Saturday, July 24, 2021

Metolius River

Black Butte is an iconic landmark in Oregon's central Cascade Mountains. Visible for many miles around, the Butte is a perfectly symmetrical cone rising at the feet of the Cascade Mountains like a geologic witch's hat that got left behind in haste when the coven meeting was adjourned. At the foot of the butte and nowhere near as obvious from a distance, the Metolius River bursts forth from an underground journey through the area's porous lava-based soils. The river emerges perfectly clear, like vector calculus to a mathematician, the crystalline waters having been scrubbed clean of all impurities during its underground journey. And after two days of trudging over steep trails in the Santiam Pass area, we (Friends of the Umpqua Hiking Club) decided that a level walk next to a crystal clear river was just the thing to do.

The Metolius runs amazingly clear

The only way to do a loop hike on the West Metolius River Trail is to return on the opposite bank and see the same old scenery all over again. Since we wanted to see more of the river than could be observed on what amounted to an out-and-back hike, a shuttle was engineered by leaving a vehicle at both ends of the section of trail we'd be hiking on. What this translated to in reality, was that Lane, Cleve, and I did lots of driving from Canyon Creek Campground to Lower Bridge, and back to Canyon Creek Campground again. Meanwhile, in a sign of respect, or more like a lack thereof, our comrades blithely commenced hiking without us while we performed the vehicular tedium required to make their hike possible. It all evened out in the end though, because although they finished their hike first, our so-called hiking buddies still had to righteously wait for the three of us and our ever important car keys to arrive at the Lower Bridge trailhead.

Some of that Metolius color

Anyway, the Three Amigos (me, Cleve, and Lane) sallied forth on a trail that was only marginally tainted by our impatient friends hiking on the trail ahead of us. Here, the river was several miles downstream from its birth spring below Black Butte. The water was still amazingly clear and the aquamarine color of the flowing current was just striking, be it running in sun or shade. In places, I estimate the river was close to 20 feet deep yet the water was clear enough you could see clearly see submerged rocks and pebbles on the bottom.

A series of spectacular springs tumble into the river

On the other side of the river, a series of springs gushed forth in multiple founts from the forested slopes and we stopped to collectively ooh, ahh, and take lots of photos thereof. The white water tumbling through perpetual beds of moss and ferns was quite picturesque. On our maps, the springs were unnamed but Allen Springs Campground was nearby, so maybe we were looking at Allen Springs.

Had to walk uphill thanks to an unstable tree

The trail undulated gently above the river, alternating between sun and shade, and the various sun or shade-loving plants were generally abloom. Fireweed, aster, henbit, and pearly everlasting were the usual late-summer suspects, while Oregon grape offered ripe (but not particularly palatable) "grapes" to the increasingly warm sun. A trail detour served up the only challenging exercise of note when we had to hike straight up a steep slope to get around what the sign said was an "unstable tree". Although, truth be told, the tree behaved quite normally while we were there.

Wizard Falls left us spellbound

Wizard Falls Fish Hatchery marked the halfway point of the hike, and the shady parklike grounds also made for a convenient place to snack and temporarily loll and laze. Seen and admired from a roadway bridge, Wizard Falls plunged all of six inches over a rocky V-shaped cleft in the river. While Wizard Falls will never be mistaken for Niagara Falls, the bubbly blue waters of the falls churning in the cleft is an amazing sight and well worth the hike to get there. Here, our route crossed the Metolius to resume the journey on the other side of the river.

Cleve never met a Ponderosa pine he didn't like

Now that we were hiking on the east side of the river, the sun began to bake our collective noodles a bit more. The vegetation had morphed to an east-side Cascades high desert vibe with the trees in the forest tending more toward orange-trunked Ponderosa pines. Fire has been a frequent visitor here in recent years, and we could see burned forest and dead snags on massive Green Ridge as we hiked. The river was running wider than before (like me!) but still proffered plenty of deep pools that must make for some delightful swimming holes, Although, we never did see any swimmers which tells me the water was too cold or the current too strong.

Trail braid near a campground

The trail gets a lot of use from nearby campgrounds and had a tendency to braid and rebraid into ill-defined routes, irritating serious hikers intent on moving on down the river. At one juncture, the trail made a lengthy inland detour away from the river so as to skirt around some private property. Lane and Cleve were somewhere ahead of me and I negotiated a series of intersections all by myself while being totally unsure if I was going the right way or if Lane and Cleve had gone the right way. However, I soon stumbled upon them waiting for me on a log, entertaining the same unconfident thoughts as I. 

About to have a Friends of the Umpqua reunion on Lower Bridge

Soon, Lower Bridge came into view, crossing the river near the like-named Lower Bridge Campground and we could see our bored comrades waiting for us on the bridge. But we all got onto the same itineraries and timelines again when we piled into our vehicles to complete the shuttle arrangement. We all pretty much agreed this had been a nice hike along a spectacular river that none of us had ever been to before.

A nicely shaded trail on an ever warming day

For more photos of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.

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