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home : sports : sports May 24, 2016

6/4/2013 2:25:00 PM
Post-fire Chush Falls is a completely different hike
A hiker inspects fire damage that crept to the edge of the canyon and the viewing area above the middle falls of the Chush Falls system. photo by Craig Eisenbeis
+ click to enlarge
A hiker inspects fire damage that crept to the edge of the canyon and the viewing area above the middle falls of the Chush Falls system. photo by Craig Eisenbeis

By Craig Eisenbeis

Chush Falls, formerly known as Squaw Creek Falls, is one of the most popular hiking destinations in our area. In the wake of last year's Pole Creek Fire, however, it has become an entirely different hike. The Chush Falls report is one of those good news, bad news scenarios.

Bad news: the fire has dramatically altered and scarred much of the surrounding landscape. Good news: most of the area immediately adjacent to the falls did not burn!

Bad news: the hike is now longer. Good news: the hike is now longer. In the past, the hike to the falls was embarrassingly short - hardly more than a mile to the lower falls. Due to the fire impact, the trail has been permanently rerouted, making it almost a five-mile round-trip to the lower falls, six miles for a round trip to the upper falls.

Now is a great time to view the falls because the water volume is peaking due to the increased snowmelt as the weather warms. All of the trail area is free of snow, and the mosquitoes aren't out yet. At least they weren't when we made the trip late last month.

In a sweeping gesture of political correctness, the creek and falls were renamed in 2006, after the State Legislature banned the use of the word "squaw" for Oregon placenames. No matter by what name, however, the falls are well worth the effort to visit.

Since the fire, the very rough 2.5 mile 600 Road has been permanently blockaded at about its midpoint and the trail rerouted onto what was the 680 Road, which drops off toward Whychus Creek. As a result, the creek is in view for much of this new approach. This part of the forest, however - including Whychus Creek Canyon - was very badly burned in the fire.

The new trail section passes through the severely scorched forest on its way to what was the original trailhead. Significant trail and restoration work has already been completed in this area, and more is yet to come. The Forest Service says that the distance between the new and old trailheads is about 1.3 miles.

As the trail leaves the former trailhead, it passes through a mixed-conifer forest that includes ponderosa and lodgepole pine, various firs, and even the occasional hemlock and spruce. Firs include noble, white, Pacific silver, and the predominant fir species - grand fir. While the effects of the fire are all around and obvious, most of this trail is largely unburned or lightly burned.

Prior to the fire, many of the lodgepole pines here had been killed by insect infestations. Since those specific trees were already long dead, they burned furiously at their bases. As a result, even though some of the fire was close to the ground and of a fairly low intensity in this area, many of those dead tree trunks burned through and toppled, creating a jumble of deadfall and a challenge for trail crews working to clear the trail. On the bright side, many of the old-growth ponderosas and firs near the falls remain largely untouched by the fire.

Sources variously rank the difficulty of this hike as moderate or easy. It's pretty easy. I suppose the only thing resembling "moderate" is a stretch of uphill hiking shortly before the lower falls.

The trail winds gently through the woods and crosses two small tributary creeks. The trail is wide and well traveled. Lower Squaw Creek Falls is now billed as Chush Falls, and it's really raging at this time of year. The top of the North Sister is visible from the principal viewing site. A very steep and very poor "unofficial" trail leads to the base of the falls, where a refreshing mist is waiting.

When approaching the falls, hikers would do well to take note of the proper trail to return on, since a veritable maze of footpaths radiate out from the area. It's pretty hard to get lost, though, as long as you stay within earshot of the creek. Still, a little care may save unplanned backtracking or brush-beating.

Beyond the lower falls, there is no maintained trail, but the informal trails are easy to follow. Generally, follow the wider, smoother paths, and you'll do fine; and always remember to stay where you can hear the creek. In about 10 minutes you will reach the next major water feature.

The middle falls are actually unnamed, and my campaign to call it Eisenbeis Falls hasn't yet gained much traction. The middle falls are at the confluence of Whychus and Park Creeks. A huge buttress of rock separates the two waterways until they finally roar together as one.

A few more minutes of even worse trails and you will find yourself nearing Upper Chush Falls. You'll know it when you see it. These falls are high and spectacular. I've seen patches of snow here as late as July; but, this year, all snow was gone by mid-May. Below the falls, you will find yourself in a steep valley. With the lousy trail fresh in your mind, you may be tempted to climb out for easier going. Don't bother. At the edge of the canyon is a rockslide where the footing is even more treacherous.

Even with the added mileage, this a great family outing, so pack a lunch and relax by one of the falls. To take this hike, drive 7.2 miles out Three Creek Lake Road (Elm Street in town). Turn right onto Forest Road 1514 where a sign directs you to Whychus Creek. There are some spectacular mountain vistas along the way. About 5.1 miles later turn left on Road 600. If you cross the Whychus Creek Bridge, you've gone too far.

As mentioned earlier, Road 600 is now truncated about a mile and a half in. Boulders, a berm, and logs block the road. The new trailhead sign and the new trail are quite obvious. The gravel roads leading there are suitable for passenger vehicles, but take it slow on the 600 Road. Sharp rocks abound.

As of press time, the entire 600 Road is temporarily blocked at the 1514 Road near the Whychus Creek Bridge, necessitating another 1.5 miles of walking each way just to reach the new trailhead. This closure will continue until hazardous trees have been removed along the route.

The trail, however, is open. Current road conditions may be obtained by calling the Sisters Ranger District at 541-549-7700. Otherwise, be prepared for a longer hike up all of Road 600 to reach the falls.

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