A few years ago, Adam Sawyer drove 3,200 miles throughout the state of Oregon in search of the best waterfall hikes.
In just over two weeks, he and his girlfriend hiked more than 90 miles, visiting 63 waterfalls at 40 sites throughout Central and Southern Oregon — rounding out his recent visits to falls along the Coast Range, Mt. Hood and the Gorge, Willamette Valley, Greater Portland and Eastern Oregon.
One of his favorite areas to explore, he says, is the Umpqua River drainage in Southern Oregon. The Rogue River also contains more waterfalls than other rivers in the Pacific Northwest.
“I think you get the most bang for the buck,” says Sawyer, who quit his day job in information technology six years ago to write outdoor travel guides from his home base in Portland. “There are waterfalls everywhere. And they’re more accessible than any other place in Oregon.”
On top of the sheer beauty and accessibility, this region is extra special for visitors because it’s less traveled than other popular waterfall destinations, he says. He remembers one afternoon in particular when he spent five hours at a waterfall, teaching his girlfriend how to skip rocks, without another soul in sight.
That’s especially the case in the fall, when the savvy waterfall hunter just might feel like they’ve stumbled onto their own little piece of paradise.
Here are 5 of Sawyer’s must-see waterfalls along the Rogue and Umpqua Rivers:
About 30 miles east of Roseburg, hiking the 1.8 miles out-and-back to Fall Creek Falls is like a journey through time. The trail leads through a narrow bedrock crevice, onto trails with massive honeycomb-shaped pillars jutting out, then along idyllic beaches lined with cedars. Switchbacks lead to the top three tiers of the 120-foot falls, which pour into the mighty North Umpqua River.
These waterfalls will change your definition of a waterfall. Columnar Falls has an ethereal appearance, with springs coming out of the hillside and vanishing into the ground. And Surprise Falls emerges from just underneath the trail, on the way to Columnar. Both are easy to access, just a half mile out. The trailhead starts at Umpqua Hot Springs, which allows nudity, so watch out for other surprises.
At 293 feet, Watson Falls is one of the tallest in the state, impressive in both its sheer magnitude and its lush surroundings. The cascades gush through old-growth trees and seriously giant moss-covered boulders for a picture-perfect shot. Take it all in both at the viewing area along the mile-long hike, as well as from a side trail, which offers a much more rewarding, close-up view.
Twenty miles northwest of Crater Lake, Rough Rider Falls is just 30 feet high but the reward is in the journey. The 6.5-mile hike leads through ponderosa and fragrant cedar trees, passes a few unnamed falls and stops at the bottom, where a downed log provides a path to a small island in the middle of the river. It’s a unique vantage point to gaze at the stunning falls without another soul around, and rejuvenate before the return.
In the opposite direction, 20 miles southwest of Crater Lake in Prospect, these twin powerhouses release their torrents forcefully into the Rogue River for a thrilling sight. At 173 feet, Mill Creek is a sheer drop to the canyon floor; at 240 feet, Barr Creek flows down in three cascades. From the Prospect State Scenic Viewpoint, you can catch both falls in a 1.6-mile round trip marked by fascinating geological treasures.
Wherever you go, however you get there, make sure to bring trail maps and critical supplies, and leave no trace. Get out there!