then vanishes over the precipice, roaring and frothing into the unknown with power and purpose. I follow the trail a bit more and am delivered to a grand view. Falling water is ever-mesmerizing, like an evening campfire whose flames dance with hypnotic curves. I can stare at a waterfall for hours, for it will never look the same. The current and the spray make every moment unique, and the thunder of the river overwhelms any other distracting sounds. It’s blissfully difficult to look away.

Koosah Falls

My halfway point lies well downstream from here, so I must press on. The river calms as it hits a reservoir. The forest briefly opens on a misty morning, but then I am back in the woods. High water has the McKenzie partially above-ground in sections that are usually dry. The river’s preferred course lies beneath the lava here, but today there are streams and creeks making slow progress downhill on the surface. Eventually, though, it all goes quiet as I near Blue Pool.

springs at Blue Pool

Blue Pool is the one spot on today’s journey that I’ve been to before. Also called Tamolitch Pool or Tamolitch Falls, this is the place where the McKenzie reemerges from its subterranean course. After three miles, the river comes back up in one giant spring with water cold, clear, and dazzlingly azure. Occasionally, when the runoff from the reservoir is high enough, Tamolitch Falls runs with whitewater as it careens down into Blue Pool, but this is a rare event. Today’s high flows aren’t high enough, so the brink is dry and passable. However, springs emanate from the rocks below the “falls”, forming a set of cascades just above the water level. It’s a wondrous scene, something I did not see when I was here last in the dry days of summer. While the dippers flit around the perimeter of the pool, I sit with my camera and take in the wonder of the water.

As I hike back upstream, the sun breaks through. Light plays across the bubbly surface of the riffles, runs, and rapids. I acknowledge each of the falls once more as I pass them, but I linger longest between Sahalie and Koosah. The river curves around a fan of forest here, hemmed in on the west bank by an igneous wall. Soon, I’ll drive a little more than an hour back to Bend and the High Desert, home in a landscape that looks remarkably unlike this one. Though I’ll be sitting on the same kind of rock, the geology will be adorned quite differently. There will be ponderosas and junipers, sagebrush and manzanita, not this mossy, fern-clad forest of moisture-loving conifers. The cliffs along the Deschutes will appear rather barren compared to those before me now, draped in the yellows and greens of a landscape replete with water. This is what I love most about Oregon: its amazing geographic diversity. Later today I’ll find myself on the dry margin of the Great Basin, but for now I sit by a brilliant river in a world that feels ancient, foreign, new, and familiar, all at once.