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!

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