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Hike to Snailback Falls is difficult but worth it

This difficult, 3.5-mile hike starts with an 800-foot climb up an all-but-barren ridge then traverses into old-growth forest. After passing a curious-looking copper mine, the trail descends to Snailback Falls, a continuum of cascades connected by small pools. The trail tops out at about 2,000 feet above sea level, so it's generally accessible even in winter.

This is one of many undeveloped yet spectacular trails in Southern Oregon's wild-rivers area, so finding it is half the adventure. Snailback Creek can be located on the Eight-Dollar Mountain 7.5-minute quadrangle map available for free in PDF format at the online USGS Store (store.usgs.gov), but the trail isn't identified on the most current version. However, if you click on the link in the online version of this story (see "If you go" Box at right), you'll find an interactive USGS map which does have the trail and my GPS overlay.

Wear sturdy, ankle-supporting shoes, and be prepared to hop some logs and hike on narrow tread that is sharply sloped in some places. From the blinking light on Highway 199 in Selma, set your tripometer and head west on Illinois River Road. At about 3.4 miles, park at a small turnout on the road's south side next to Forest Service Road 011. If you get to Kerby Flat or Snailback Beach trailhead, you've gone too far west.

On the road's north side, across from FSR 011, is a small, unmarked maze of jeep tracks. Follow the most distinct one, hiking southwesterly and uphill. Take a breather and catch in-your-face views of Eight Dollar Mountain's north side from this burnt, open slope. You'll have to hop logs that have fallen on the old track. Avoid using new skid-rows etched in by off-road vehicles that have circumvented the original road.

After climbing about 800 feet, the road heads east, crests the ridge and fades out, but don't turn around. At the road's terminus is an unmarked, well-hidden trail heading north into an open, old-growth forest. The trail is dimmed by tall grasses on the ridge's bare top, but the path becomes obvious as it enters the woods to the north.

The contrast between the ridge's dry, barren, south side and its lush, green, north side is so drastic it can be easily seen on satellite maps.

Giant pines display fire scars from flames that didn't reach this forest's canopy. Fire here did not have a catastrophic effect; it burned out fuel and brush buildup in the forest's understory — an ecological cleaning service. Parts of this trail are very narrow and slanted, so be careful and watch your feet.

About 1.25 miles into the hike is the Forgotten Copper Mine, which has been recently reclaimed. Check out the old water wheel about 20 feet up from the trail. Be careful in these areas and don't enter mine shafts — they're unstable and can easily collapse.

Shortly after passing Forgotten Copper, the hum of Snailback Creek bounces off the canyon walls. Downed logs on the trail look like stable handrails, but often they're booby traps. Yanking on a small branch can bring down a small avalanche of wood, so be careful.

At about 1.7 miles the old trail approaches the bottom of Snailback Falls. Before leaving the trail, make note of where you came in because the path can be challenging to relocate.

To catch good pictures and views of the falls, you have to hike off the trail and up the creek's unstable and steep eastern slope. If you're looking for a show, try doing this hike during wetter times, because when the grounds are dry, the flow can be more trickle than waterfall. Get your bearings and head back the way you came.

While Snailback falls may not carry the grandeur of larger, more popular waterfalls, it is an untrammeled gem well worth the work of finding it. And unmarked, undeveloped destinations like this are what make the wild-rivers area a gold mine of outdoor recreation.

Freelance writer Gabriel Howe lives in Ashland and is founder and chair of the Siskiyou Mountain Club. Contact him at howegabe@gmail.com.

The 3.5-mile hike to Snailback Falls is tough, with an 800-foot climb, lots of down trees and some steep slopes. - Photo by Gabriel Howe