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PHOTO BY LEE JUILLERAT

Bluffs along the Williamson River.

Wild Williamson is like a little Yosemite

It’s an area so beautiful that Gary Vequist likes to call it “Little Yosemite.”

That may sound a bit overstated, but after being there, it’s not a totally unjustified comparison.

Vequist is a hiker and kayaker who’s seen a lot of wild areas during a career with the National Park Service. His “Little Yosemite,” which comes complete with what he calls a miniature Half Dome, is along a trail that parallels a seldom traveled section the Williamson River Canyon north of Chiloquin. The trail is only a few miles long, but, as Vequist promises, it packs a lot of natural beauty in that distance.

It’s not an easily accessed trail. From Highway 97 near Collier Memorial State Park, turn right at the sign for the Collier and Williamson campgrounds onto Forest Road 9730. The trailhead, which was apparently formerly maintained by the Fremont-Winema National Forest, is about five unsigned miles past the campgrounds — both closed for the season — on improved dirt and sometimes bumpy gravel roads. Before crossing the Williamson River, the route to the unsigned trailhead veers left before shortly dead-ending past a maze of junctions, some easy to negotiate, others best traveled in higher-clearance vehicles.

Getting there is challenging, but worth the effort.

The first mile-plus of the trail heads north, with an easy-to-follow, obvious track that parallels the often unseen river. But there are other sights. Several aspens show the marks of gnawing beavers. The west-side canyon walls gradually rise as the trail passes through stands of healthy Ponderosa pines. From the trail, views of the river’s east side and its gnarly rock walls and features become increasingly more awe-inducing. Occasional side trails offer riverside views and a better appreciation for the canyon’s fractured basalt walls and cliffs.

With subfreezing mornings, sections of the Williamson freeze, creating a sometimes muddy mosaic of icy cracks and fractures, while the more sun-exposed, open-water sections and ponds are beautifully blue.

And, yes, there really is a small Half Dome, an obvious temptation for skilled rock climbers, along with other wonderfully shaped rock formations.

A mile or so in, the trail temporarily disappears and becomes hard to follow, breaking off into foot-stomped passages that sometimes plow through tall rushes, others that weave stomped meanders near the river and some that simply dead-end.

On a recent outing, group members carried small and large clippers and saws used to carve a more obvious route through the tangled labyrinth, sometimes alongside or through a maze of human-high grasses.

Farther along, the trail disappears. With low water, we made our way along areas likely submersed during wet weather periods, to a river crossing that requires careful steps across watery gaps.

On our second outing, part of our group forged upstream, twisting through rocky areas and scrambling through dense riverside vegetation. At times, even when within sight of others on the trail, the going was stalled by tangled trees, limbs and branches. At times their progress — or lack of — was visible only by watching for movement of the tall grasses that hid the trail-seekers.

Route finding becomes even more challenging as the river angles out of the national forest to private lands.

Bushwhacking can be fun, but it’s easy to be content with what comes before — a verdant pine forest, steepening canyon walls, views of the blue-flowing river, sections of frozen ice, tumble of rocky riverside pinnacles, pillars and quarter-sized Half Domes.

Call it “Little Yosemite,” or what it is, the wild Williamson.

Before trying to find the trail, call the Chiloquin Ranger District at 541-783-4001 for updated road and travel information.

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

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