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.
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.
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.
This bridge was only three tenths of a mile from the trailhead so it didn’t take long for us to discover it missing.
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.
Anemones and bunch berries were blooming near the trailhead.
This time we noticed the caution posted on the trailhead signpost.
The trail quickly entered the Three Sisters Wilderness.
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.
We saw a lot of this type of mushroom.
East 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.
There were a number of woodland flowers in bloom and lots of slugs to watch out for.
Vanilla leaf, valerian, and a slug.
We 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.
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.
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.
The 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.
Start 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.
A penstemon starting to bloom
A line of paintbrush
There were a number of other flowers blooming along the trail.
Pinesap (I think)
Nightblooming false bindweed
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.
Subalpine mariposa lily
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.
Royal Jacob’s ladder
Something in the pea family.
Junco amid the flowers.
Bear scat in the meadow.
The trail left the meadow then quickly arrived at a saddle and the Olallie Trail.
Other flowers bloomed near the junction.
Bleeding heart and tall bluebells.
The 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