Saturday, February 6, 2016

South Santiam River

This was pretty much a fail, as far as hikes go. But it was a qualified fail for the trail was green and mossy while the forest was downright magical. Too bad a rambunctious Elk Creek kept me from hiking more than 2.7 miles. But hey, at least I got a taste of this area and I'll be back with a backpack on for a more protracted acquaintance with the historical Santiam Wagon Road. So, for now, I'll just wax philosophical about the whole short-hike fiasco because the day wasn't a total loss.

Trail marker on the old wagon road
The Santiam Wagon Road first opened for business in 1865 and was the toll road that connected the towns of Sisters and Lebanon. Nowadays, Highway 20 closely follows the route of the Santiam Wagon Road and from Soda Creek east, the historical road has been converted into a long distance hiking and mountain biking trail. Numerous trailheads provide access and a myriad of connecting trails take hikers to other worthy destinations along the canyon of the South Santiam River. Because my guidebook said the trail (at lower elevations) was open all year, I made the 3.5 hour drive to the Mountain House trailhead on a gray and occasionally rainy day.

The South Santiam River

Just after beginning the hike by crossing the South Santiam River on a stout footbridge, a T-intersection provided an unexpected choice as I had thought the trail began here. The trail heading west seemed faint and sketchy while the trail heading east obviously gets more use. East it was, and I turned left and headed up the trail towards House Rock. Up was the key word here and despite the chilly weather I was soon sweating profusely underneath my winter clothing. 

The enchanted forest
The brisk climb had lungs huffing and puffing while leg muscles burned with the sweet agony of walking uphill. However, I cared not a whit because almost immediately the trail entered a forest that was simply magical and enchanting. One halfway expected pixies, leprechauns, or sprites to scamper across the mossy trail. Much photography ensued and made for socially acceptable rest stops.

Moss covers all
The forest here was comprised of thick stands of spindly alder trees, uniformly leafless in the middle of winter. Normally, alder trunks are colored white but these trees were all green and hairy, like last December's lasagna still sitting in a bowl in the refrigerator. Of course, the green "hair" had nothing to do with rotting food but more to do with moss, which claimed everything that wasn't motile. I made sure not to stop for too long, lest I too get claimed!

One of many small creeks crossing the trail
Periodically, small creeks ran across the trail, on their way to join the much larger river in the canyon below. The South Santiam River could be heard but remained mostly unseen due to the lush growth flanking the river. About a mile into the hike, the trail left the alders and entered a more standard Douglas fir forest. Almost immediately, the temperature dropped and it felt that snow just might be a distinct possibility.

Elk Creek
And at the 1.3 mile mark, the trail rounded a bend and Elk Creek was running across the trail. The water was probably about knee-deep or better but was running pretty fast. I could see a doable flat and wading part beginning about halfway across the white water. However, between me and the flat part, the creek was bounding vigorously between boulders. I could not see where it would be safe to cross so after some creekside dithering with my daring and incautious alter ego, I decided to turn back.

I owe you one, Elk Creek!
So, this wound up being a long drive for a short hike. But on the plus side my appetite is stoked for a return visit when Elk Creek will be more manageable. I'm thinking that hiking the Santiam Wagon Road and then going down the McKenzie River Trail might be epic. Stay tuned!

The tree monster reaches for me
For more pictures of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.


  1. Sorry you couldn't hike farther, but your map track clearly shows you did your dithering on the far side of the creek. Text and image disagree; which should we believe?

  2. Go with the text! If I could have gotten across the creek my hike would have been a lot longer!

  3. Better safe than sorry! We have encounted many more creeks and streams on our hikes too, but none that have blocked our hike so far. Got your note ont he hiking will catch us and pass us at some point. Look forward to seeing you at Lost Creek Lake. We just hiked there today - a 6-miler at Stewart State Park on the bike paths and Upper Rogue River trail. Beautiful.