Yocum Ridge Waterfalls

Scores of little-known waterfalls hide in Mount Hood’s backcountry. Some are towering glacial torrents, while others are quiet forest cascades, framed in moss and maple leaves. But when conditions are right, few rival the towering trio of waterfalls that mark peak snowmelt on the upper ramparts of Yocum Ridge.

These waterfalls are unnamed and unmapped, but familiar to hikers crossing the Muddy Fork on the Timberline Trail or visiting McNeil Point, across the canyon. They completely disappear by autumn in dry years, but in early summer, they are Mount Hood’s roaring counterparts to the famous seasonal giants of Yosemite.

(Click here for a larger view)

These waterfalls originate from an unnamed glacial cirque, or bowl, high on the northern shoulder of Yocum Ridge, the massive spine that divides the Muddy Fork from the Sandy River, and extends to the summit of Mount Hood. Though they flow from a relatively small basin, the snowfields that accumulate in the cirque each winter generate a surprisingly powerful runoff.

In recent decades, the year-round snowfields in the basin have almost disappeared, compared to 1960s-vintage USGS maps (below). This seems to have opened a more direct snowmelt channel to the waterfalls, as they seem more prominent in recent years, while the perennial stream to the west, as shown on the USGS maps, has become much less prominent.

(Click here for a larger view)

The cirque is well below the tree line, so the lack of forests in this amphitheater is also a good indicator of both heavy snow accumulations and frequent winter avalanches.

The view (below) from across the canyon shows the waterfalls in relation to Yocum Ridge and the cirque. The low ridge to the right of the falls forms a lower cusp of the cirque, and this ridge serves as a dike that channels most of the spring runoff toward the waterfalls. The Yocum Ridge Trail (shown on the map, above) terminates at the rim of the cirque, in the extreme upper right corner of this view:

A closer look at the waterfalls, as viewed from below at the Muddy Fork crossing (below), shows the rugged upper crags of Yocum Ridge in the background, with the waterfalls tumbling from the cirque into the Muddy Fork canyon. The cirque is located to the right, just outside this frame.

Surprisingly, a sizeable forest is perched on the slopes to the left of the waterfalls, apparently spared by the most frequent avalanches that have cleared most of the slopes within the cirque.

(Click here for a larger view)

It’s somewhat unknown how the streams that feed these waterfalls originate, since they are not mapped, and perhaps not even explored. However, from Google Earth imagery, the trio of waterfalls seem to flow from three distinct sources, with the western falls draining the main portion of the cirque, and the middle and east segments draining directly off the upper slopes of Yocum Ridge.

A closer view (below) shows the trio of waterfalls in detail. The westernmost of the three (on the right) is by far the largest, dropping at least 700 feet in the main cascade, and arguably nearly 800 overall. This drop is on a scale with Multnomah Falls, which drops a total of 635 feet, by comparison.

The eastern segment (on the left) is next in size, and though dwarfed by its larger sister to the west, is quite large and drops at least 500 feet. The middle segment is a tall, thin slide that is nearly as tall as the western segment, albeit much less dramatic.

The towering western falls (left) starts out as a 100-foot slide, and quickly fans out for 150 feet before leaping over a wide, 400-foot plunge.

The falls collects in a steep amphitheater at the base of the main plunge before making a final 70-foot plunge into a roiling, narrow gorge.

A closer look at the main plunge of the western falls (below) reveals the raw power at work during peak snowmelt, with its roaring curtains of falling water.

Somehow, thickets of red alder cling to the cliffs around the falls, framing the scene. This spectacle persists for several weeks in early summer, yet nearly disappears in autumn and through the winter.

The following video captures this dramatic scene, as viewed from the Muddy Fork crossing on the Timberline Trail in July 2010:

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How to visit the Waterfalls

Viewing the Yocum Ridge Waterfalls up close makes for a terrific day hike, and the waterfalls are at their prime as soon as the trails open — usually late June or July. The recommended 5.4 mile (round-trip) hike shown on the map below starts at the usually crowded Top Spur Trailhead, near Lolo Pass. But most of the hikers are heading for McNeil Point, so you will see very few people beyond the series of junctions at Bald Mountain.

(Click here for a larger, printable map)

Starting at Top Spur, the trail climbs somewhat steeply for 0.4 to a signed junction with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Turn right onto the PCT, and immediately reach a confusing 4-way junction with the Timberline Trail. Turn right onto the famed Timberline Trail, heading uphill and to the right, past a sign pointing to the Muddy Fork

The Timberline Trail climbs gently through noble fir forest, soon passing the unmarked junction with the Bald Mountain trail. A short distance beyond, the trail traverses across the steep meadows on the south face of Bald Mountain, with stunning views of Mount Hood and the Muddy Fork canyon.

Mount Hood and the Muddy Fork canyon from Bald Mountain

After re-entering the forest, the trail passes yet another junction, this time with the unsigned Bald Mountain Cutoff. Head straight, going through a log gate before making a very gradual descent to the Muddy Fork.

Once at the Muddy Fork, the trail enters the scene of a violent debris flow that crashed through the area in 2002, snapping thousands of mature trees like match sticks and pouring 20 feet of debris across the valley floor.

The Muddy Fork has made short work of the debris in the subsequent 10 years, cutting all the way down to its former stream level. This makes crossing difficult for Timberline Trail hikers, but that’s okay: the best view of the Yocum Ridge waterfalls is from one of the scores of boulders resting atop the debris flow, where you can relax and take in Mount Hood, the waterfalls and the roaring Muddy Fork, below.

Be sure to bring binoculars and a camera — and enjoy!

Warren Falls Lives… Again?

March 16 was a good day for Warren Falls: in the morning, the Historic Columbia River Highway Advisory Committee (AC) allowed me time on their agenda for a second pitch to restore Warren Falls as part of the larger historic highway trail project. After the meeting, I visited Warren Falls and was able to capture it flowing, thanks to the unusually heavy rain we had experienced in early March. Here are the highlights:

HCRC Advisory Committee

Last summer, I made a pitch to the HCRC Advisory Committee (AC) to restore Warren Falls as part of the highway restoration project, and in my second appearance, was able to provide a much more polished case. The members of the AC were engaged and clearly interested in the idea, asking many questions after the presentation. However, they are also constrained by the tight budget and timeline they are working under to complete the highway restoration by the 2016 centennial of Samuel Lancaster’s “King of Roads.”

The HCRH trail design already includes a short trail and overlook at Warren Falls

The AC chair sent me a follow-up message after the meeting offering support for all of the proposals I had laid out at the meeting — except restoration of Warren Falls itself. While that last part was disappointing, it was helpful to at least have a sense of where the AC stood on the issue, since I can now focus efforts on finding the needed funding and perhaps a project partner for ODOT to pull off the Warren Falls restoration.

The good news is the AC is supportive of several accompanying proposals that I laid out in the presentation, including:

• designing the crossing of the original Warren Creek channel to resemble a “bridge” so that there will be a place for an interpretive panel describing the history of the area

• addition of a side trail to the original Warren Falls with an interpretive panel – albeit, with “volunteer work”

• Enhancing fish habitat downstream of Hole-in-the-Wall Falls as a proposed mitigation action related to construction of the next (unfunded) trail segment west of the Starvation-Lindsey segment currently being designed

• removal of invasive species in the area – mostly, English ivy, Himalayan blackberry and Scots broom.

So, despite the disappointment of not adding the falls restoration to the current ODOT project, the list of related restoration work supported by the AC is a big step forward. In their words, the AC is “supportive of [the] idea to bring water back to the original waterfall, but given our charge, we cannot offer any monetary or construction assistance”. A partial victory, to be sure, but also a challenge to help ODOT find funding for the Warren Falls restoration.

This historic streambed of Warren Creek, now permanently cut off from the stream, could have a “bridge-like” crossing and an interpretive sign describing the area history.

An interesting footnote to the meeting was a conversation I had afterward with a reader of this blog who had watched the presentation, and thought a much simpler solution was possible for restoring Warren Falls: simply pull out the “trash rack” grate, and let Warren Creek do the rest. The stream would surely plug the tunnel with debris and gradually start flowing over its original falls without an elaborate engineering solution for retiring the tunnel.

It’s a temptingly simple idea, and came from a person with a professional background as a hydrologist, no less. So, that scaled-back option will be my starting point as I look for additional funding for bringing back Warren Falls.

Warren Falls Lives!

After the HCRH Advisory Committee presentation, I bolted for the Starvation Creek trailhead, with a strong hunch that Warren Falls would be flowing that day. Despite the bright, blue skies on March 16, the previous week had seen an unusually cold and wet weather pattern, and the gorge waterfalls visible from the highway were roaring.

As hoped, when I arrived at Hole-in-the-Wall Falls, part of Warren Creek was flowing down the normally dry channel that leads to Warren Falls. I captured the following video as I walked along the temporary stream, then rounded a corner to find water flowing over Warren Falls, once again. Warren Falls lives!

As with previous visits when Warren Falls was flowing, the experience was magical. Instead of hearing the echoes of trucks on I-84 in the dry amphitheater surrounding the falls, I could hear only the sound of Warren Creek — or the overflowing part of it, at least — cascading over the 120-foot brink of the falls, then splashing down the normally dry streambed to the point where it re-joins the main stream of Warren Creek, at Hole-in-the-Wall Falls.

This clip marks the moment when a large rock came over the falls, in the background… CRACK!

The video still image, above, marks a somewhat jarring moment on this visit, however: if you listen closely at 0:47 you can hear a CRACK! in the background, then an abrupt end to that clip in the video. This is the sound of a soccer ball-sized rock coming over the top of the falls — just as designed — and landing in the debris pile near the base. It was not only startling to hear this, but also a bit ominous, considering that on previous visits I had been standing at the base of the falls shooting video and still photos. If you visit when Warren Falls is flowing, please don’t stand near the base of the falls!

Finally, there was a pleasant surprise on the way out that day. For some reason I had never noticed, but the USFS trailhead sign at Starvation Creek (pictured at the top of this article) actually lists Warren Falls as a destination! Clearly, the Forest Service meant Hole-in-the-Wall Falls, but I choose to look upon the sign as a good omen that the real Warren Falls will be restored!

Friends for Warren Falls

My month of Warren Falls adventures continued on March 25, when I guided a Friends of the Gorge hike on a tour of the Starvation-area waterfalls, including a visit to Warren Falls. At 24 hikers, the group was by far the largest I have led to the falls site!

Friends of the Gorge hike visits the site of Warren Falls

Warren Falls was once again dry on this visit, but the group was fascinated by the odd history of the diversion project, the obvious signs that Warren Falls had recently flowed, and the magnificence of the massive basalt amphitheater that frames the falls.

Restore Warren Falls on Facebook

I’ve had many people ask how they can support the effort to restore Warren Falls. In response, I have finally set up a Facebook page for people to track progress on the project and vote their support for the idea:

Warren Falls on Facebook

You can help out by stopping by the Facebook page, like it, and then forward the web link to like-minded friends. If the project picks up enough “likes”, it will help me make the case to ODOT and elected officials that popular support exists for the project.


Thanks go out to those who have already stopped by the Facebook page, and thanks, especially, to Scott Cook for speaking out in support of Warren Falls at both HCRH Advisory Committee meetings — very much appreciated, Scott!

Please watch the Warren Falls page on Facebook for more updates on the project as the it unfolds over the next several months.