Henry Hagg Lake: A Wine Country “Wilderness”

Also pretty in winter

I used to work a long way from my Portland home, out in the heart of Willamette Valley wine country. Every day I drove through gorgeous farmland: green waving fields, hazelnut orchards with their blur of fuzzy leaves above and anomalous scrubbed-clean ground below, vineyards marching in lines up the hills. In between cultivated lands, small forests and wild hills remained. There was one such forest on the border of my daily destination, and walking around the vineyard in the early morning, I routinely saw coyotes, deer, and even a small, intense bobcat.

So I went on a quest to find the local hiking trails. It was a short quest: there aren’t many. Rural Washington and Yamhill counties are sadly trail poor. Fortunately, the paths that do exist are wonderful, you can find two of them at Henry Hagg Lake. One is a gorgeous little woodland path, and the other is a pleasant rural road.

the most delicious weedA road? Yes. It’s a nice road, with thick forests and frequent lake views, a grade that’s never too steep, very light traffic on the weekdays, and a shoulder just about wide enough for you and a friend. The well-tamed brush beside this convenient walkway is full of the northwest’s tastiest and most ubiquitous weed, the Himalayan Blackberry. July or August is peak time for unparalleled roadside snacking.

The excellent maintenance you can expect on this road results from its frequent use by logging trucks. Depending on the timing of your visit, you may find the narrow, winding, rather longer foot trail a more peaceful hike.

***

Today’s visit falls many months into a drought year, a low-water summer with the lake down at least 20 feet. Normally, wavelets ripple right to the edge of the forest, but today the exposed shallows curve above the surface – desert-golden hills framed by royal blue water and a perfectly clear sky. It’s a beautiful effect, in spite of its ominous cause. I’ve arrived about 7 in the morning, already impatient for the cool shade of the hidden path that hugs the lakeshore.

hagg lake

Today it turns out to be shady enough, but the effect, unusually, is neither cooling nor pleasant. Too much sun has burned the tender leaves of fern and inside-out flower, and the yellow-brown survivors huddle beneath the overhanging dougs. Trail maintenance is due – shaggy yellowed hazelnut leaves regularly invade my personal space.

Speaking of which: a hot summer always seems to bring more spiders. After twenty minutes of politely removing both webs and their occupants from the path, trying not to shudder at the clinging silk on my arms, legs, and hat, I take the next opportunity to climb back up to the road. My patience with spiders is short at the best of times, and now frustration prevails over kindness: the previous inhabitants of this spur trail do not see my most temperate side.

The road fixes these hot-summer problems, at least from a hiker’s point of view (and a spider’s.) The lake scenery is not as intimate or as constant as that enjoyed from the trail, but it’s also rather more panoramic. And when not immediately in them, the sun-seared woods still appear watered.

***

Henry Hagg Lake is not a ‘real’ lake; it’s a reservoir. It’s not very old: Washington County and the US Bureau of Reclamation dammed Scoggins Creek in 1974 to ensure a local water supply. Since then, it’s become popular for water recreation and – relevant to our interests – the 13 shockingly wild miles of trail that twist closely around every offshoot of every arm of the lake. In any season but a hot dry summer, this trail is a hidden gem.

Even though it’s never far away from civilization, the trail feels secretive, full of little wild surprises. You cross tiny streambeds choked with half a dozen species of ferns. You round a corner to an allée of alders that looks like part of an abandoned road or formal garden. You emerge with disarming abruptness onto a grassy hillside remnant of the oak savanna that’s rare here now, but used to cover much of the Willamette Valley. Spring, winter, or any early morning, you meet other hikers or bikers infrequently, and then it’s a quick nod or a word before you lose them immediately around a bend.

Hagg Lake April 2013 052

Wood violets grow in profusion here; come in April to catch their soft yellow smiles in the shade. There are trilliums around the same time; that white star of the springtime woods. I’ve seen fishing osprey, one skittish coyote, a couple of sunning garter snakes, and many black-tailed deer. A doe with her two fawns crossed the path just ahead of me, pretending nonchalance, but I watched her shepherd them to safety and then stay to make sure I left the scene.

In winter it’s a mudfest, but you’re hiking in the Pacific Northwest; you know all about mud. Pick the road route if the trail’s too slippery, or give up and enjoy the wallow. Mud can be a real memory-maker. One Easter Sunday, I slipped in a gargantuan patch of muck and grabbed the nearest foliage for purchase. I splattered full-length anyway, and then I spent the next few minutes picking berry thorns out of my palm. Just as I’d started to move again, a pair of mountain bikers ripped around the corner and wobbled their way through the same patch. They couldn’t stop without falling, and I couldn’t get out of the splash zone. There was mud in my ears when I got home.

***

Of course, my wild little trail isn’t truly wild at all. In several places it briefly parallels or even touches the road. There are two nice developed picnic areas right along the path. You climb out of a primeval swamp and into a parking area, just like that. On a Saturday at noon, someone is digging out their fishing gear from the trunk, shouting to their companion to go get a life jacket, and someone else is letting their dog run around greeting strangers. A family of 6 is having a boisterous picnic in the very spot you’d hoped for a quiet rest.

Make a note to get up early next time, and thank the county for making such an effort to satisfy all recreationists. They could have made it picnic shelters all the way down, but instead you have a nice trail (mostly) to yourself.

If you’ve gone the road route, you’ll still encounter relatively few humans; it’s country walking most of the way. Hagg Lake is absolutely not wilderness, but it is rural, and and it feels remote. Good luck getting a mobile signal out here.

You’re on the margins as you loop around the lake, one long arm at a time, but you’re not far from services, and you’re nearly as close to a nice glass of wine. Willamette Valley wine country stretches up into Forest Grove, the nearest major town. A mid-day visit to Patton Valley Vineyards (practically on the way) or David Hill Winery (a little bit out of it) makes a wonderful way to re-enter society after a long and lonely hike. Traveling with non-hikers? Have them drop you at a trailhead for a few hours. There are plenty of area wineries – plus Oregon’s only sake brewery – to keep them busy while you enjoy some semi-wilderness solitude.

Henry Hagg Lake is located off Hwy 47 on Scoggins Valley Road, just south of Forest Grove. There is a small fee, payable with cash or card at the only entrance. No other pass is good here. You can park at any designated area and pick up the trail or the road with a minimum of route-finding. Trail mileage is about 13; on the road it’s 10.5. There are portable toilets at most picnic and parking spots. The nearest services are in Gaston or Forest Grove.

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2 thoughts on “Henry Hagg Lake: A Wine Country “Wilderness”

  1. :-). Have wished to go here ever since you showed me a picture of a hike around the lake years ago. Your comment on encountering oak savanna reminded me of the oak savanna park we visited and hiked in the vicinity of Wilsonville. The Easter Sunday intimate encounter with mud had me laughing, and envisioning my daughter face down in muck :-). Thanks for enabling me to share this lovely area with you once again.

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    1. It was a heck of a way to celebrate Easter! :)

      I’m thinking about that oak savanna park you’re talking about – Graham Oaks? Haven’t been there in awhile. I’m due for a visit. I’ll bet the trees have grown up a ton!

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