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Trails around Gerber Reservoir offer a dam good hike

It had been a nice hike, one offering a different perspective of Gerber Reservoir and surprisingly fast flowing Miller Creek rumbling through rock-ragged Miller Creek Canyon.

But it was a damn, or more correctly, dam nice surprise near the end of the walk that made it unique.

We began the hike, only a 3.3-mile round-trip, from Gerber Recreation Area’s South Campground, which is open year-round. The first part of the route along the Gerber Potholes Trail works its way gradually uphill, eventually offering ever-increasingly beautiful views of Miller Creek. The 7-1/2-mile long creek is the reservoir’s outlet that drains into irrigation canals in the Langell Valley on its way to the Lost River.

From the campground, the trail passes through Ponderosa pine and juniper woodlands. After about a mile the glimpses of Miller Creek reveal sweeping scenic views of the rambunctious creek that’s carved its way through Miller Creek Canyon, exposing fascinating, craggy basaltic rock formations. Why Miller? The creek is named for James Miller, an Irishman who traveled across the continent in 1844 with the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy Party.

At the junction with a gravel road, another trail heads southwest to the primitive Miller Creek Campground and back north to the continuation of the Gerber Potholes Trail. Instead, we followed the road across a bridge to the Miller Creek picnic area, which has picnic tables and a restroom. From there it was a mile along the road north before angling northwest onto a rocky road.

The otherwise nondescript road section was made interesting by the sighting of a bald eagle perched atop a tall snag. Depending on the time of year, the short stretch along the rocky road ends with a steep downhill that provides a view of Gerber Dam’s backside, where its waters spill into Miller Creek. The dam was built in 1925 when the Bureau of Reclamation completed its construction to create an irrigation impoundment.

Gerber honors Louis C. Gerber, an early pioneer who owned much of the land flooded by the reservoir. Gerber and his family were among the first non-Natives to settle the area, which is about 42 miles from Klamath Falls. In 1895 he filed a homestead claim on a 168-acre parcel and in later years bought 120 abandoned homesteads to create the Gerber Ranch. In 1923 he sold 1,008 acres to the federal government.

The region has a fascinating history. It’s believed Native Americans had occupied areas around what is now Gerber Reservoir for more than 6,000 years before the first non-Native settlers arrived. Family bands of Klamath and Modoc people used the sites from early spring to early fall for hunting, fishing and plant gathering. Years later, during World War II, the island in the reservoir was used as a bombing range by the U.S. military.

The reservoir itself covers 3,815 acres. The watershed that drains into the reservoir from Miller Creek, Barnes Creek, Barnes Valley Creek and Ben Hall Creek spreads over 234 square miles. The reservoir is about five miles long and nearly 2-1/2 miles wide and has an average, but often variable, depth of 65 feet. Gerber Lake is favored by fishermen who access the lake from developed boat ramps. Fish include crappie, perch, bass and three species of trout — brown, rainbow and brook.

Our major bird sighting was the bald eagle, but the reservoir provides habitat for several birds, including western and red-necked grebes, common loons, hood and common mergansers, Canada geese, trumpeter swans, sandhill cranes, pelicans, bluebirds, great horned and great gray owls, snipes, long-billed curlews, juncos, flycatchers, hummingbirds, osprey, vultures and sandpipers, along with many other waterfowl, songbirds and birds of prey.

But it was the manmade dam that was startling. The rocky road drops steeply to a steel bridge propped alongside the concrete dam and over Miller Creek. It looks solid, but we spaced out while crossing, just in case. One hiker carried her small dog across the span while another led his pup, which carefully tiptoed across to avoid getting his paws stuck in the opening. Located partway up the tall reservoir wall, the bridge walk offered a sense of the dam’s size.

Once across, a short but steep uphill revealed the south end of the sprawling reservoir. On a day that included rumbling Miller Creek, its radically shaped canyon walls, the posing bald eagle, the metal bridge, views of Gerber Reservoir and the concrete reservoir-enclosing wall, it was a dam fine hike.

Gerber Reservoir and developed campgrounds are located about 42 miles east of Klamath Falls. To get there from Klamath Falls, take Highway 140 East for 15 miles to Dairy. Turn right on Highway 70 and go five miles to Bonanza. From Bonanza, continue past Big Springs Park on East Langell Valley Road for about 11 miles. Turn left at the intersection of Gerber Road, a 90-degree corner, then follow Gerber Road about 8-1/2 miles to the Gerber Recreation Site entrance. Continue to the South Gerber Campground.

For more information, contact the Bureau of Land Management’s Klamath Falls Field Office, 2795 Anderson Ave., Building No. 25; call 541-883-6916; or visit online at www.blm.gov/visit/gerber-recreation-area-camping.

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

A hiker crosses the bridge over Miller Creek below the dam at Gerber Reservoir. Photo by Lee Juillerat
Miller Creek on its way to Langell Valley. Photo by Lee Juillerat