We rode part of Oregon’s newest scenic bikeway

Oregon has a new scenic bikeway.

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One of the things that sets Oregon apart from other states is that it is the only state in the union that has designated scenic bikeways – not just one or two, but sixteen of them! The newest one is the Sherar’s Falls Scenic Bikeway near Maupin, OR. Yesterday, we rode the flattest section (17 miles out and back) of the 33.4 mile loop, along the Deschutes River.

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A calm section of the lower Deschutes River known as the Blue Hole

The Sherar’s Scenic Bikeway is considered a moderately challenging loop because there are some extended climbs, though not killer, and it is located in high desert canyon country, which can be hot in summer. Being summer and the lazy, old folks that we are, we chose to bike only the relatively flat section along the federally designated Wild and Scenic Deschutes River.

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Warm Springs tribal fishing platforms

 

We started at Sherar’s Falls which is located on Warm Springs Tribal lands. It is the last falls of the Deschutes before it meets the Columbia River 44 miles north. Warm Springs tribal members use the falls area to fish for salmon by standing on wooden platforms that extend out over the rapidly churning river. From there, the bikeway is along a BLM Access Road that hugs the river all the way into the small town of Maupin (pop. 423). (By the way, you can park in designated parking areas along the access road with your NW Forest Pass or other federal pass or day use pass for $5. We did’t drive that far before we parked, and ended up paying $10 each to the Warm Springs Tribe to park in their day use area by the falls. I don’t mind supporting the tribe, but if you want to save some bucks, park on the BLM Access road)

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Sherar’s Falls and fish ladder on the Deschutes

The scenery is dramatic. High canyon walls of basalt and boulder cobble rise above the river at sometimes steep angles. Trees are scarce except in patches along the river edge. Sagebrush dominates the desert hills that have soil and adds a sweet aroma to the clean, clear air.

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Basalt canyon walls
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Sagebrush

The day was clear and warm. Before we had biked a mile, we spotted a bald eagle perched high on a basalt column looking for fish in the river below. Crickets chirped. Golden eagles and turkey vultures soared overhead. While scanning the cliffs for eagles and sheep, Keith spotted a mule deer tucked under the shade of a lone tree across the river.

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Look close and you’ll see a mule deer resting in the shade of a juniper along the Deschutes River

It was a beautiful day to be on the water and the river rafters were abundant. We saw several groups of floaters enjoying the swift flow of water, including three sets of Outward Bound boats loaded with camping gear and teenagers. The section of the Deschutes between Warm Springs and Sherar’s Falls is the most heavily rafted section of the river.

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River rafters float by the old grain elevator in Maupin, OR

As we approached the town of Maupin, big, beautiful houses clung to the canyon walls and an old grain elevator gave a hint of the agricultural influence in the area. The bikeway loop is surrounded in almost every direction by wheat fields.

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Wheat fields near Tygh Valley and Maupin, with Mt. Hood in the distance

We stopped at Maupin City Park to eat our snack and watch the rafts launch. The tiny town of Maupin perches several hundred feet above the river. It seemed like 80% of the businesses were rafting outfitters. It has a cute, walkable main street decorated with hanging baskets of flowers.

The ride was easy, in spite of some headwinds going toward Maupin. In fact, we couldn’t believe we got there so fast. So, on our way back downstream we stopped to investigate some of the day use areas and soak in the scenery. It was a a beautiful, easy ride. Maybe next time we’ll do the whole 33!

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Have you biked this scenic bikeway yet? What did you think?

 

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10 reasons you should stay and eat at the historic Frenchglen Hotel

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For any nature lover, the wonders of the Steens Mountain, Alvord Desert, and Malheur National Wildlife Refuge are the big draws to Harney County, Oregon, but a stopover at the historic Frenchglen Hotel is a must-do while you’re there! The Historic Frenchglen Hotel is both a hotel and a state historic site. It opened as a hostelry in 1916, built by the Swift & Company Meat Packers to accommodate people who came to the area to do business with them and area ranchers. A newer building was built in 1924. It was purchased by the US government as part of the Peter French P Ranch and Malheur Wildlife Refuge complex. The Oregon State Parks purchased the hotel from the US government in 1972 to preserve it as a historic heritage site.

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We stayed at the hotel on our recent visit to the Steens because it was on our Oregon bucket list. We had a wonderful time there. Here are our top 10 reasons why you should add it to your bucket list, too!

  1. It’s a step back in time. Not just because the hotel was built in 1926 and renovated in 1938, but because your host greets you by name, you sign in on hand-written guest cards, there’s a hand-made quilt on every bed, and there are no room keys, just a lot of trust and old-fashioned hospitality.
  2. You can unplug. There are no televisions or telephones in the rustic, cozy rooms, and cell phone coverage is spotty. Staying here gives you a chance to unplug and unwind from the digital barrage of daily life. Take advantage and enjoy the silence.
  3. John Ross cooks up a magnificent family style dinner! John Ross has been the proprietor at the Frenchglen Hotel since 1991. He cooks up every meal by hand every single day. Dinners are served family style precisely at 6:30 PM (don’t be late!) at picnic tables inside the cozy hotel lobby. The food is down-home and delicious – mashed potatoes, spinach & artichoke casserole, baked chicken, roast beef, fresh salads, breads and…
  4. Apple cake with ice cream and caramel sauce. Yes, dessert is a highlight. Even after eating too much dinner, everyone partakes in the sweet, scrumptious freshly made dessert of the day. He served apple cake one night and peach cobbler the next. I hear that marionberry pie is a favorite in the summertime.
  5. You’ll meet interesting people from all over. Those family style dinners in close quarters pretty much force you to socialize with whoever else shows up for dinner. They may include hotel guests, nearby campers, and sometimes even a local or two. On the two nights we were there we met folks from Buffalo, NY, Redmond, OR, Tuscon, AZ, Spokane, WA, Idaho, California, and The Netherlands. We learned about their lives and adventures and shared stories of travel and exploration.
  6. It will bring back memories of your childhood. Remember when your brother was hogging the bathroom and you couldn’t get in? Bathrooms are shared here. There’s a men’s room and a ladies room upstairs, shared by all the guests in the eight quaint bedrooms down the hall. If the bathroom is occupied, there is an extra one downstairs. If that one’s also occupied you can always use the public outhouse in the side yard!
  7. You can get breakfast or lunch to go. Remember, you’re in the middle of nowhere here. Restaurants are 30, 40, 60 miles apart. If you want to get an early start exploring the area or plan to be out all day, hiking or biking or bird-watching, you can get some tasty scones and coffee or a sandwich and chips to go – no need to wait for breakfast to be served at 7:30 or to return to the hotel for lunch.
  8.  No traffic, traffic lights (or even stop signs). Frenchglen has a population of 12. That means it’s tiny. I can stand in front of the hotel on one end of “town” and throw a rock to the other end. So, the only sounds you hear are the birds and the wind. Cars and trucks are scarce, even at the height of tourist season. There’s a two-room schoolhouse and a general store. Bring what you need with you.
  9. There’s a wildlife refuge out the front door. Yes, Malheur Wildlife Refuge stretches all the way down to Frenchglen and just across the street from the hotel is a trail, a wetland, and interpretive signs. We enjoyed the sounds of sandhill cranes and watched birds, marmots, ground squirrels, and deer each day. Of course, it was also late spring and the mosquitoes were abundant and hungry.
  10. Steens Mountain looms large in the east. You can sit on the front porch of the Frenchglen at sunset, sipping a glass of wine or a cup of tea, and watch the sun light up the magnificent snow-capped Steens just 22 miles to the east (as the crow flies).

Have you stayed at the Frenchglen Hotel? What was your experience?

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Belding’s ground squirrel

On our trip to southeastern Oregon’s high desert last week, we were astounded at the number of mammal species we encountered in just four days – pronghorns, deer, marmots, voles, squirrels, horses, cattle, jack-rabbits. One of the most abundant mammals in eastern Oregon is the Belding’s ground squirrel (AKA sage rat).

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Just in the small area around of the historic Frenchglen Hotel, I saw at least a dozen Belding’s ground squirrels. They would emerge from their numerous burrows just after sunrise and stay active until sunset – feeding, chasing each other, and peering around for predators. As we drove along Hwy 205, both north and south of Frenchglen, a ground squirrel ran across the road about every 5 seconds.

They are relatively small ground squirrels, measuring only 8.5 inches long with a short 2.5-inch tail and small ears. They have few markings and are generally brownish-gray to red in color. Their burrows extend about two feet below ground.

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Belding’s ground squirrels are seasonal rodents. They hibernate for nearly seven months of the year, starting in August, but when they emerge in late spring, they are eating machines. They do not cache food for hibernation, so they must double their weight by eating during the spring and summer. Preferring leaves and stems of wild and cultivated grasses and roots of other herbaceous plants, Belding’s can do considerable damage to yards and agricultural crops in a short time.

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In fact, Belding’s ground squirrels are the most damaging ground squirrel to agricultural crops in California and eastern Oregon. Not only do they damage crops, but they can chew through irrigation lines, weaken levees and ditches with their burrows, and pose hazards for farm workers and equipment. Because of that, farmers and ranchers spend a lot of time and money trying to manage them using methods as diverse as fumigation, trapping, shooting, toxic baits, and burrow modification. Baiting with poison-coated seed is not effective since Belding’s ground squirrels are not typically seed-eaters.

Cute as they are, these ground squirrels (like many desert rodent species) can be deadly. They spread diseases such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever, rat bite fever, tularemia, Chagas’ disease, adiospiromycosis, and encephalomycarditis. They also serve as reservoirs for bubonic plague (which spreads by fleas from infected squirrels). So, it’s best to observe them from a distance.

Oregon Badlands Wilderness Area

badlands and buckwheatThis is the first in a series of posts from our recent trip to central and southeastern Oregon. I’d been wanting to hike the Oregon Badlands Wilderness Area for some time, but it seemed like we were always in the Bend area during the hottest of summer months, and hiking the desert in 98-degree weather was not at the top of my wish list.

This time was different. On our way east to Steens Mountain in early June, the weather was perfect – a cool 50-degrees, light breeze, partly cloudy – so, we stopped to hike six miles on the Badlands Rock Trail.

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Gate at entrance to Badlands Rock Trail

As our feet crunched along the sandy trail of volcanic ash and eroded lava, we admired the sagebrush and juniper landscape dotted with bright, hardy, spring desert wildflowers. Meadowlarks called incessantly, but hid successfully in plain sight. Insects buzzed among the foliage. Distant mountains cast a purple hue on the horizon.

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The Oregon Badlands formed from a lava flow that originated up the Newberry volcano about 80,000 years ago. A lava tube developed a hole in its roof, allowing lava to flow upward and outward in all directions, forming what is now known as the Badlands shield volcano. The soils are mainly ash that came from the eruption of Mt. Mazama which made Crater Lake 7,700 years ago.

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The plants and animals that inhabit the Badlands must adapt to desert conditions with less than 12 inches of rain a year. We saw many species of wildflowers:

The star of the Badlands Rock Trail is, of course, Badlands Rock at the 3-mile mark.

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Badlands Rock

We noticed that many of the larger junipers were growing out of rock formations. It appears they find suitable niches of soil and water in the cracks and crevices of the volcanic basalt.

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It was a fabulous hike on easy terrain, but arid and open. The wide sky and distant hills drew our gazes upward, while the unique volcanic rock formations, desert flowers and small critters gave us plenty to see on the ground. Other trails lead to unique features including “Castle Rock”, “Flatiron Rock”, ancient juniper trees, craters, and caves. We returned on the same trail this time so we could head further east and south for more desert adventures, but we will return someday.

 

The Oregon Badlands was designated a federal wilderness area by Congress and President Barack Obama in 2009. The 29,180-acre wilderness has about 50 miles of trails for hiking and horseback riding. Many are unmarked so use of a map and compass are essential.

A Baskett of wild surprises

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“Stop!,” I yelled as we slowly drove west on Coville Road. “There’s something in the field.” I rolled down my window and peered through binoculars to find a silver-feathered male Northern Harrier sitting on a hump of plowed farm dirt, preening. I sat there for a few minutes admiring his pale beauty in the bright Oregon sunshine. I’ve seen harriers in flight many times, but never had the luxury to watch one perched and preening for so long.

It was a gorgeous, sunny, unusually warm, spring day, and we were going for a hike at Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge west of Salem. The harrier proved to be only our first surprise. As we hiked up to the top of Baskett Butte and out to the Rich Guadagno observation platform, we learned through interpretive signs that the butte trail was dedicated to Rich Guadagno, a former refuge manager who died in the United Flight 93 plane crash on 9/11. He was 38 years old. It was a poignant and touching tribute to a man who obviously loved nature and nurtured this land where we now stood.

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The views from Baskett Butte are inspiring – surrounding farm fields, the peak of Mt. Jefferson, and beautiful old growth oak savannas (one of the most endangered habitats in Oregon).

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On this day in May, wildflowers dotted the meadows – Oregon sunshine, lupine, Nootka rose, Mariposa lilies and more.

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Mariposa lily (Cat’s ear)

 

Near Morgan Lake at the north end of the refuge, we saw a large area of white, and wondered if it was bare sand. A look with binoculars showed us it was a wildflower bloom, solid white and expansive. We were able to hike around the edge of the lake and get a closer look. Turns out it was a field of white meadowfoam (Limnanthes alba). Turns out, one species of meadowfoam is an important commercial crop in the Willamette Valley. The seed oil is used in cosmetics.

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At one point along our hike, as we emerged from the oak savanna and walked downhill toward the marshes to the north, Keith wondered aloud if ring-necked pheasants lived here. Five minutes later we flushed a pheasant from the tall grass and watched it glide about 200 yards across the meadow to a copse of bushes. Pheasants are an introduced, naturalized species in the US. In fact, they were first introduced in the Willamette Valley from China in 1882. Farmland habitat is a pheasant’s heaven, so it makes sense that they would be sighted here at the edge of farm and refuge.

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As we crossed Moffitti Marsh along the freshly mowed but sometimes muddy trail, we spotted nesting tree swallows in their iridescent blues, striking yellow common goldfinches, cinnamon teal, and red-winged blackbirds.

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Tree swallow
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Goldfinch

There was even a swarm of bees circling around an old barn across the road from the marsh. Hiking back up the butte from Morgan Lake we spotted three black-tailed deer browsing at the edge of the forest.

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Four hours after we had seen that harrier stting and preening in the field, we left Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge with a renewed sense of wonder and light hearts. Our five miles of hiking had provided surprise after surprise, each one marvelous and welcome. Thank you to the US Fish and WIldlife Service for managing yet another amazing natural area for the people!

If you go: Baskett Slough NWR is located off of SR 22, west of 99W and Salem, OR. Some trails are closed in winter to protect wintering waterfowl. Take sun protection in summer; most of the trails are not shaded.

 

Another Gorge-ous Hike: Coyote Wall

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Spring is here and the wildflowers are starting to pop up all around Oregon and Washington, especially in the Columbia River Gorge. We decided to hike Coyote Wall last week, knowing that the grass widows would be in bloom. What we found there was a treasure trove of natural wonders unlike anything we’d ever seen before in the Gorge. Coyote Wall is on the Washington (north) side of the Gorge just 4.5 miles east of the Hood River Bridge. It is a hiker and mountain biker paradise, for sure. We arrived around 10 AM on a Friday morning, and by the time we left at 3 PM, the parking lot was full, and cars were parked all all the way down to SR 14.

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Coyote Wall from the trailhead
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The beginning of the trail

Coyote Wall is an impressive formation of columnar basalt, often nicknamed “The Syncline”. The wall itself is two miles long and over 200 feet high, with it’s highest elevation at 1800 feet. Above the cliff wall are rolling, rocky meadows, and below are oak and pine woodlands. These trails were once an unmarked mecca for mountain bikers, who made many unofficial trails throughout the area, including into private property nearby. Hikers and wildflower buffs discovered the trails in the early 1990’s – still unofficial and unmarked – and the combination of use and abuse made it necessary for the US Forest Service to create a recreation plan and an “official” trail system.

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Currently, there are eleven different numbered and marked recreation trails in the area. We hiked the Old Ranch Road Trail, part of the Coyote Wall Trail, the Coyote Wall Traverse, and the Little Maui Biking Trail, for a total of about eight miles.

After a short hike along the south-facing edge of “the wall” on abandoned SR 8, we stepped onto the dirt trail that led us four miles uphill, switch-backing along the rocky, open meadows dripping with spring snow melt and bursting with wildflowers. Desert parsley, grass widows, prairie starflowers, and yellow-bells dominated the display, but there were many other small flowers blooming as well.

Mountain bikers huffed their way up amid the hikers. Dogs ran free everywhere, something the trail rules clearly prohibit during certain portions of the year. Loose dogs concerned me since we were hearing meadowlarks singing all over the place, and it is nesting season for these ground-nesting birds.

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Western meadowlark at Coyote Wall trail

Mt. Hood loomed over the south side of the Gorge in all it’s snow-white glory. The further up we climbed, the more of Hood we could see. The Columbia River shimmered below us as tiny creeks and waterfalls cascaded down the hills toward it.

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We left the Old Ranch Road trail to traverse over to the edge of Coyote Wall. When we arrived and peeked over, it was easy to imagine falling to your death below. In fact, a mountain biker did just that in 2005, and there is a sign reminding visitors of it further down the wall trail.

As we sat there, having a snack and taking in the view, an immature bald eagle glided silently past us, not 30 feet away from the edge of the cliff where we sat. It isn’t often I get to see an eagle from above and so close, and this was a highlight of the day.

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Our first glimpse of the wall from the edge

 

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Down into the Labyrinth

Once we had our fill of vista views, we headed back down to the Little Maui trail, which curves through an area known as The Labyrinth. Steeper, rockier, and filled with lush green grasses and waterfalls, this part of the trail made us think of parts of New Zealand as seen in the Lord of the Rings movies. Basalt outcroppings, lava rock, stunning, crooked oak trees all made it feel like a place of medieval times.

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Rocky outcroppings
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Waterfalls along the trail
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Starflowers bursting forth along a creek

It was a beautiful day and an extraordinary hike. I expect it will get busier as the wildflower season goes on, but its worth the hour and a half drive from Portland. Just get there early!

Hiking the Little North Santiam River Trail

 

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Little North Santiam River

Just 35 miles east of Oregon’s capital city of Salem, the Little North Santiam River Trail gives visitors a hint of the unparalleled beauty that lies upstream in the Opal Creek Wilderness. The Little North Santiam River is a 27-mile long tributary of the North Santiam River, which, along with the South and Middle Santiam Rivers, flows into the Willamette.

The North Santiam has been impounded to form Detroit Lake and the South Santiam has been impounded to form Foster Lake, changing the flow of both over the years. This isn’t the only thing that has changed the watershed. During the late 1800’s gold mining and timber companies began extracting resources, decreasing the diversity of vegetation and wildlife in the watershed.

Fortunately, the BLM and USFS have put into place management strategies to protect the water resources and listed species in the area. It is home to bald eagles, spotted owls, rainbow and cutthroat trout, and Chinook salmon. The Little North Santiam (LNS) is now a designated State Scenic River, and no wonder…it is quite beautiful.

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We began our hike at the LNS Trailhead off of Elkhorn Drive SE near Mehama. It was an early spring weekday, and only one other car was parked at the trailhead. We would have the trail to ourselves! Yay! The trail was soggy and soft amid the birches, but turned rocky as soon as we reached the hemlocks and firs closer to the river.

One thing about this trail…most of the time you are either going uphill or down, there’s not a lot of flat. That made it a good workout day for us, especially with our already sore quads and glutes from the new 7-minute total body workouts we’d been doing at home.

As soon as we saw the river, we were entranced. Crystal clear water, blues and greens in the deeper pools, rapids, rocks, and waterfalls made it hard to both watch where we were walking and look at the river. It meant we stopped a lot along the way just to take it all in.

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When we weren’t gazing at the emerald waters, we were fascinated with the plump, soft, green mosses and lichens that covered every inch of rock and tree along the trail. Numerous waterfalls/rapids in the river and on the opposite side of the river gorge provided plenty of “stop-in-your-tracks” moments. It was definitely a sensuous feast.

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One of the pools below a waterfall

A few wooden bridges helped us cross several creeks, except at one place where the water was cascading swiftly down toward the river. There we rock-hopped using the trusty walking stick.

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The trail climbed to a viewpoint high above the river with great views of the gorge, Henline Mountain, and cliffs formed by the volcanic and glacier activity from 17 billion years ago. It then descended rapidly back down to river level. Lots of downed trees gave us ample opportunities to practice both our way-finding skills and our tree-hopping or tree-ducking skills.

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At high viewpoint above river looking at Henline Mountain
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One of the falls along Little North Santiam River

The rugged, curvy nature of the Little North Santiam River, with its steep cliffs, waterfalls, and deep, blue pools made this hike an extraordinary adventure and well worth the drive. We will be back.

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Triple falls
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The creek we had to rock-hop across