SALEM, Ore. – The highlight of being an outdoors writer in Oregon is visiting places best described as “hidden gems.”
These are destinations every bit as spectacular as Oregon’s main tourist draws – Mount Hood, Columbia River Gorge, Silver Falls – that are visited a fraction of the time.
One the state’s best concentrations of hidden gems is the Central Coast Range, that long slice of green between the Willamette Valley and Oregon Coast.
Monstrous old-growth trees, 100-foot waterfalls and mountaintop viewpoints all can be had on trails here, mostly administered by Siuslaw National Forest.
In almost every case, the reason these places aren’t visited is remote location and a lack of knowledge. Not only are these trails little-known, but they’re often tucked deep at the end of confusing logging roads.
But now that we’re entering spring – the best time to enjoy these moss-draped trails – I thought I’d spotlight my top five favorite hikes of the Central Coast Range.
For exact mile-by-mile directions, follow the links to the original story.
Honorable mention: Valley of the Giants
My conscience won’t allow writing about destinations in the Central Coast Range and not mentioning Valley of the Giants, flawed though it might be.
Home to some of the largest and oldest Douglas fir and hemlock trees in Oregon, Valley of the Giants is an island of old-growth that offers a short but stunning 1.6-mile loop.
The downside is an awful drive on confusing, unmarked and pothole-filled logging roads that requires two hours and 20 minutes from Salem.
Trailhead coordinates: N44 56.184 W123 42.933 / 44.434344, -123.929792
Info: Call or visit BLM’s Salem District Office for mile-by-mile directions and a map: (503) 375-5646; 1771 Fabry Road, SE Salem, OR 97306.
5. Niagara Falls Trail
Despite the famous name, and despite its close location to Salem, few people have even heard of this spectacular hideaway, home to a pair of 120-foot waterfalls.
An easy trail of 2 miles round-trip takes hikers into a remote box canyon where Pheasant Creek and Niagara Falls roar like neighbors attempting to outdo each other.
Located northwest of Willamina, and about 10 miles east of Hebo Mountain, the drive from Salem requires navigating a series of county, BLM and Forest Service roads, but it can be reached in an hour-and-20-minute drive.
Trailhead coordinates: N45 12.844 W123 37.662 / 44.434344,-123.929792
Information: Hebo Ranger District, (503) 392-5100
4. Drift Creek Wilderness
The largest old-growth rainforest in Oregon is home to a carpet of moss and lichen that swallows everything without legs, showcases brightly colored wildflowers in spring and can be accessed by two semi-difficult trails east of Waldport.
The Harris Ranch Trail and Horse Creek Trail both drop 3 miles into the remote canyon of Drift Creek, a tributary of the Alsea, in a landscape that receives 120 inches of rain per year.
The Harris Ranch Trail is a bit easier to access (it’s a short jaunt off Highway 34) and offers better access to Drift Creek’s riverside beaches, while the Horse Ranch Trail offers slightly larger trees.
Info: Waldport Ranger District, (541) 563-3211
Trailhead coordinates (Harris Ranch): N44 25.715 W123 55.932 / 44.434344, -123.929792
3. Sweet Creek Falls
Among the most accessible trails in the Coast Range – and certainly in the top five of kid-friendly hikes statewide – this charmed trail passes 11 small waterfalls in 1.1 miles on a hike south of Mapleton.
The trail’s magic is the lack of boring moments. With catwalk-style bridges that wind atop the creek, plant life, wildlife and waterfalls, each step of the trail offers something new and interesting.
The drive from Salem does require a long trek, two hours and 20 minutes, but the hike fits well with a trip to Honeyman State Park on the Oregon Coast.
Coordinates: N43 57.483 W123 54.142 / 44.434344, -123.929792
Info: Central Coast Ranger District, (541) 563-8400, or Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area Visitor Center, (541) 271-6000
2. Marys Peak
Climbing the highest peak in the Oregon Coast Range is a rite of passage for many outdoor-lovers in the Willamette Valley.
The wildflower-dotted summit meadows offer spectacular vistas from the ocean to the Cascades during spring and summer, while providing training ground for climbers during winter.
Multiple trails lead to the 4,097-foot summit, from moderately difficult to quite strenuous, so head up the mountain and pick your own adventure. Remember to check conditions before making the trip and plan accordingly. The drive is about an hour and 20 minutes from Salem.
Trailhead coordinates: 44.49561 -123.54298
1. Kentucky Falls / North Fork Trail
The chance to visit three waterfalls dropping over 100 feet into an emerald forest would put Kentucky Falls Trail near the top of this list by itself, but the addition of the connecting North Fork Smith River Trail is what makes this spot No. 1.
Located in a remote no-man’s land between Eugene and Florence, the Kentucky Falls Trail drops downhill 2.2 miles one-way past Upper Kentucky Falls – a nice appetizer at 100 feet – before reaching the canyon where North Fork Falls (120 feet) and Lower Kentucky Falls (100 feet) thunder literally side-by-side.
Want to continue? You’re in luck, as North Fork Smith River Trail begins at the junction near the dueling waterfalls and travels an additional 6.5 miles through a rainforest jungle of old-growth on a ragged but stunning trail (sadly, a bridge is washed out 2 miles from the North Fork trailhead, so you’ll have to turn back unless you want to get adventurous.)
The downside, naturally, is a long and awful drive from the Willamette Valley that’s a bit easier from the coast side.
Even so, the trio of 100-foot waterfalls combined with the lush beauty of the North Fork Smith River makes this the top hike in the Central Oregon Coast Range.
Trailhead coordinates: N43 55.726 W123 47.610 / 44.434344, -123.929792
Info: Central Coast Ranger District, (541) 563-8400