Tuesday, April 2, 2019

A Stop Along the Way to the Cheese Factory: Munson Creek Falls

Situated along Highway 101 on the northern Oregon coast, Tillamook refers to itself as the "Land of Cheese, Trees, and Ocean Breeze." Indeed, if you have gone grocery shopping since 1909, chances are good that a piece of Tillamook has ended up in your basket at some point. Quite often, the factory tour is the only stop travelers make in Tillamook. This quiet coastal town is not located on the beach, but alongside sprawling Tillamook Bay. Fishing, clamming, and crabbing are popular activities here, and paddling opportunities abound, but perhaps you don't have that much time as you pass through the area, or perhaps you didn't happen to bring a boat along. Maybe you would rather just take a short, peaceful walk in the forest among towering trees and lush understory. You might feel like getting out of the car to stroll alongside a lovely stream and watch for songbirds and wildflowers. If that's the case, this hike is for you; however, it offers a bonus: 319-foot Munson Creek Falls, the tallest waterfall in the Coast Range.

Seven miles south of Tillamook, Munson Creek Road heads east toward the Coast Range. The road begins as pavement, which we rate as "adequate." After a while it turns to gravel, which is in good shape for the most part, but again there are some "adequate" areas. Our two-wheel drive pickup had no problems, and we observed many smaller passenger cars on the road; just slow down for the scattered potholes and you should be fine. Follow signs for a mile and a half to a graveled parking lot; note that this is a fairly popular hike, and the lot is not large, so trailers and RVs may want to pass this one by.

The parking area is shaded by tall, old trees, and picnic tables are scattered near the creek. This would be a lovely lunch stop on a warm afternoon, sheltered from the inevitable beach winds and off of the busy highway.

The path begins at the east end of the parking lot. It is only about a quarter mile to the falls viewpoint, so take your time and enjoy the stroll. The lush forest is a perfect wildflower-hunting area. Depending on the season, watch for trilliums, wood violets, bleeding heart, corydalis, foxgloves, and more. Lift the leathery, heart-shaped leaves of wild ginger to find the odd, three-spurred flowers hidden beneath. The mid-story includes elderberry and salmonberry bushes; the former bloom in ivory puffs, and the latter in bright pink, rose-like flowers. Overhead, the canopy is dominated by red cedar, maples, and Sitka spruce; in fact, this park boasts one of the tallest Sitkas in the world, claimed to be 260 feet. You will also find numerous hemlock and alder trees in this 62-acre state natural area. Moss and ferns seem eager to cover every available surface. Walk beside the rippling creek to the viewpoint. Munson Creek plunges over the end of this verdant box canyon in its rush toward the sea. Unfortunately, the trail ends here at the viewpoint; however, this is the best spot from which to view the falls anyway. Return as you came. Some websites make reference to an upper trail, but like the final portion of the lower trail, this has been destroyed by slides and falling trees during coastal winter storms. Notice the log jams in the waterfall itself, as well as the many fallen trees along the trail. The beautiful Pacific coast takes a beating from the weather during the winter months.

While this isn't a very long walk, it's accessible to most people, with its wide, well-kept pathway, and it offers a unique chance to experience a bit of ancient coastal forest without an arduous hike. Cheese is all well and good, but take a short detour on your way up 101 and see the area as it has been for millennia: a lush, verdant home for trees, salmon, and songbirds.

A Note on the Sitka Spruce
The largest members of the spruce family, Sitkas are only native to the Pacific coast, growing from northern California to Alaska. They are generally not familiar to inlanders; it is said that they must have salt air to survive. Be that as it may, their range hugs the west coast tightly except for in the northern section, but even there they are not found more than 50 miles from the ocean.

Sitka spruce wood is known for its resonance, making it useful for sound boards in many types of musical instruments, such as harps, guitars, and pianos. It is strong in proportion to its weight and is a popular material for aircraft and boat building.

Keep an eye out for Sitkas as you walk the trail. Look for tall, sturdy conifers with scaly bark. The needles grow all around the twigs, as in a Douglas fir, but those are not common in this area. To tell the difference between a Douglas fir and a spruce, take hold of one of the branches and gently squeeze the needles. If they poke your hand, it's a spruce: "firs are furry, spruce are spiky." Sitkas can live for 700 years or more, and they can grow two to five feet per year. Take a stroll here and you will see many grand old Sitkas towering overhead, providing shade and habitat in this peaceful Coast Range canyon.

Wood Violet


Wild Current

Wild Ginger

Bleeding Hearts

Piggyback Plant

620-foot Sitka Spruce

Note that daylight can be seen through the trunk of this tree, found near the parking
area. It likely grew around a massive stump, which left a grotto when it rotted.

Enjoy the walk, and the cheese!

Thursday, March 7, 2019

A Stop Along the Way: Talking Water Gardens

Out at the edge of Albany, on an old lumber mill site beside the train tracks, there is a series of wastewater settling ponds. We recommend that you visit them. Bring the family. Take lots of pictures. And if you find that suggestion a bit confusing, then you haven't heard about Talking Water Gardens.

Conceived as a way to naturally filter wastewater from the local treatment plant and a specialty metals manufacturer, this 37-acre constructed wetland now provides habitat for moisture-loving plants and a variety of wildlife, including over 100 species of birds. The water released into the ponds has already been treated; its journey through Talking Water provides further cooling, filtration, and aeration before it is released into the Willamette River.

Because it was engineered to be welcoming for humans as well as wildlife, this wetland makes an excellent rainy-season stop. Over two miles of mud-free walking trails wind among the pools; wheelchair users will find this an unusually friendly spot for exploration and photography, since many of the paths are accessible and most are level. Children enjoy watching the numerous ducks who call these pools home (but please don't feed them!), and leashed pets are permitted, as well.

The gardens are located at 577 Waverly Drive NE, which sounds simple enough, but it's one of those places that's easy to find if you know where it is. From SE Salem Avenue/Old Salem Road NE, turn north on Davidson, then turn right (east) on Front Avenue and curve left onto Waverly Drive, which leads to a parking area for both Talking Water and Simpson Park. The garden is free and open to the public every day from sunrise to sunset.

As you approach the gardens from the parking lot you will hear the sound of the main waterfall: talking water. This is one of several falls where water is aerated as it drops from one level to the next. Follow the trails to find a total of nine ponds and marshes (click here and scroll down for an excellent map). Points of interest include the remains of an old log pond from the lumbermill days as well as some small, lovely oak groves. Be sure to see the "weeping wall," formerly a section of the mill's loading dock. Water at the top of the wall trickles into a long, beautifully-planted pool below. The entire garden is a study in combining the natural with the man-made; this moist area beside the Willamette has hosted wildlife for millennia, and nature has been quick to return. At the same time, well-groomed pathways, wooden footbridges, carefully chosen plants, and artistically-placed stones give it the feel of a public garden.

Keep an eye out for the many species of birds who frequent this wetland. On our recent visit we observed a variety of ducks, including buffleheads, cinnamon teal, widgeons, and mallards. We also saw grebes, coots, Canada geese, and cormorants on the many ponds. A golden eagle watched from a treetop, and redwing blackbirds flitted between the bushes. Tiny marsh wrens dangled from reeds, watching us with curious eyes.
First Lake

If you're in a mood for more hiking, take the Simpson Park Trail from the same parking lot. There are a few picnic tables here, as well as access to First Lake (it is possible to hand-launch a small boat or pontoon from the simple put-in, and there are reports of bass being caught here early in the season). This trail is a muddy, primitive contrast to the neat gravel paths of Talking Water. It runs for over a mile between the Willamette River and First and Second Lakes, which are actually lovely, peaceful oxbows of the Willamette. There are a few viewpoints where one can spy the river and occasional views of the lakes; otherwise, this is mostly a walk in the woods, frequented by runners and their dogs as well as a few homeless people.

As a "stop along the way," Talking Water is not a wilderness experience; in fact, it's downright industrial, with the railroad track running alongside and I-5 just a short distance away. That being said, the beautiful, surprisingly tranquil gardens are an example of what can be done with planning and cooperation in partnership with nature.

Above and below the weeping wall

Ducks enjoying the garden

Cinnamon Teal


View from the top of the "Talking Waters"

Willamette River from the Simpson Park Trail

First Lake from the Simpson Park Trail