Mike Toohey is a waterfall junkie. The help desk technician at Southern Oregon University has been all over Oregon, catching the rush of water in photographs at dozens of falls from the Upper Rogue region to the coast to the Columbia Gorge.
"You go into some of these place and it's quiet and it's peaceful. You see what the Creator's done," says Toohey, a Talent resident. "It's just fantastic, and most of them are within a half-mile or a mile of where you park."
Fifteen waterfalls along the Rogue-Umpqua Scenic Byway (highways 138, 230, 62 and 234) are there for the (photograph) taking, including Susan Creek Falls, Toketee Falls and Watson Falls. Watson Falls, plunging 272 feet, is the third-highest waterfall in Oregon.
Minimum driving time is 5 to 7 hours (172 total miles). The best time of the year to go is June through October.
For more information, go to www.tripcheck.com/Pages/SBrogueRiver.asp
He's quick to pick his two favorite sites in the state — a collection of falls in Silver Falls State Park east of Salem, and Lower Kentucky Falls in the Coast Range west of Eugene — though Oregon boasts hundreds of falls, many just a short trip from the Rogue Valley.
Mill Creek Falls and Barr Creek Falls south of Prospect, located in the Mill Creek Falls Scenic Area developed by a timber company, is one such trip. There are also Toketee Falls and Watson Falls off Highway 138 east of Roseburg along the North Umpqua River.
Oregon's waterfalls range from the roar of world-famous Multnomah Falls to sometimes barely a trickle over a precipice in forests scattered statewide. Depending on the time of year, each waterfall takes on a personality to match the season, Toohey says.
"I was at Lower South Falls in Silver Falls State Park one August. It drops 177 feet, but it was drier by that time of year. I decided to go back on New Year's Day after a winter storm. What a difference," he says. "This time it was like hearing a diesel locomotive when I came up to it."
Toohey, who started photographing falls in 2004, says he uses Gregory Alan Plumb's "Waterfall Lover's Guide to the Pacific Northwest" (The Mountaineers Books; 2005; 384 pages) to map out his excursions, keeping a copy of the well-worn book in his car. (An abbreviated, online version of Plumb's book is available at www.mymaps.com/nwfalls/toc.htm, but does not include descriptions or directions to waterfalls, the author says.)
It's nearly impossible to come up with an objective list of the best falls in Oregon, says Plumb, chairman of the cartography and geography department at East Central University in Ada, Okla. "I've never run out of more to go to, ever," he says.
Toohey says he has experienced highs and lows on his trips, from serene isolation to fighting the crowds.
One disappointment came when he searched for a little-seen waterfall in the Coast Range a few years back. "I drove in about 7 or 9 miles on a back road that switched to a gravel road, then to a logging road," he says. "After 2 or 3 miles, I finally parked, then walked in another 2 miles. It was nothing. It was dripping down."
Because some waterfall locations are so isolated, safety-minded waterfall hunters would be wise to tell people when they're going out alone, Toohey advises.
"A cell phone probably is not going to work in most of these places," he notes. "I make sure I have a space blanket, something to start a fire with, some drinking water and maybe some dried-up food."
He warns people to consider how long it takes to get to some of the falls in Oregon — sometimes hours one-way.
"Even when you get back to the car, there can be 16 miles of road to get back to a highway. You're still up in the middle of nowhere," he says.
But when a trip is planned out correctly and everything falls into place, there's nothing better," Toohey says.
"It's a calming thing. I was at Falls Creek Falls (in the Cascade Range) and it was beautiful. Suddenly, a guy came walking up and said, 'Oh, God.' I said, 'He's a great painter, isn't he?' "