An amazing hike with some great technical challenges, great waterfalls, tunnels and some other fun surprises!
This hike, I have done twice so far and have found new things each time! I have had lots of people ask me for information on it so… on to the blog post of the mysterious Clackamas Falls.
When I plan a hiking trip, a lot of the time it’s just going out to a known trail that we have in a book somewhere, or a hike that we have done several times that we like, or one that we have known about and have never done. Most are a popular hike that just about everyone has done. I am trying to get away from that, and this is not one of those hikes. I had to research to find this one. I honestly don’t even remember how I found it. I think I was looking at the Clackamas River Trail and trying to find out where the waterfall that we missed was and discovered this one.
This hike has 3 different waterfalls. The first is Memaloose Falls, on the Memaloose river, the Upper Clackamas Falls (pictured above) and the Lower Clackamas Falls, both located on the South Fork Clackamas River. If you have never heard of these falls don’t worry, they are a pretty unknown.
So once I found this hike I became obsessed and did as much research as I could to find it. When I had a pretty good idea of where to go, I grabbed The Yogi (my sister) and her husband The Professor and we sought after these secret falls on the Clackamas River. The second time I went out it was The Professor, Princess and I. So if you see Princess in the photos it’s because I used a picture from the second trip.
The first thing we had to do was find the trail head. To prepare I printed off a horrible topographical map and used a fine point sharpie to mark where we were going. Honestly I probably would have been better off with nothing at all, but you should always have a map when you are going off to get lost in the woods. I will say, that this map saved us from a lot of extra hiking a bit later in the day. I have added an image of where the trailhead is. If you click on it, it will take you to a Google Maps page so you can get directions. Basically, to get there, you take highway 224 out past Estacada until you get to Memaloose Road. You cross the bridge and go up the hill until you get to the first decommissioned logging road on the right hand side that you see. Hike down that road!
So we get to the trailhead, grab our daypacks and head out. The first part of the trail/old logging road has berms dug out of it so people cannot drive back there. They aren’t a big deal to climb over and after about 3 of them the trail smooth’s out and it is easy hiking for a bit. People have been out there shooting, even though I think it’s illegal to shoot there. Last time we were on this hike there was an old big screen TV that had been shot all to pieces, plenty of spent shotgun shells, an arrow, and lots of paint cans, beer cans and other random target things. It’s a shame really that people can’t clean up after themselves.
Once you get to the end of the logging road, it opens up into a nice little meadow. It looked as if maybe some people had camped out there at one point. There was a little shelter built out of a tarp and what looked like a possible fire pit.
Once at the meadow this part of the trail ends. To the right of the meadow there is a small opening in the trees and a pretty obvious trail off to the right. I had read online that once you take this trail have to scramble down the hill a bit and then you will reach the next part of the trail that will take you to the Memaloose falls. I had no idea really what scramble down the hill meant. I pictured, a fairly steep trail where you have to run/hike down the trail. Not so much.
We were quickly surprised when we learned that scramble meant rappel. Ok, so it wasn’t really rappelling but it was quite steep. Fortunately someone had tied ropes to several trees along the way. This made going down much easier and we were quite thankful. I really think that the easiest way without them would be to go back, get one of those plastic sleds you had as a kid and just slide down! Ok… I will admit, that is a terrible idea. The ropes made it a lot easier going but it was still very sketchy in some places. There were a few spots when you got to the end of one rope and had to slide down to the other rope that were a bit slippery but we made it all in once piece. (I might also mention at this point that Princess is slightly afraid of heights and wasn’t stoked about having to “scramble” down the hill of slippery rocky death.)
I have added the following images to give some perspective.
Once you get to the bottom of the hill you can see a trail. Keep in mind, there is not much traffic here so this is not your well maintained lets go hiking around the park kinda trail. This is more of the, you can tell where to go but still have to climb over things and possibly bushwhack a little. The little bit I was able to find about this trail said that you would know you were on the right trail because there was a bench somewhere at the bottom of the descent. I have still not been able to locate said bench. Looking back at where you had just come from you would never know that you had just climbed down a steep rocky cliff side.
As you hike down the trail a little ways you get to the first thing that makes this hike exceptionally cool.
Aside from the waterfalls, there are also some really cool tunnels. According to the history that I could find on this area, back in the 1930’s people in Oregon City and West Linn were getting sick from the water. In an effort to get cleaner water (since water purification technology was not really good back then) they built a pipeline that sent water from the south fork of the Clackamas River down to Oregon City. In the 1950’s or 60’s they built a new water treatment plant and decommissioned the roads and the pipeline that sent water from the Clackamas River down to the cities. What are left are the tunnels they used to get vehicles through the area to build and maintain the pipeline.
The first tunnel looks like something out of a movie. You almost expect natives to start chasing you through the woods or to come across the ruins of some ancient civilization. I love caves and tunnels and things of that nature so I was very excited about this part of the hike.
Either right before, or right after the tunnel you can climb down to see the Memaloose Falls. On the first hike, we were planning on coming back to check them out after we had seen the other two waterfalls since we found another rope tied to a tree that would lead us down the hill. The reports I had found where people had climbed down to the falls said that there was a tick nest down there somewhere so be sure to check yourself when you got done. We never actually made it back to the falls on the first hike and on the second hike we could not find the rope, and had some other time constraints. I have attached a link to a photo I found of the falls, and you can count on the fact that I will be heading back up there again to find these falls.
So after you get past the first tunnel you will come upon some sort of abandoned structure. I am sure it was part of the original water works and now is pretty much just an abandoned cement box. It was pretty neat to climb around and a great spot to stop and have lunch next to the river. (Which is exactly what we did.)
Once we were done with lunch we continued on our journey. The trail got a bit more technical and we had to climb over some slippery logs and I smacked my hand into a stinging nettle. It wasn’t really that bad and all the beautiful scenery around use was worth every log and stinging nettle that we had to face on the trail.
A bit further up the trail we passed another structure that resembled a ribcage. Just past this we came upon a bridge. The west side of the bridge was washed out (as had been stated in the material I had been able to find on this trail) so I knew we were in the right place. We had to crawl across a sketchy part of the bridge but once we were on it, the bridge was quite stable and we had a spectacular view of the South Fork Clackamas River and the Memaloose River and where they met up. On the first hike we met a couple other hikers here that gave us some advice on the rest of the trail.
At this point you can either turn left and go to the Upper Clackamas Falls or right and go to the Lower Clackamas Falls. We opted for the left, since it was uphill. We headed up the trail and hit the next fun obstacle of this amazing hike.
I am going to refer to this as, The Bridge of doooooom!
The hikers we had met had given us a bit of a heads up about the bridge of doom. The one had crossed the bridge. He was tall and skinny and probably didn’t weigh too much. He said that the logs had been a bit flexible when he crossed over. The other guy, who was a bit larger than the other had opted to stay and wait for his friend to go and come back.
Given this information we were very hesitant about crossing over the Bridge of Doom. We could see where there had been a log in the middle of the bridge that had fallen down. You can see the gap in the picture. What you cannot see in the picture is the very deep canyon that the Bridge of Doom crosses. We decided it was worth the risk and all skipped across the rotted logs with great gusto!
Ok, what really happened is we looked around and found a path behind a few branches that went around the Bridge of Doom. Really it was a simple bypass and we didn’t have to look that hard for it. We were very grateful to have found this as none of us really wanted to plunge to our death in a ravine in the woods where few people travel.
After you pass through the first tunnel there is a brief opening back into the wilderness, that again makes it feel like you are exploring in the jungle in some ancient ruins. At this point you have also started to follow the pipeline that was mentioned in my little history lesson earlier.
Then you pass through the next tunnel and again are popped out into the woods. From here you can see the Upper Clackamas falls in their full glory. You can get a pretty decent view of them from the rotten log bridge but from this spot you get the best view. Ok well not the “best” best view, but the easiest best view.
To get to the actual, best view you have to be a little bit crazy. Of course on the second trip, we were crazy. At this point there is yet another rope. This rope drops right down the side of the hill. There is not really a trail, just a rope dropped down into the brush. Once you get down the hardest part you have to climb over a fallen tree and then you can see a sort of trail that goes down to the bottom of the falls. That is where the picture at the beginning of this post was taken. On the trail, on the way to the bottom of the falls.
The bottom of the falls is just eye numbingly beautiful. There is a nice pool at the bottom that looks like it might be nice to take a dip in. We opted not to do this as we didn’t have any swim apparel and were unfortunately on a time schedule.
We climbed back up to the top and were again very thankful for the rope. Without it, we would have not had a great time.
The Tunnel of Doom is a bit more difficult than the others due to it being darker, wetter, and you have to climb uphill in it. There are some rotted boards in there with some roofing tiles or something similar for traction. This helps a bit but it is still pretty slippery and iffy on footing at times.
If you are afraid of dark, dank places this is not the place for you. Fortunately I love dark dank places of a cavish nature so I was as happy as a spider in a cave!
Speaking of spiders in caves, as we were climbing up the tunnel on first trip, The Yogi noticed something move in the corner of her eye. She then shone her light at the movement, which happened to be in a little hole up in the rock and proceeded to kinda freak out. I shined my light in the same hole and saw nothing but creepy long, large spidery looking legs.
I dared to get a couple pictures. I wish I had held up something for reference because these suckers were huge. We started to have a discussion about what they would eat in there. We went through the list of small bugs, to rabbits, to pumas, to bears, to a t-rex. We then decided that a t-rex was a bit ridiculous and settled on cave trolls.
Since we had not run into any cave trolls on our trip, and the spider thingies were quite large, they obviously must feed off of cave trolls. We then decided to name the creatures “Cave Troll Spiders.” In the end when I got home and was able to look at the pictures more closely, I decided they were some form of cricket. Actually I found out that they are Rhaphidophoridae. (Cave Cricket) They were still damn creepy looking though.
After we dared the Tunnel of Doom and snuck past the vicious and deadly Cave Troll Spiders, we came to the end of the tunnel. The end of this tunnel is a bit different than the other tunnels as it is a cement enclosure that you have to climb out of. Once again it gives you this cool “Indiana Jones”, jungle explorer feel.
Once you climb up out of the tunnel you are in this cool area behind the falls that almost has a fountain of youth feel to it. There is a cement structure that I assume was used to route the water into the pipeline at one point and then you can practically get to the top of the Upper Clackamas Falls. This is a great place just to hang out and have some lunch, or a snack, and possibly another place to take a swim in the pool above the cement structure.
After we hung out here for a bit we decided to go back through the Tunnel of Doom and check out the Lower Clackamas falls. We pretty much got through there as fast as we could before the Cave Troll Spiders could drop on us and devour us whole.
We passed through the other two tunnels (which did not contain Cave Troll Spiders) and made it back to the Bridge of Doom. Went around again and made it back to the first bridge.
We decided to take a rest here and have a snack and consult my crappy map. Looking around, this place would be the perfect place to camp out. You have a river with a nice pool there. One of the other hikers had said he brought a fly rod with him and had caught a couple little trout. There was already a nice fire pit built and it is just a really cool remote place. When you cross the bridge hiking in you can see some more of the structures built here back in the 30’s.
We then decided to continue on to the north, to the Lower Clackamas Falls. As you hike along there are a couple more really short tunnels. When we reached these tunnels there were some more signs of camping. This was a bit more than what we had seen before. There was also another rope tied to a tree that led to the bottom of the Lower Clackamas Falls.
We decided to forgo the treacherous climb down the hill to the bottom. (Again, I will be going back) At this point there wasn’t much left to see as far as tunnels or waterfalls so we had a decision to make. We noticed that the trail kept going, and we wondered where it went, or we could head back and have to use the ropes to climb back up the hill. (This was the option we took on the second trip, mostly due to the events of the first trip.)
So, onward to more exploration. We kept going and saw some beautiful scenery. We talked of building a cabin in the woods and just living the rest of life out here, it was that beautiful up there.
Eventually we ran into the north fork of the Clackamas River. We popped out from the trail onto this really pretty, nice sandy beach. It was obvious that people had camped here before. There was a little table built out of something, and a nice big fire pit. It really would be the perfect place to camp. The other thing we thought about was the fact that we were looking at a nice big bank and parking area on the other side of the river where we could park, blow up a raft and float across the river and not have to deal with the crazy downhill and uphill climb for future hikes.
As we explored the beach we noticed that across the way some people had just that idea. They were loading up a bunch of camping gear and heading across the river. At first they had an alarmed look when we popped out of the woods, but we assured them that we were just passing through.
At this point, once again we decided to take the adventurous route and keep walking down the beach. We eventually came to the South Fork Clackamas River and decided to ford it and keep going. Eventually we would have to run into Memaloose Road and then we could just take it back to the car.
Eventually, however, we ran out of bank. We were too determined to turn around, so we decided to head into the woods. It was pretty easy going for a bit, but then we could only go up. The yogi started to protest as I consulted my crappy hard to read map. The Professor was confident that if we climbed straight up we would eventually run into the road. After consulting my map I decided that he was correct, even though climbing straight up through the brush didn’t seem like a lot of fun.
The Yogi finally conceded to doing it our way but gave us a 30-minute time limit. At 30 minutes, we would admit that we were wrong and that she was right and then we would turn around and go back the way we came. At 29 minutes The Professor found the road. The Yogi was not amused, but we were all very glad that our adventure was almost at an end.
After a brief hike back up the road we got back to the 4Runner and headed home.
So, I will leave you all with an important Northwest survival rule. The Northwest woods are backwards when it comes to finding roads. Usually you are told to find water (i.e. a river or stream) and follow it because it will lead you to a road or civilization. This is probably true in a lot of areas but here in the Pacific Northwest, the thicker brush grows closer to the water and makes it a lot harder going, there are a crap ton of rivers and streams everywhere that may not lead where you think they do, and logging roads usually follow the spines of the mountains. Usually if you are in logging territory, if you climb straight up, you will find a road. This is something to keep in mind if you are ever lost in the woods and started at the top of a hill on a logging road.