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Bernadette "Bernie" Kero crosses a creek along the North Umpqua Trail.

Backpacking the North Umpqua Trail

The North Umpqua Trail has it all:

Waterfalls, including a horsetail-style cascading down a 100-foot drop

Weeping walls, where water seeps down moss-covered cliffs, some as long as football fields

Wildflowers and towering trees, more than enough varieties to keep botanists and arborists satiated

Geology, wild, varied and challenging enough that one section of the North Umpqua Trail is dubbed the “Dread and Terror,” while another segment features a series of spa-sized, toasty, body-soaking hot springs.

Five of us — Bill Van Moorhem, Bernadette “Bernie” Kero, Dave Potter, Rebecca Sexton and I — sampled the North Umpqua Trail’s delights during a four-day backpacking trip that covered about 28 miles of the 79-mile long trail. The full length extends from its headwaters near Maidu Lake in the Cascades to the Swiftwater Trailhead 22 miles east of Roseburg.

Our trek began at the White Mule Trailhead near Lemolo Lake and ended at the Soda Springs Trailhead. It was a journey through tantalizingly beautiful country that’s sometimes showy and spectacular, sometimes sublime and subdued.

Along the way we stared mesmerized as a thick-bodied rattlesnake noisily vibrated get-away warnings, trudged up and around large trees fallen across the trail, and enjoyed views of the North Umpqua, sometimes from high above, or, even better, almost sidestepping its boisterously dancing waters.

There were challenges. The biggest came on day 2 when Rebecca got her foot stuck while trying to climb over a trail-blocking tree. No one, her included, knew it was a broken leg until she gamely hiked 7.5 miles — stepping over more logs, butt-sliding down slippery slopes, shuffling up and down steep sections — to the Umpqua Hot Springs Trailhead. After begging a ride and completing a complicated car shuttle, Rebecca drove back to her home near Salem, where she was examined by a doctor, diagnosed and outfitted with a cast.

Before Rebecca left, we five hiked along a trail shaded by an often dense canopy of big-bellied Shasta red fir, western white pine, mountain hemlocks and lodgepole pine, part of the 13-mile Dread and Terror segment that begins at the White Mule Trailhead. It was named in 1908 by rangers who dreaded the possibility of battling forest fires in the steep canyon. Flanking the trail were showy wildflowers — trilliums, dogwood and almost-blooming rhododendrons. At a river crossing bridge, we stooped under a massive tree that rests on the bridge’s shoulders. Our first night’s camp was a small clearing five-plus miles into the hike. Of course, the next day another half-mile away was a dreamy riverside site.

We passed and gawked at 102-foot-tall Lemolo Falls, a dramatic horsetail falls on the river’s other side, before Rebecca’s accident only a few miles into our second day. Even with a gimpy ankle she kept smiling and stayed positive as we aimed for Umpqua Hot Springs, passing too-many-to-count smaller waterfalls and more corridors of weeping walls, the trail seemingly climbing more up than down. Close to the Umpqua Hot Springs Trailhead, the path included planked boardwalks, marshy flats and two more splashy waterfalls, Surprise and Columnar.

After arranging a ride for Rebecca and car shuttle for Bill, Bernie relaxed while Dave and I climbed to the hot springs. It’s a short but steep walk to a half-dozen spa-sized pools. The hottest is 110 degrees, while downhill pools are cooler. Because of the lateness of the day, I soaked in a pool by myself. During the summer the hot springs are routinely visited by thousands of people. During any season clothing is optional.

After Bill’s traditional croaking of “I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” our third day included more hilly ups and downs and, near Tokatee Lake, a brief section just steps from the river. But the North Umpqua went into hiding following a series of river crossings and steadily uphill stretches that put us 500 feet above through often dense Douglas fir, incense cedar, hemlock, Ponderosa and sugar pine forests. The trailside floral display shifted to include Indian paintbrush, lupines and lilies and unexpected sounds of croaking frogs. It was along an open meadow where the rattler snaked and did his threatening dance.

Back in the trees we groaned as — time after time — the trail dipped low and curled around creeks, then climbed back up.

Twelve miles from the Umpqua Hot Springs area camp we pitched tents alongside tumbling Medicine Creek.

The unexpectedly long day made our final hike to the Soda Springs Trailhead, where Bill had shuttled his car, relatively short. An easy stroll from the trailhead is a tall, eye-popping wall of columnar basalt, which was created when lava flows cooled and formed vertical columns. Over the ages its pillars have become more showy by layers of brightly colored, wall-hugging lichens.

The section of the North Umpqua Trail we visited is challenging and endlessly fascinating because of the sights and sounds of the river, forests of many tree species, colorful wildflower displays and the trail’s frequent catch-your-breath beauty.

In Indian languages, the word “Umpqua,” has many possible meanings: “thundering water, “the sound water makes,” “One is satisfied.” Just as its name implies, the North Umpqua Trail is a path of many possibilities.

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

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