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Hiking McKenzie River Old Cascades Oregon Trip report

East Fork and Saddle Trails – 6/6/2020

There haven’t been many times in our 10 years of hiking that we haven’t been able to do the hike (or at least the vast majority of it) that we set out to do that day. Many of the failed attempts came early in our hiking years when we didn’t do as much research on current conditions as we do now, but even with the extra research sometimes things just don’t work out. Our attempt to hike the nearly 6 mile long East Fork Trail in the Willamette National Forest happened to be one of these times.

We had switched to this hike earlier in the week due to a rainy weekend forecast. Our plan was for an out-and-back hike starting at the East Fork Lower Trailhead and turning around at the East Fork Upper Trailhead.
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The large parking area (with restrooms) for the lower trailhead is located at the NE end of Cougar Reservoir where the East Fork South Fork McKenzie River flows into it.
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We set off on the East Fork Trail without looking closely at the signboard where it was clearly posted that the first of two footbridge leading across the river was out.
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This bridge was only three tenths of a mile from the trailhead so it didn’t take long for us to discover it missing.
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Fording the river was an option, it looked like it would have been an easier ford than the Indian Creek ford we had done on our first day backpacking the Middle Fork Willamette River (post). With that being said neither of us were keen on soaking our feet this early in the hike and knowing that the plan had been to go to the upper trailhead and back we simply decided to go back to the car, drive up to the upper trailhead, and hike down from there to the other side of the river and back which would allow us to cover the whole trail sans the missing bridge.

We were familiar with the upper trailhead having parked there in 2018 when we hiked to Horsepasture Mountain using the Saddle Trail (post). While the Saddle Trail headed uphill on the north side of FR 1993 near a small pullout, the East Fork Trail headed downhill on the south side.
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Anemones and bunch berries were blooming near the trailhead.
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This time we noticed the caution posted on the trailhead signpost.
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The trail quickly entered the Three Sisters Wilderness.
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For first .6 miles from the trailhead the East Fork Trail made its way downhill through a green forest before reaching the East Fork South Fork McKenzie River.
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IMG_5132Vanilla leaf

IMG_5138False solomonseal

IMG_5142Star-flowered solomonseal

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IMG_5149Junco

IMG_5151Trillium

IMG_5154We saw a lot of this type of mushroom.

IMG_5159Fairybells

IMG_5165East Fork South Fork McKenzie River

Once we arrived at the river the trail turned west following it downhill toward the reservoir. As is the case for most river trails we were sometimes a ways above it and at other times right along it.
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There were a number of woodland flowers in bloom and lots of slugs to watch out for.
IMG_5169Vanilla leaf, valerian, and a slug.

IMG_5174Oregon grape

IMG_5178Salmonberry

IMG_5211Baneberry

IMG_5217Violets

IMG_5234Sour grass

IMG_5271Queen’s cup

IMG_5222Fern unfolding

IMG_5226Mushrooms

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IMG_5261Maidenhair ferns

IMG_5209We also watched out for the nasty Devil’s Club and its thorns.

The trail didn’t appear to see much use and was increasingly overgrown and also suffered from a fair amount of blowdown.
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We made it approximately 3 miles before the blowdown got us. A large tree was down across the trail as it traversed along a hillside above the river. The tree was far to big to simply step over and there were no limbs or other footholds to assist in getting over. To make matters worse the trail on the opposite side of the tree was washing out a bit. That made it look like it might be difficult to get safely off of the tree if we were able to get over it without sliding down the trunk (they can be surprisingly slippery). We could also see other trees down just a little further up the trail.
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Our options were to scramble up and around the root ball that was a good 30 to 40 yards uphill or turn back. The fact that the trail had been getting more and more “wild” didn’t give us any confidence that the going would get any easier, especially considering that if we made it to the upper footbridge the forest on the south side of the river burned in a low intensity fire in 2018. We decided that the smart thing to do was to turn back here so we did.

On the way back we had a bit of excitement when we heard a ruckus off to our left. When we looked over we saw something brown charging down at us through the brush. It stopped several feet away for us which allowed us to identify it as a grouse. She was all ruffled up and yelling at us. We could hear other grouse still uphill so we guessed this was a mother protecting her young. After getting our attention she flew onto the trail then ran ahead in an attempt to lead us away from what we assumed were her young.
IMG_5272The grouse is the blurry brown thing ahead and to the left of the trail.

She led us for a quite a bit before she was apparently comfortable with the distance and she disappeared into the forest. As we continued we discussed our options for the rest of the day. We decided that as long as the weather held out that we would set a turnaround time and hike up the Saddle Trail a bit since it was right there where we’d parked.
IMG_5279Start of the Saddle Trail at FR 1993

We gave ourselves an hour as we began climbing this steep trail (1400′ elevatin gain over 2 miles). We were excited when we spotted some blooming beargrass and paintbrush.
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IMG_5295A penstemon starting to bloom

IMG_5296A line of paintbrush

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There were a number of other flowers blooming along the trail.
IMG_5311Rhododendron

IMG_5309Rhododendron

20200606_114636Pacific coralroot

IMG_5313Northern phlox

IMG_5315Pinesap (I think)

IMG_5325Oregon grape

IMG_5327Strawberry

IMG_5329Yellowleaf iris

IMG_5333Sticky cinquefoil

IMG_5338Spotted coralroot

IMG_5449Nightblooming false bindweed

IMG_5453Largeleaf sandwort

We had made it about 1.5 miles up the trail when our hour was almost up. We were at a switchback which the trail launched steeply up from and Heather decided she was going to call it there. I decided that we were close enough to the end of the trail that I wanted to continue up to the junction with the Olallie Trail so Heather started back down while I continued uphill. Two tenths of a mile where we parted ways I came to a rocky viewpoint off a switchback. The view was not nearly as clear as it had been on our July 2018 visit, but there were flowers present this time that had not been then.
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IMG_5351Subalpine mariposa lily

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IMG_5357Phlox

IMG_5360Rosy pussytoes

I almost called it at the viewpoint but then remembered that there was a meadow just before the end of the Saddle Trail so I continued uphill hoping that there would be a decent wildflower display. I was not disappointed as there were quite a few flowers in bloom including large swaths of blue-eyed mary.
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IMG_5376Larkspur

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IMG_5385Biscuitroot

IMG_5387Blue-eyed Mary

IMG_5391Woodland star

IMG_5397Serviceberry

IMG_5406Monkeyflower

IMG_5439Royal Jacob’s ladder

IMG_5433Something in the pea family.

IMG_5437Alpine pennycress

IMG_5445Junco amid the flowers.

IMG_5435Bear scat in the meadow.

The trail left the meadow then quickly arrived at a saddle and the Olallie Trail.
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Other flowers bloomed near the junction.
IMG_5430Tall bluebells

IMG_5424Trillium

IMG_5431Wild ginger

IMG_5418Bleeding heart and tall bluebells.

IMG_5420The Olallie Trail

After tagging the junction I headed back down. About halfway down I ran into Heather heading back up, she had been going up and down between switchbacks in an attempt to stay warm as the rainy weather that had been forecast had finally arrived along with a chilling breeze. Even though the day hadn’t gone a planned we managed to get in a little over 11 miles of hiking and enjoyed some nice sights and surprisingly pleasant weather (for the most part). As an added bonus we saw exactly zero other people on the trails which has become a rare occurrence. Happy Trails!

Flickr: East Fork and Saddle Trails