Monday, August 10, 2020

Diamond Creek Falls

Diamond Creek Falls
4 miles loop, 550 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate, some narrow and steep stretches
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

This hike visits two waterfalls in the Oregon Cascades, starting at the second highest waterfall in the state and then leading to one of its most beautiful cascades. Diamond Creek Falls is a gem of a waterfall that tumbles down a mossy wall in a lush forest setting near the headwaters of the Willamette River, in many ways the epitome of waterfall scenery in the Northwest. This fairly easy hike accesses Diamond Creek Falls after first stopping by the roadside Salt Creek Falls. This is a popular area as it lies just off a highway crossing a major Cascade pass. The hike also passes by a small lake and has blooming rhododendrons in early summer.

I hiked Diamond Creek Falls during a July drive from Seattle down to California. The falls are about an hour outside Eugene, Oregon; from the Eugene area, I took Highway 58 east along the Willamette River Valley until coming to the turnoff for Salt Creek Falls, which was at the top of a particularly steep road ascent. Turning right here, I followed the spur road for Salt Creek Falls to a parking lot. There are two stretches of parking in a roundabout here: the first is for the Salt Creek Falls overlook, while the second, fifty yards down, is for the Diamond Creek Falls Trail. I started out heading towards the Salt Creek Falls Overlook and returned via the Diamond Creek Falls Trail.

I started this hike by visiting Salt Creek Falls, which can also be done as a separate standalone stop or brief hike if you don't have time to hike to Diamond Creek Falls. Leaving the parking lot on a paved trail, I immediately came to the rim of Salt Creek Canyon. Here, Salt Creek Falls plunged 286 feet into a canyon with columnar basalt walls, falling in a single drop to a deep pool surrounded fluorescent, mossy slopes. This is where most of the other visitors congregated, photographing the falls from above before returning to their cars.

Salt Creek Falls
The paved walkway continued to the right, so I continued following it for the first part of this hike, which visits a lower viewpoint of the falls. The pavement ended and soon I was on a good dirt trail, descending into a forest with blooming rhododendrons in the understory. The trail approached Highway 58, dropping through some short switchbacks into a pretty gully along a stream and then making a much larger switchback through the forest as it descended the walls of Salt Creek Canyon to a viewpoint of the falls that was still probably 80 feet or so above the pool below. This viewpoint was 0.4 miles and 200 feet of descent from the trailhead. The trail at the very end was heavily eroded and it was clear that some people scramble all the way down to the very foot of the falls, but I chose to play it safe and stayed at the end of the formal trail, where there were already good views of the high waterfall. As with other waterfalls in the Cascade, flow here is highest in spring and early summer, decreasing once most of the snow is melted.

Salt Creek Falls
The walls of the canyon above the viewpoint were a beautiful display of columnar basalt. Columnar basalt is particularly amenable to waterfall formation, as the rock typically erodes with the collapse of entire vertical basalt joints. The basalt here was laid down by eruptions from nearby Cascade volcanoes.

Columnar basalt at Salt Creek Falls
After enjoying the view of Salt Creek Falls, I returned uphill to the main overlook. The hike just described can be done as a standalone 0.8-mile round trip hike, or if you just want to see Diamond Creek Falls, you can skip it to cut that distance and 200 feet of elevation gain off the Diamond Creek Falls hike.

Back at the overlook, I followed the paved walkway to the top of Salt Creek Falls and then continued following it through a picnic area along the shoreline of Salt Creek above the falls. Soon, I arrived at the junction with the trail to Diamond Creek Falls and Vivian Lake. This trail headed off to the right, crossing Salt Creek on an exceptionally well-built footbridge.

Bridge over Salt Creek
Crossing the bridge, I soon came to a trail junction: the trail to the right was signed for Diamond Creek Falls, while the one to the left headed towards Vivian Lake. While I would head down the right fork first, the loop hike would bring me back along the other trail.

The trail brought me through the forest along the other bank of Salt Creek, soon bringing me to the rim of Salt Creek Canyon again opposite the tourist overlook. There was no view of the falls here, although the canyon views were okay. Too Much Bear Lake lay in the trees to the left of the trail; a spur trail provided access to the shores of the small, forested lake.

Too Much Bear Lake
Continuing onward, there were a few more views down Salt Creek Canyon, one that provided a glimpse of impressive basalt cliffs farther downriver.

Salt Creek Canyon
The trail continued winding through the forest, following blue diamonds that mark the route for cross-country skiers in winter. The forest was quite nice here, with large trees that seemed like they could be old growth and plentiful blooming rhododendrons. Dwarf dogwood bloomed on the forest floor as well.

Trail through the forest
Blooming rhododendrons
Blooming dwarf dogwood
The trail descended a bit as it crossed the forest after Too Much Bear Lake, never staying too far from the rim of Salt Creek Canyon. Once the trail approached Diamond Creek, it began to ascend again as it followed creek upstream. At 1.4 miles from the Salt Creek footbridge, I came to the junction with the spur trail leading down to Diamond Creek Falls. While the sign here indicates that it goes to Lower Diamond Creek Falls, the trail actually visits Upper Diamond Creek Falls; this is not a terribly important point, as the Lower Diamond Creek Falls are not actually accessible by trail.

The spur trail presented the most challenging terrain of the hike, although its minor obstacles will not be a problem for most hikers. The trail descended into the ravine of Diamond Creek via a staircase carved into a log, which could be slippery when wet. Just a little further, there was a brief, narrow path across a rock slope before the trail dropped down to the level of the creek. There is a long, single-log bridge to cross the creek, which had fairly substantial flow.

Log staircase on the spur trail to Upper Diamond Creek Falls
After crossing Diamond Creek, the trail crossed some muddy and rocky portions to arrive at the base of Upper Diamond Creek Falls. This is an incredibly scenic waterfall, where Diamond Creek fans out while cascading down a rock wall. Mossy boulders and lush forest surrounded the falls: this is the quintessential Pacific Northwest waterfall.

Diamond Creek Falls
As I hiked on a weekday, I only saw one other group of hikers at the falls themselves; however, the hike's proximity to Eugene and Bend means it's probably much more popular on weekends. There's not too much room to spread out at the base of the falls, so you might want to come early, late, or on a weekday.

Returning to the main trail, I turned right and continued uphill along the loop. A hundred meters along the main trail, I came to an upper viewpoint of Diamond Creek Falls. While this view isn't quite as lovely as the one at the base of the falls, it can serve as a good consolation view for any hikers who decide to turn back on the spur before reaching the base of the falls.

Diamond Creek Falls from the upper viewpoint
Another hundred yards past the upper viewpoint of the falls, I came to an unmarked trail junction with the trail to Vivian Lake. I turned left here to return to the trailhead. This trail immediately crossed a gravel forest road and made a brief ascent up a hill before flattening out as it traveled through the forest. The trail crossed the gravel forest road again while descending and after following it for just over a mile I returned to the junction with the Diamond Creek Falls Trail. Crossing back over the Salt Creek footbridge, I turned right when I intersected the paved path and followed it a few steps back to the parking area.

This is a very enjoyable hike, but because it's so easily accessible you'll find company here if you come on a summer weekend, especially if you stick around Salt Creek Falls. It's a good stop if you're driving over Willamette Pass or a good side trip from Eugene or Bend.

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