Monday, July 1, 2019

A Highway 20 Side Trip: On the Banks of McDowell Creek

Heading out of Lebanon on its way to the Cascades, Highway 20 passes farms, fields, and scattered businesses. Travelers in this area are generally just passing through on their way to someplace else, driving right by unassuming Fairview Road without a second thought. Follow that little country drive, though, and you will discover a hidden gem: 110-acre McDowell Creek Park, with its four waterfalls tucked in a lush forest in the Cascade foothills.
To find the park, turn left on the aforementioned Fairview Road; follow it for about a mile and bear left onto McDowell Creek Drive. From here it is 7.7 miles to the park, but don't be put off by the drive; it is a lovely route, passing fertile pastures and pretty little farms. The road itself is well-maintained pavement until just before the park, and even towards the end it is never a problem for passenger vehicles.
Pull into the first parking area. Here you will find a scattering of picnic tables under a treed canopy as well as a vault toilet. Follow the sound of rushing water to locate the first falls: Lower McDowell Creek Falls, which drops a total of 20 feet in three tiers. The rocks here are popular with picnickers and sunbathers.

A hike of less than two miles leads to the other falls, and while the path is well-traveled and popular with families, it is definitely not barrier-free. Be aware that the stairs can be slippery when wet, and be prepared for a few steep areas. Consider the time of year, as well; like the majority of waterfalls, these are less spectacular during the dry season. In any case, though, it is a beautiful and justly popular hike for anyone who can manage stairs and some short climbs.
Royal Terrace Falls
This hike is a "lollipop" that begins at a footbridge over the creek. Walk among Douglas fir, alders, cedars, maples, and hemlocks. Take a side trail to view 120-foot Royal Terrace Falls, which drops in three sheets of water over a set of stone shelves. Return to the main trail and go left up some stone steps. Look for a small platform to see the top of Royal Terrace.

Crystal Falls
Cross a bridge over Fall Creek. This part of the trail leads high above McDowell Creek in a lush forest understory; look for vine maples, red huckleberries, sword ferns, and thimbleberries. Go right at a junction , cross the road, and continue on the forest path to a trailhead for Majestic Falls. Follow a series of steps to view the falls, which drops 40 feet into a crystal-clear pool. Follow a wooden stairway for more views of the falls, then cross a bridge and continue on the trail. Watch for 15-foot Crystal Falls, then cross the road again (if you reach the road without finding Crystal Falls, retrace your steps briefly as it's easier to find going that direction). Cross the road and follow near the creek. Go left at the trail junction, pass a disused trail on your right, and then go left at the next junction and cross the creek. Take one more bridge, just below Royal Terrace Falls, and turn right to return to the parking lot. 

Majestic Falls
While this may sound complex, the short trail is actually quite easily navigated; click here for a website that includes a small map to help with orientation. It is also possible to customize the hike for less walking and fewer falls; however, the short distance, the peaceful forest setting, and the ever-present sound of rushing water make the walk worth every step.

Next time you're headed out Highway 20 on your way to someplace else, take a little time and turn onto Fairview Road. Bring a picnic, and of course a camera. Take a walk under moss-draped trees in this peaceful county park, far from the crowds at places with bigger advertising budgets. Park for free, bring your dog, and relax beside McDowell Creek.

McDowell Creek Falls Trailhead

Lower McDowell Creek Falls

McDowell Creek

Side view of Royal Terrace Falls

Viewpoint at the top of the falls

Majestic Falls

At the base of Majestic Falls

The author near the side trail to Crystal Falls
The small side trail to Crystal Falls
Crystal Falls
McDowell Creek
One last look at Royal Terrace Falls as you complete the "lollipop"
Enjoy the creek, we'll see you on another side trip!