Sunday, May 31, 2020

Wallace Falls

Middle Wallace Falls
5.5 miles round trip, 1450 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Washington State Parks Discover Pass required

Wallace Falls is a good hike during the rainy, gloomy times of year around Seattle; the three tiers of the waterfall are all quite beautiful and are accessed by a hike through lush Pacific Northwest forest. This is a popular hike due to its proximity to the Seattle metro area and may become very crowded in nicer weather, so I'd urge you to come when the weather is drearier and the fairweather hikers are home. Winter and spring also mean heavier flow rate which make for more impressive cascades at Wallace Falls.

I've done this hike a number of times, often choosing it as a gentle workout when the days are short and the weather is a little rainy or if there's heavy snow on trails at higher elevations. Wallace Falls State Park is a short drive from Seattle, Bellevue, or Everett, as it's just at the very edge of the Snohomish County suburbs on US Route 2. From Seattle, I usually reach Wallace Falls by following Highway 522 (Lake City Way/Bothell Way) northeast to Monroe and then taking US Route 2 east to Gold Bar. At Gold Bar, I turn left onto 1st Street, which has a sign indicating that it's the turn for Wallace Falls State Park. I then follow 1st Street three block across a bridge and make a right turn at May Creek Road, which is also signed for Wallace Falls State Park. At a fork in the road, I take the left fork, which again is indicated by a state parks sign; when the yellow dividing lines end, I take the left fork which leads uphill to a large parking lot for the state park. A Discover Pass is required to park here.

From the parking lot, a wide gravel road heads east through a power line clearing to start the hike. On nice days, Mount Index is visible amidst the power lines. After a third of a mile, the trail made a wide turn to the left and entered the forest. Here, the Woody Trail- the park's most highly trafficked trail- broke off to the right from the wider gravel trail. I took the Woody Trail, which quickly led to the banks of the Wallace River. This trail lived up to its name, threading through beautifully lush Pacific Northwest rainforest; although much of the forest here is second-growth, the trees are are still enchanting when coated with ferns and moss.

Wallace River
Shortly after starting the Woody Trail, I arrived at a spur trail to Small Falls. This is a short detour, but it's not particularly worthwhile; Small Falls is indeed the correct name here and this waterfall is far less impressive than the three major waterfalls on the Wallace River for which the park is named.

Continuing on, the trail followed the Wallace River for a stretch before making a short ascent and staying higher above the river. A half mile into the Woody Trail, I passed an intersection for a connector trail that led to the Railroad Grade, a wider gravel path paralleling the Woody Trail; I stayed on the Woody Trail, which was always within sight of the river and was substantially more scenic.

Another half mile of hiking and some uphill followed by downhill brought me to the bridge crossing over the North Fork Wallace River and the intersection with the Greg Ball Trail, which follows the North Fork Wallace River upstream all the way to Wallace Lake, a pretty destination on its own. The confluence of the North Fork and the main trunk of the Wallace River was just downstream of the bridge. This was such a relaxing sight: two rushing mountain streams flowing together in a verdant, moody rainforest.

Wallace River at the bridge
After crossing the bridge, the trail began to climb, packing about 800 feet of elevation gain into the last mile of the hike. An initial short ascent followed by a gentler stretch brought me to the first of three major waterfalls on the Wallace River. Lower Wallace Falls is the smallest of the three drops but is still very pretty, with the river cascading over rocky terrain before plunging in a final drop down to a pretty pool. The lower falls are somewhat lengthy and I had to descend slightly from the main trail to see the entirety of this waterfall.

Lower Wallace Falls
Leaving the lower falls, the trail was gentle for a short stretch before resuming its climb, embarking on a switchback ascent. The end of one of these switchbacks provided the park's most magnificent view: Middle Wallace Falls leaping down a ciff into a rocky but forested gorge. The main drop of Middle Wallace Falls is about 260 feet (the combined falls of the Wallace River drop about 900 feet), which is the tallest of all the drops in the park and one of the prettier waterfalls in Washington State. Wallace Falls has a bit of a horsetail shape and is best in higher flow, meaning that the scenery here is usually prettier on drearier winter days than it is on hot, dry, and sunny summer days. Winter is also a beautiful time to visit; variable weather conditions create beautifully icy scenery in the gorge below the falls.

Middle Wallace Falls
Ice at the Middle Falls
The switchbacks tackling the ascent over Middle Wallace Falls are the hike's most intense climb, though even here the uphill is quite reasonable. Switchbacks through open second-growth forest eventually led to the top of the falls. A viewpoint allows you to see the Wallace River start its plunge down the Middle Falls; there are also supposed to be nice views out into the Skykomish River Valley and Gold Bar, but as I usually come on overcast days I've only seen clouds from here.

The trail leveled out a bit after passing the top of the Middle Falls but soon yet another uphill climb started, ending as I arrived at the top of the hike. Here, at Upper Wallace Falls, the Wallace River makes two drops totaling about 100 feet separated by a pretty pool in a rocky gorge. When I came in winter, freezing temperatures had turned the falls' mist into thin ice formations coating the rock of the gorge. While the trail continued uphill from here and connects to Wallace Lake, I turned around at the upper falls and retraced my steps on the Woody Trail.

Upper Wallace Falls
Icy Upper Falls
More experienced hikers who have written off Wallace Falls due to this park's popularity should revisit when the weather is suboptimal to enjoy the park's most beautiful time with minimal crowds. Less experienced hikers convinced they can only have a good time outdoors when it is sunny and hot should visit Wallace Falls in the rainy season to learn otherwise. Yes, Wallace Falls is popular, but it's really quite pretty if you can come when water flow isn't low and crowds aren't too thick.

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