Saturday, November 4, 2017

Kentucky Falls - North Fork Smith River

It had been a while since I'd been to Kentucky Falls. The hike down to the falls and back is a shortish 4 miles round trip venture and considering the long drive to the trailhead, it just doesn't seem worth the trouble for a mileage-addicted hiker like your merry blogster. However, Kentucky Falls becomes a worthy destination if you continue beyond the falls on the North Fork Smith Trail for a more reasonable 9 mile hike. But that's a shuttle hike venture, so a friend with another car is a minimum requirement, and I don't have any friends. Plus, two winters ago, floods washed out bridges and trail alike and it was nearly a year before the Forest Service was able to restore the trail from the effects of the rampaging river. For all of the preceding reasons, it had indeed been a long time since I'd hiked in the North Fork Smith River area.

Knobby and mossy maple tree
Good news comes in threes and the Forest Service had re-opened the trail earlier this year; the hiking club had a Kentucky Falls hike scheduled; and there were enough people with cars to ferry hikers back and forth from (and to) this end-to-end hike. The bad news was that the weather was somewhat damp and because the trail had not been usable for over a year, the trail was a little bit on the rough side. But hey, that's how the Friends of the Umpqua roll, we like our hikes wet and rough as a cat's tongue (without that dead tuna smell).

Small creeks ran across the trail
Actually, any complaints about the weather should be pretty mild. It had been raining heavily for a solid week and another storm was on the way. But as it turned out, the day of the hike lay between the two storms and was expected to be relatively dry. When the hike started, there actually was blue sky overhead but that didn't last very long. At least the rain didn't show up until we had hiked 5 out of 9 miles.

Follow the Yellow-Leaf Road!
It was obvious, once we started dropping down into the Kentucky Creek canyon, that autumn leaves would be a major portion of the hike narrative. Bigleaf maples had divested their leaves, so to speak, and the trail was covered by a thick mat of leafy duff. The sound of boots scuffing through rustling leaves was a constant all day long and there'd be no sneaking up on deer today, not that we'd ever want to do such a thing. But, on the plus side, there'd be no deer sneaking up on us, either!

Upper Kentucky Falls

A short walk down a leaf-covered path brought us to Upper Kentucky Falls. The waterfall basin was misted over, partly from encroaching cloud cover and partly from the waterfall itself. The recent rains made for high water volume and a loud roar from the falls. After a few minutes of oohing and aahing, we continued onward, crossing Kentucky Creek on a moist and leafy bridge. Everything was moist and leaf-covered on this hike.

Lower Kentucky Falls
The trail continued to lose elevation as it switchbacked further down into the canyon. At a little over the 2-mile mark, Lower Kentucky Falls came into view and we took a rough path down to a rickety wooden viewpoint below the falls. This particular spot serves up one of the most amazing sights in Oregon. Lower Kentucky Falls tumbles over a rocky ledge and about 20 yards to the left, North Fork Falls does likewise. How often do you get to see two large waterfalls do their thing side-by-side like that? I was so happy taking photographs of Lower Kentucky Falls that I soon found myself all alone on the wooden viewing platform, as all my friends had left. I hurriedly headed up the trail to rejoin everyone but It was about a mile later that I realized I had taken nary a photograph of the two cascades in their eternal and fraternal free-fall. Oops. I nearly wanted to turn back and execute a photographic do-over.

The North Fork flows through the dead leaves
Kentucky Creek came to an end shortly after the falls, as it ran into the larger North Fork Smith River. Likewise, the Kentucky Falls Trail came to an end as it ran into the longer North Fork Smith Trail. Initially, the new trail ambled relatively close to the North Fork but that all ended when the path made an abrupt left turn and charged uphill as madly as a bull in Pamplona.

Moss covers all that does not move
I had mentioned earlier this trail had been closed, and clearly it hadn't been maintained in the interim. Ferns, logs, and all kinds of other vegetation had encroached the path, which was barely visible at times. Good thing all those leaves had fallen, it kind of gave us a Yellow-Leaf Road to follow. In a forest of moss-covered trees, the route sort of leveled out high above the heard-but-not-seen river. The path was narrow and clung precariously to a steep slope and it was not unusual to step in a hole, or off the trail, or accidentally roll rocks down the hillside. With the tread being so covered by leaves, you really could not tell what you were stepping on and there was more than one pratfall by more than one hiker, your merry blogster thankfully excluded.

Valerie and David execute a creek step-over

Many small creeks were running down the hillsides and across the trail as we contoured the heavily wooded slopes of Baldy Mountain. Looking at the map, Kentucky Creek lies halfway between Roman Nose Mountain and Mount Popocatepetl, in a curious geographical dedication to three primitive cultures with forgotten dialects. Baldy Mountain is more of a geographical taunt to the hair-challenged, though.

Rheo shows us how to reach the hiker's bridge
Approximately 3.5 miles from the end point, we ran into obvious flood damage. Clearly, the river had appropriated the trail bed and now there were small braids of river current flowing where the trail should have been. Here, the trail crosses the North Fork on one of the more impressive hiker bridges ever to span a river. However, we had to ford several small branches of the river in order to get to the bridge and the formerly-stout span was now sagging in the middle. Upstream, there was a brand new bridge but not yet a trail leading to and from the bridge, it looks like the Forest Service is going to abandon or tear down the old bridge. All those years of faithful service, and the poor bridge doesn't even get to see out its remaining days getting pampered in an assisted-living facility.

One of dozens of leaf-covered footbridges on this trail
It was just after we crossed the bridge that I said "Hey. it hasn't even rained today!" Yes, I really did say that and yes, I really should know better. You all know what happened next: the clouds began dumping water on us in response to my impertinence. Oh well, there's not much to do about it except keep on walking. Complaining helps, too! Anyway, the final three to four miles were rather on the wet side as the trail ambled up and down through the woods along the river. Despite the rain, though, it had been a nice reacquaintance with this green trail in Oregon's Coast Range.

The North Fork, as the rain fell and the day darkened
For more pictures, please visit the Flickr album.


  1. Those rain filled hikes only make you appreciate the blue sky sunny hikes all the more. Of course, on the rain hikes there are less people on the trail which is nice. Keep trekkin' rain or shine.

  2. You know you have it bad when you backpack in the rain...I may get there yet this winter!