Friday, October 4, 2019

History Along Highway 20: Waterloo, Sodaville, and Cascadia

Sodaville Store
In its day, the Santiam Wagon Road connected the towns of Lebanon and Sisters, enabling settlers to pass through the Cascades between the fertile Willamette Valley and the wide grazing lands of central Oregon. From 1865 until the opening of Highway 20 in 1939, this road encouraged development and commerce along its length. Much of the old passage is still accessible today, and some of the towns it fostered remain. Others persist as traces of their former selves, quiet and faded, their history nearly forgotten. Sodaville, Waterloo, and Cascadia are among these villages, built on hopes and dreams of employing Oregon's plentiful water to attract business and build a future. Their days of prosperity long gone, these stops along Highway 20 still hold echoes of those days of Oregon's birth. Next time you're heading out of Corvallis, take a few short detours and find some of Oregon's history along the way.

Driving east from Lebanon, the present-day highway runs close to the original wagon road. After about four miles, turn left onto Sodaville-Waterloo Road and drive about a mile to the tiny town of Waterloo. Originally known as Kees Mill, the town's name was jokingly changed following a heated land dispute. At one time several mills were located near these lovely falls on the South Santiam River, and the town boasted shops and stores as well as a hotel and livery stable. Today this spot in the road offers a sprawling, 128-acre county park on the river banks. Here you will find expansive picnic areas spread out under tall old trees, picnic shelters, a children's play area, and a year-round campground. Swimming and fishing in the river are popular pastimes, and boat ramps offer easy launching. You will also find a fenced dog park, a hiking loop, and a challenging disc golf course. Look near the park entrance to find the falls that originally attracted businesses to this beautiful area. While little remains of Waterloo's bustling past, its spacious park and campground are definitely worth a detour; in fact, you might consider spending a whole weekend here beside the river.

Head back, cross Highway 20, and continue to the community of Sodaville. This town's history began in the 1840s when pioneer Reuben Coyle discovered a pungent mineral spring on a west-facing hillside. Incorporated in 1880, the town built up around the spring, which was deeded to the public so that all could access the purportedly healing waters for free. During its heyday, stagecoaches transported bottles of the famous water to businesses in Albany, and people came from all over to "take the cure." Also known as Soda Springs or Summer Soda, the community once boasted numerous businesses, including several hotels, a skating rink, a general store, a weekly paper, three churches, and a college. Unfortunately, many of the buildings were destroyed by fire, and the spring itself petered out over the years. Sodaville has gradually faded into obscurity on its sunny hillside, but its history has not been forgotten.

Sodaville-Waterloo Road turns into Maple Street as you enter the town. Turn left onto Main Street to find Soda Springs Park, arguably Oregon's first state park. A small parking area beneath the trees provides a pleasant stop to have a snack and read the sign detailing Sodaville's history. City Hall resides on the grassy hill above, occupying the site of the original spring house. This porous hillside still produces tiny seeps of water, but the flowing spring is gone and the water is no longer considered safe to drink. Note Sodaville's "post office" in the parking lot: a pair of mail boxes, one for incoming and one for outgoing mail. Across the street the town's citizens are working hard to develop a community center park, as well as restore an old store building. A few other old buildings still stand, including a well-maintained church. Overall, this tiny town seems happy to be what it has become: a sleepy, out-of-the-way village that time has passed by.

Back on Highway 20, continue to the town of Sweet Home. This section is also close to the original wagon road; in fact, there was a tollgate just east of town. About 14 miles past Sweet Home, a left turn brings you into Cascadia Park. This beautiful place, located at the confluence of Soda Creek and the South Santiam River, was a stage stop on the old wagon road. This site also had a soda spring, and during the final years of the 1800s George Geisendorf built a sawmill and resort hotel here. In the early 1900s there were formal gardens, tennis courts, and even a bowling alley. Now the gardens and buildings are gone, but this leafy retreat is still a delightful place to spend an hour, or an afternoon; in fact, if you are lucky enough to be here during the summer, there is a peaceful, seasonal campground tucked among the tall trees.

Park near the picnic area to access the trails. Look across from the restrooms for the trail to the spring. This area is now a small, rock-paved terrace next to the creek. There is a picnic table and a drinking fountain, but sadly it only dispenses plain water (at this writing, Linn County is in the process of taking over the park, and they hope to be able to have the old pump working eventually so that visitors can sample the water that built the Geisendorfer Hotel). Climb the opposite bank; the flat spot in the trees to your left is where the old hotel stood. Traces of wagon ruts can be found in the trees; it is said that these were side roads made by travelers attempting to avoid a nearby tollgate on the main wagon road. Steep spur trails lead down the bank to the Santiam. This wide field is an excellent spot to eat a picnic and let the kids run off some energy.

Return to the parking area and look for the signed trail to Lower Soda Falls. This hike is less than a mile and is generally easy; on our last visit there were a few maintenance issues on the trail, but most people should have no trouble accessing the falls, and you definitely should see the falls. Walk along Soda Creek through the lush forest, climbing a bit at times. You may not hear this narrow waterfall from a long way off; it plummets 134 feet down a cliff face, but tiny Soda Creek slips and slides, a thin ribbon of water in a rocky crevice. It's easy to access the base of the falls for photographs. This whole hike is also a superb wildflower destination during the spring months.
Return to your car in the picnic area, but don't rejoin the highway just yet. Follow the river on Cascadia Drive to find Short Bridge, the only surviving covered bridge over the South Santiam. This spot is popular with wildlife, fishermen, and photographers. From here, High Deck Road will take you straight back to Highway 20.
Back in the days of the Santiam Wagon Road, it took four days on a good horse to get from Lebanon to Sisters; at the time, this was amazingly efficient. Now we can drive it in about two hours, but perhaps we don't have to. Perhaps we can take a little extra time to find some vestige of Oregon's history. It cascades over the falls where Waterloo's mills once stood. It seeps and trickles from a hillside in Sodaville. It ripples past the confluence where Geisendorf's hotel welcomed travelers over a century ago. We can find part of our state's history where the old road ran beside the water, and perhaps make a few memories of our own. 

South Santiam River near Waterloo Park
An ominous (but important) warning at the Waterloo Park boat launch

At the falls

Waterloo Park

Disk golf course

Sodaville Store, in process of restoration at time of photograph
The slow seepage of the springs at Soda Springs Park
A commemorative pumps stands in the park as a reminder of the town's past

Grace Bible Fellowship, one of Sodaville's maintained historic buildings

Cascadia's water pump. Currently dry, but hopefully not for long!

Approximate site of the Geisendorfer Hotel

Grown-over wagon ruts near the hotel site

Tiger Lilies

Lower Soda Falls (and the photographer becomes the photographed)

Underneath the falls (thank goodness for waterproof cameras!)

On Short Bridge

See you by the water!

Sunday, September 1, 2019

The River Reborn: Tamolitch Blue Pool

From its birthplace in Clear Lake, the spirited McKenzie River twists and turns down Cascade slopes, plunges over waterfalls, piles up in reservoirs, and disappears underground.

This is volcano country, and anything is possible for water in such porous, tunnel-ridden earth. Clear Lake reportedly gets much of its water from Fish Lake, which in turn receives much of its water from Lost Lake. Look around in the woods above Lost Lake and you will find snow-melt springs which flow into the lake. It really isn't surprising, then, that the McKenzie re-emerges, whole and hearty, about three miles downstream into a deep, intensely blue pool set in a basin of volcanic rock.
McKenzie River

1600 years ago, a lava flow covered this three-mile section of the McKenzie; the cold, clear water bubbles up into Tamolitch Blue Pool below the cliffs of often-dry Tamolitch Falls. The McKenzie's flow was further changed in the 1960s when water was diverted for hydroelectric power, so if you hike this trail you have a good chance of seeing a stunning, sapphire pool appearing as if by magic and then rushing on as the McKenzie river.

Blue Pool lies alongside the McKenzie River Trail, a 25-mile path from Clear Lake to the lower trailhead west of Paradise Campground. To access the trail for the Blue Pool hike, drive on Highway 126 for 14 miles east of McKenzie Bridge to the north end of Trailbridge Reservoir (coming south from Highway 20, start watching on your right after passing Carmen Reservoir). There is a small power station and a gravel road (FSR 730) which leads half a mile to the trailhead. If you are up for a little extra hiking, we advise you to park in the wide area next to the highway and walk the half mile, as parking is scarce and this is a popular hike.

You will not be alone; in fact, this is a great hike for people watching. During my recent visit I saw a young couple, hand-in-hand, bearing a goodly load of brand-new survival gear, closely followed by a man in flip-flops pushing a child in an umbrella stroller and blaring country music. Don't be deterred by the parking issue, the crowds, or the general free-for-all atmosphere; this is one of the most beautiful destinations in the state, and along with pretty much everyone else and their dogs, you must go see it.

The trail begins at the end of the parking lot. The first half of the two-mile (one way) walk passes through lush woodland alongside the cheerful McKenzie. It is an easy, flat, smooth passage, one that lulls the flip-flop wearers (and there are many) and the stroller-pushers (we just really can't recommend this). Wind among the trees and brushy western-Oregon undergrowth; at this point, the only barriers are occasional roots and perhaps a muddy spot or two. Be aware that the entire McKenzie River Trail is a Mecca for mountain bikers; watch and listen, and give them plenty of space in the more challenging areas.

And at about the halfway point those challenging areas begin, as the trail climbs into the lava flow. This is an older flow than some, so there are trees to shade the trail, but the understory is partially replaced with mounds of volcanic rock and the trail becomes rocky and uneven at times. It is still quite passable, but it's not as maintained, and rocks can roll under your boots (do wear boots, this is a lava flow and you can cut your feet). Look for fissures and cracks in the lava, which demonstrate the porous nature of the earth in this area. By now you have left the river and climbed into dry woods. Watch for viewpoints high above the water, wind among mounds of rock, and suddenly find yourself on a cliffside above the bluest pool you have ever seen. Unless you are there at a wet time of the year there will be no water coming over the falls, just a flow near the base of the cliff.

"Tamolitch" means "bucket," and this pool lies in a basin of rock with cliffs all around. It is possible to pick your way down for a closer look, but be careful and remember that you have to get back up to the trail. People will likely be swimming, but this is discouraged. Admittedly, on a hot day the beautiful water looks very inviting; however, people have been injured and even killed by swimming in this pool. The water here is 37 degrees Fahrenheit pretty much all year long, and the pool itself can be challenging to crawl out of. In addition, the water is so crystal-clear that the depth is deceptive; it appears to be several feet deep, but in fact the depth ranges from around 18 inches to over 30 feet. As a result, diving in can be dangerous, and the nearest place to even try to make a phone call is two miles away at the trailhead. In short, we recommend, as does the Forest Service, that you admire this stunning sight from the shore.
Looking downstream from above the pool

Return the way you came, pausing to admire the river, its lava flow, and the cool, dense forest. This can be a good hike for older children, but the little ones may become weary (and teary) during the second half. Allow plenty of extra time to check out the woods and the rocks, and bring snacks and drinking water. Keep children close; even in the forest half of the hike, there are dropoffs into the river and frequent cyclists along the trail.

Tamolitch Blue Pool is one of the most popular hikes in the McKenzie River area, but it should be on the "bucket list" of any Oregonian who can manage the trek. Don't avoid it because it's well-traveled, it's crowded for good reason. Just go.

Trail through the lava flow

Distant view of the pool, early in the season
The high waterfall that dries up later in the season
Wall of lava
Small falls above Blue Pool; this, too, will dry up later in the season.
McKenzie River flowing out of Blue Pool
Lava flow; note the porous nature of the landscape
Small lava tube

Fissures in the lava

Nurse log
Come enjoy one of the best hikes in the state, we'll see you there!