Place of wonder
We were looking down and across the Williamson River when one of the admirers yelped: “Wow, this is View-Ti-Ful! … I mean beautiful!”
Whoever it was — I was too busy laughing to remember who — was correct on both counts.
About 500 feet below us was the Williamson River, curling, cutting and weaving its way through the canyon below. We gawked and gazed.
Part of the pleasure was knowing that we’d earned the view. Instead of driving along a bumpy dirt road, we had reached a “View-Ti-Ful” overlook from rocky rim perches after climbing up a steep, make-our-own trail to the road above the Williamson River Canyon.
Once on the road, signs indicated a designated trail while other signs declared closure areas, sections closed to hikers, mountain bikers and others to protect areas culturally significant to local Indian tribes.
We avoided the closures and followed the marked trail. And several times, the trail led to scenic overlooks that offered differing perspectives of the river, the canyon and its fractured basalt walls, pillars and cliffs.
From the overlooks, it’s easy to understand why some people have dubbed the Williamson River Canyon “Little Yosemite.” With its rugged, sometimes ragged, beauty — including erratically shaped, often knobby and pointy pinnacles — the canyon carved by the winding Williamson River is a place of wonder.
While many of the cliffs flanking the canyon are too steep for hikers, some are reportedly used as training terrain by rock climbers. Several years ago, the region was used by climbing classes from Oregon Institute of Technology.
But the Williamson River Canyon is relatively little visited. Most of the area’s few visitors follow a not-always distinct trail along the river’s west side. And when water levels are high enough, the section of the Williamson north of Collier Memorial State Park and Fremont-Winema Forest’s Williamson River Campground is one that friends and I have paddled.
After admiring the river and canyon from above, we dropped to the riverside trail by slithering down a forgiving section of semi-loose soil. On the hike back to our cars, we paused at openings to, as before, appreciate views from alongside the river.
There’s another way to see sections of the river and canyon — from the view car on the Amtrak Coast Starlight passenger train that runs from Klamath Falls to Chemult, Eugene and points north each morning.
But the Williamson River Canyon is just a small segment of the 100-mile-long river. From its spring-fed headwaters near the Yamsi Ranch east of Chiloquin, the river drains about 3,000 square miles. The Williamson and its principal tributary, the Sprague River, provide more than half the inflow to Upper Klamath Lake. The Williamson River is also a legendary fishery, known for its trophy-sized rainbow and brook trout.
The river actually has had several names, but its known name remembers Lt. Robert Stockton Williamson, who explored areas of central Oregon for the Pacific Railroad Surveys in 1855. But according to “Oregon Geographic Names,” Capt. John C. Fremont had earlier named it Torrey River to honor his botanist friend, Professor John Torrey.
Fremont’s naming came after his party fought a group of Klamath Indians along the river in 1846. Even earlier, according to “Geographic Names,” the Klamaths called the river Koke or, sometimes, Ya-aga-Koke, with ya-aga “being the word for willow trees not far from the mouth of the stream.”
By whatever name, and whether seen from Amtrak, on the water, from the riverside trail or perches several hundred feet above, the views of the Williamson River and its canyon are truly “View-Ti-Ful!”
Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at email@example.com or 541-880-4139.