I don’t remember why. Exploring my new territory, I had weekdays off and empty trails all around; I could have had any of the crown jewels to myself. Possibly I was being contrary on purpose – I’ll find my own favorites, thank you very much. A youthful contempt for tourism, maybe, or a romanticized longing to explore. Or it might have been mere coincidence that kept me away.
In any case, I stayed mostly clear, for years, of Mt. Hood’s popular south side. Only this year — a long hot summer, uncomfortably high and dry between two warm winters — have I discovered an interest. Perhaps it’s because there is only one advantage to such a distressing lack of snow as we have now. If this drought feels wrong, wasting the extended summer hiking season would be insult added to injury.
It’s turned out to be quite the consolation prize. I cannot bless the lack of precipitation, but I do return joyfully, weekend after weekend, to my new treasure-hunting grounds. I’ve found: secret river canyons in the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness; postcard alpine lakes; dusty, flower-strewn trails high up on the mountain himself, open only a few months out of the year.
I thought, after all this time, I should finally find Ramona Falls. It’s a true classic — a much-praised local beauty. The pictures show it wide and lacey, tucked against the mountain’s forested flank at the end of a pretty path along the Sandy River. The trailhead’s not easy to get to, but that’s never stopped Pacific Northwest hikers. I found it with only one wrong turn.
Speaking of which, let me take a moment to urge you to turn off Hwy 26, next time you’re passing through on your way toward Mt. Hood. You don’t have to go far: that endless corridor of shouldering firs is just the hallway, and a turn leads immediately to fascinatingly different rooms. Near Zigzag, turn right for lush, mossy rainforest. The Salmon River Canyon is a prime example, just a few miles off the road. To the left, the forest struggles in vain – blame the sandy, nutrient-poor soil – to attain the height and density of its cousin just over the highway.
Ramona Falls is left. On a dry day, the trail puffs up dust as you walk – fine sandy dust that turns your black boots khaki in ten minutes. Off the trail, the forest is open, floored in fragrant Doug fir duff and yellow-green moss. It’s a pleasant hike, in and out of sight of the Sandy River. The water’s low now, of course; fierce and tiny and milky with silt, rushing down a canyon clearly carved by larger flows with violence on their minds. The banks are concave bluffs, with black tree roots sticking out of their crumbled faces. They beckon, but try not to answer. Though it’s only fifteen feet down, nobody needs to discover that accidentally.
Less than a mile on, you cross this same river. There’s a break in the precipitous banks, nicely graded, down you go. At this point, it’s usual in such cases to have a bridge. This is, after all, a popular trail, and supposedly suited to anyone of a reasonable fitness level. I’m looking left and right, though, climbing the bank and poking around upstream, and still no bridge.
The water is only knee-deep, and not very wide. It’s quick, though, and there is no obviously good ford. I like to think of myself as a semi-adventurous hiker; as soon as I remember that, I decide to cross.
I’m picking my route when, up on the mountain, thunder growls. A moment later: a single fine curtain of rain. (It doesn’t last, and there’s no effect on the dust.) I have been here before: about to ford a mountain stream ahead of a storm. I did it anyway, then, and everything was fine. But that doesn’t make the decision intelligent.
Today, I retreat. One of the many excellent things about aging is the clarification of your priorities. Mine involve being home at night in my comfortable bed, not wandering chilled in the wilderness with my return route blocked by a suddenly raging river.
I don’t have a map, and I’ve had a pleasant walk, so I leave Ramona Falls for another day and head back to my car. At the trailhead, I spot a sign I missed on the way in. I learn from it that the (former) bridge tends to wash out in winter – and apparently they’ve stopped replacing it in summer. I learn too that a hiker has died here, doing exactly what I chose not to do today.
Sometimes you make a good choice, and you’re happy with it, but you change your mind later and make another good choice instead.
The day I didn’t hike to Ramona Falls, I’d been back in the car for the space of two potholes and a small bridge when I understood it would be untenable to go home without a walk. This should have a simple solution: I know many of you would drive to the next known trailhead, or turn at the nearest brown sign and go exploring. But I’m a different creature – the kind with a semi-legendary distrust of spontaneity. Unplanned exploration is rarely in my cards.
Cascade Streamwatch is tailor-made for this sort of quandary. Even if you’ve never been there, it’s the kind of place that feels easy, familiar – and anyway there are maps and interpretive signs everywhere, so you can hardly get lost. It’s the sort of destination you take out-of-town family so they can experience your forested homeland. There are big trees, paved flat paths, a classic Northwest river, and they’ve carved out the side of a stream and walled it with glass, so you can commune with the fish and frogs on their own level.
There’s also a parking lot the size of all 5 floors of Powell’s, so go on a weekday or get up early if you possibly can. Pulling into that desert of empty asphalt in mid-forest is a little creepy, but clean flush toilets are a fine compensation. Development has its good sides.
The first time I visit any site with interpretive signs, it’s almost a compulsion to follow their path. Cascade Streamwatch has a generally interesting, slightly dated interpretive trail: you’ll learn plenty about forest and stream ecology, and the tone is friendly and laid-back.
Or you can skip all that and wander with your face turned up to the sweet-scented trees – flat paths, tarred and smooth, mean you don’t have to keep the usual sharp eye on your footing. The Salmon River runs clear and wild through here; in summer, there’s a wide rocky streambed you can boulder up and down, feeling quite remote.
Instead of Ramona Falls that day, I found two gray-green rocks in the middle of the Salmon, and I crouched there a long time, water conversing all around me. An American Dipper a few yards away bobbed her curious dance: rock-hopping athletically, then stopping to bounce gracefully in place. I’m sure she saw me, but she had the good sense not to acknowledge my awful imitation.
I had wanted something new to explore. But once decided on the cautious course, I found my reward in the utterly familiar. Cascade Streamwatch is a place I’ve wandered at least a dozen times. It’s physically unchallenging, which leaves plenty of room for the spirit. It distills a quiet and personal experience of nature I’ve loved all my life: a sense of ease and fulfillment, which to me looks like clear summer streams and bobbing dippers and overhanging conifers.
I learned young to feel a sense of belonging in the rainforests of the northwest, and I moved toward home as soon as the choice was mine. Now, I often crave open forest, grassland, or big sky, and I seek those when I need to.
But sometimes I point my compass in a new direction, and it swings back on its own, True North. I’m always happy to come home.
The Ramona Falls trailhead is a few miles off Highway 26. Turn at E. Lolo Pass Road in Zigzag, Oregon. You’ll need a Northwest Forest Pass, which you should probably buy online, but procrastinators can get one at the Zigzag Mountain Cafe, corner of E. Lolo Pass and the highway. The bridge, you may have noticed, is out, but you can safely ford the river if you feel up to it. It helps to hang on to your hiking companion.
Cascade Streamwatch, more fully called Cascade Streamwatch at Wildwood Recreation Site, is slightly south on Highway 26, near Mt. Hood Village. There is a small fee for parking ($5 as of last week,) and the handy machines will take your debit card. Your Northwest Forest Pass is no good here. ADA accessible trails make this a great stop for everyone who loves the outdoors.