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Hard Slog To Stuart Falls

A few years back, the route up Red Blanket Creek to Stuart Falls was a scenic and relatively easy 9-mile round-trip day hike.

In 2014, the 790 fire in the Sky Lakes Wilderness Area burned about 3,000 acres in a beautiful mosaic pattern near the southern boundary of the Crater Lake National Park. The old-growth forest canopy in the Red Blanket watershed is still largely intact, and the rejuvenating ecological effects of the fire are evident everywhere.

The Red Blanket Trail is in rough shape, however. Pretty much every creek crossing along the trail blew out, sometimes dramatically. Two of the blowouts are especially noteworthy and remain extremely unstable and dangerous. Only experienced hikers with proper gear should attempt to find safe passage up, through or around the significant debris-shoots that have wiped out the trail. It appears the Forest Service has simply given up on trail maintenance in the area, which is a shame because Red Blanket Creek, Red Blanket Falls and Stuart Falls have been popular recreation destinations for generations.

Another new obstacle is that Forest Service Road 6205 has blown out and is impassible to vehicles about 2.5 miles before the Red Blanket Trailhead, which adds another 5 miles round-trip to the adventure. While this longer walk along the road is both pleasant and gentle, it is nonetheless a sweet relief to reach the wilderness trailhead and enter the cool shade of the forest proper. The easy stroll through the many and varied riparian areas and burned forests along the extra road miles are a silver lining to losing motorized access to the trailhead.

While it's probably gone now, when I visited Red Blanket Creek in early June with two close friends and my intrepid trail-dog Zola, a small laminated Forest Service sign at the trailhead indicated that the trail was impassable. This is not too far from the truth. The blowouts, down logs and longer access make this corner of the Sky Lakes Wilderness much more remote and challenging than it was just a handful of years ago. 

There is a better-maintained route to Stuart Falls that is a bit of a secret. Many Pacific Crest through-hikers on their ramble from Mexico to Canada jump off the PCT briefly in the “Oregon Desert” in the Sky Lakes Wilderness and take trail 1078 north into Crater Lake National Park, passing right by the old stock camp at Stuart Falls. This is a much longer way to access the Falls, but the trail is in top-notch shape.

So what’s the big deal about Stuart Falls anyway? After all, waterfalls are how the Cascade Mountain Range got its name. What can one hard-to-reach falls have to offer that can’t be easily seen at scores of roadside waterfalls throughout Oregon? My only answer is that this gorgeous cascade nestled in a spectacular forest provides adventure, solitude and challenge to those who find reward in such intangibles.

My friends, my dog and I spent two nights at a small base camp at Red Blanket Falls. That allowed us to hike in a little over 5 miles from the road blowout on 6205 and set up camp within an easy walk of Stuart Falls the next day. And two nights in the wilderness is always better than one.

We saw plenty of bear and elk scat on the trail, but no human footprints. Our only interaction with another visitor was a mildly lost PCT hiker who stopped at Stuart Falls for a quick photo and then kept making tracks for the Mazama campground 7 or so miles to the north in Crater Lake National Park.

If I could, I would describe the beauty and grace of Stuart Falls in a way that would do it justice. But I can’t. It is a special place in a remote wildland that captures the imagination in a way that defies easy description. Adventure calls and Stuart Falls must be experienced on its own terms or not at all.

Logistics: The Forest Service isn’t joking when they claim that the Red Blanket trail is impassable. The road isn’t passable either. If you aren’t prepared for a backcountry challenge, then don’t utilize the Red Blanket trailhead. An easier route to Stuart Falls is possible through Pumice Flat in Crater Lake National Park, but even that route should be attempted only with proper preparation, maps and gumption.

George Sexton is conservation director for KS Wild.

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Red Blanket Falls in the Sky Lakes Wilderness Area. Photo by George Sexton
The long, hard hike makes the sight of Stuart Falls even more rewarding. Photo by George Sexton