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5 waterfalls in 5 miles

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UNION CREEK — When East Coasters Zander Farr and Joseph Kilgallen awoke Tuesday morning at Diamond Lake, the visitors decided the next stop on their epic tour of America ought to be a waterfall — one close to Highway 230. And a short hike, because Berlin wanted to stay in his flip-flops.

“Honestly, we don’t stop at anything that’s more than 10 minutes off the road,” says Kilgallen, 22, of Charleston, S.C. “But it’s nice to wake up and go to a waterfall.”

These asphalt adventurers opted to visit National Creek Falls, where their close-to-the-highway zen treated them well.

The 40-foot falls on this tributary of the far upper Rogue River includes a unique combination of crystal-clear spring water, Mount Mazama pumice, mossy basalt and gravity, creating an aesthetic visual latte that highlights the senses of those who chase waterfalls.

“It’s nice to get a little mist on your face in the morning,” says Farr, 23, of Berlin, Maryland.

National Creek Falls is one of five waterfalls within five miles of each other along the far upper Rogue near Union Creek that create a unique and, in some cases, rather unique version of the spring waterfall tour for which Southern Oregon is famous.

Ranging from a Highway 230 pullout to a four-mile hike along the Upper Rogue River Trail, this short but dense collection of falls offers a mix of standard, easy-to-find features and off-the-path water plunges rarely highlighted on conventional waterfall tours.

These falls are all either on the Wild and Scenic Section of the far Upper Rogue above Union Creek or its tributaries and are best visited now amid the perfect storm of improved weather and traditionally robust and clear high-mountain spring runoff.

Highway Falls: This aptly named feature is along Highway 230 at milepost 5 3/4, a spot where the highway drops down close to the road on a big bend. The Rogue drops 10 feet off a chunk of basalt dropped there by exploding Mount Mazama.

It’s worth hitting the pullout for a deeper view of the falls through windows in the Douglas firs lining the bank there. Scrambling down the bank to river level can be a bit sketchy, however.

Rough Rider Falls: Named for former President Teddy Roosevelt, this waterfall is the most difficult of the five to get to, but it’s well worth the effort.

The falls are on the Upper Rogue River Trail, and the best way to get there is a four-mile hike each way from Hamaker Campground. It’s kind of easy to miss as you hike upstream, but you’ll know you have the right one by the sign hammered into a tree.

Upstream of the falls, the Rogue gets squeezed between canyon walls to give it a little extra speed as it is launched 20 feet straight down before hitting rocks. In all, the falls are 30 feet high and are framed by moss that has an iridescent tone that pops out in jpeg images.

To get to Hamaker Campground, take Highway 230 to Forest Road 6530 and follow the signs to the old campground and entrance.

Muir Creek Falls: The picturesque falls on this creek named for naturalist John Muir is tough to find. The trailhead isn’t marked and it includes some off-trail hiking but those who find it marvel at the falls.

Take Forest Road 6560 off Highway 230 near milepost 12. Go less than a half-mile to a trailhead on the left. Walk in to the triangled stop sign facing toward the road. Go left to the creek, then follow the creek to the falls.

Alkali Falls: This string of cascades between small pools on Alkali Creek travels 560 feet in just one-tenth of a mile, making it one of the five tallest waterfalls in Oregon — although some argue that it isn’t a true waterfall because of those intermittent pools.

The falls are within the Rogue-Umpqua Divide Wilderness Area, and the .2-mile trail is littered with downed trees and limbs. In fact, two large trees block vehicles from the final few feet of travel to the trailhead.

The trail takes you to the middle section of the falls and to a small pool at the base of a long cascade along basalt smoothed by centuries of flow.

Ironically, Alkali Creek and Alkali Falls have nothing to do with alkaline. They are named for mid-1800s sheepherders who worked the area here, and they were predominantly from Central Oregon, where most of Oregon’s alkali lakes lie. The name stuck.

To get there, take Highway 230 to Forest Road 6540, a gravel road not as well marked as other nearby arteries. The drive into the trailhead is well signed.

But the gem of this little three-hour tour is National Creek Falls, and what visitors get out of it depends upon what they put into it.

Kilgallen and Berlin hiked down the trail, first stopping at a small plateau at the top of the falls before following the trail down to the base. But they stayed there, soaking in an obstructed view, like watching a football game from the locker-room tunnel.

“It’s nice,” Berlin says. “But not as nice as some of the ones we saw in the Columbia Gorge.”

Mike Jones of Eugene, however, invested more effort during an impromptu visit he and wife, Karen Jones, made Tuesday during a pre-Memorial Day camping getaway.

Mike Jones executed the probably-shouldn’t-try-this maneuver of employing his rubber-bottom sandals to walk across one of the fallen trees that span the creek below the falls.

One series of old-growth chunks are wider but cloaked in mist and extremely dangerous to traverse under these conditions; Jones chose a downstream tree that’s quite skinny but mostly dry, a move that Karen Jones declined after two not-so-confident steps on the log.

With guts came the glory of a full view of the falls, an outdoor aesthete’s latest snapshot in the artful collage of South Cascades water features.

“It’s stunning, gorgeous,” Mike Jones says. “I’ll have to describe to her what she’s missing.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

National Creek Falls, photographed here in 2013, is a staple of the upper Rogue River spring waterfall tour. Photo: Dustin Peters
Photo by Zach UrnessRough Rider Falls