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Water the color of root beer tumbles over Root Beer Falls in the Williamson River Canyon. Photo by Lee Juillerat

A taste of Root Beer Falls

It was a place I'd seen only from the windows of the Coast Starlight, the Amtrak train that runs each morning between Klamath Falls and Eugene.

North of Chiloquin, the railroad tracks follow the eastern edge of the Williamson River Canyon, offering views hidden from nearby Highway 97. Inside the forested, steep-walled canyon, the Williamson twists and turns, bubbles and rumbles. This isn't an ordinary canyon, not during winter and spring, when a series of tumbling waterfalls do seasonal water-dances. And neither are these ordinary waterfalls. The series is collectively known as Root Beer Falls because, as the name implies, they're the color of the soft drinks made famous at A&W.

The view from the train is fleeting and tantalizing, a gone-in-a-flash sight that creates a thirst for more.

"Want to go to Root Beer Falls?" asked Todd Kepple, the Klamath County Museums manager who had previously led a museum-sponsored trip to the falls.

A few days later, Todd led the way. We had driven up Highway 97 north of Chiloquin just past milepost 237, where we turned onto a dirt road. Oops. The road was buried under hard-packed snow. So instead of driving the two or so miles and parking at a junction near the falls, we stumble-walked over the snow-laden, uneven terrain. Then we added another unanticipated mile or so while wandering south along yet another snow covered road paralleling the canyon, searching for a never-found rock cairn. One attempted descent into the canyon ended at a non-negotiable ledge.

"This way," Todd yelped.

It wasn't a trail, but the path we created dipped steeply into the canyon, eventually meandering to the water's edge for an up-close view of a root beer-colored falls that spanned the river's width.

Root beer for drinking is a dark, sweet, effervescent beverage made from an extract of roots and bark of plants and vines, including sassafras or sarsaparilla. Similarly, the dark-stained not-for-drinking Root Beer Falls are created by tannins from decaying bulrushes and other plants washed down the Williamson River 10 miles upstream from the Klamath Marsh National Wildlife Refuge. According to biologists, the dissolved organic matter is what also creates big balls of foam, and we saw many the size of party balloons bobbling along the water's edge.

We skirted the water's edge downstream, passing two other sets of root beer-colored falls. Both were gouged more dramatically through narrower river openings, creating splashier falls. The tallest cascades about 15 to 20 feet. These aren't the roaring, towering waterfalls seen along the Rogue River between Union Creek and Prospect. At Root Beer Falls, the earthy color is the attraction.

We took our time, enjoying our riverside vantage. Along with the falls, the canyon is an Edenesque garden sprinkled with a botanist's variety of trees and shrubs — aspen, willow, Douglas and white fir, Ponderosa pine, elderberry, currants and more.

The view of Root Beer Falls from Amtrak had whetted my appetite, so seeing the falls up close was especially delicious.

Lee Juillerat has been writing about outdoor adventures in Southern Oregon and elsewhere for more than 30 years. He is also a regular contributor to the outdoor-travel website High On Adventure at www.highonadventure.com. He can be contacted at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

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