Clackamas River Trail
to Pup Creek Falls
7.6 miles round trip | 1,050 feet elevation gain
NOTE TO SELF: Never again embark on a 7+ mile trail on an 80+ degree summer day with only one bottle of water and nothing to eat.
NOTE TO SELF: From now on, when your hiking plans include the Clackamas River Trail, be sure to wear swim trunks underneath your cargo pants and bring a towel and a good book.
Before today's hike of the Clackamas River Trail, I had gone three weeks without hiking! My dear wife sprained her ankle and our pet tortoise fell ill, so I decided to stay home and switch hats from being the Black Watch Sasquatch to being the Best-Husband-and-Pet-Dad-in-the-Universe. So three weekends passed without yours truly seeing a single hiking trail. Needless to say, when my usual Friday evening activity of selecting a hike for Saturday rolled around, I was second guessing my current state of physical fitness.
|Hwy 224 from Clackamas River Trail|
The first thing to mention is the drive out to the Clackamas River Trail. It's absolutely beautiful. Highway 224 becomes a thrilling scenic drive shortly after passing through the town of Estacada, Oregon. It is one of my favorite roads to drive: it is twisty without being nauseating, about every mile there is a place to pull over, it follows the often loud and churning Clackamas River, and the Clackamas River Gorge, although obviously not as grandiose as the Columbia River Gorge, is still remarkable.
After crossing two bridges, one right after another, on highway 224 roughly 14 miles south of Estacada, you'll turn right onto Fish Creek road for about 100 yards to a small gravel parking area. The trailhead is across the street from the parking area.
The stretch of the trail from the parking lot to the rocky "beach" I will label the first leg. This first leg is about 1 mile long, is very easy, and drops you off at what I think is a perfect place to relax, get some sun, read a book, have a picnic, take a dip, or just sit and watch the rafters and kayakers maneuver by. Guidebooks may tend to call this rocky outcrop a "beach" but it is really more like a flat but bumpy platform that juts out into the river. There are "tidepools" and little nooks and crannies perfect for dunking your feet into or, if it's late summer, your whole body into. Just don't venture out of these nooks and crannies, or else you'll get caught up in the very powerful and hazardous current. I spent a good 15 minutes sitting on this outcrop wishing I had a picnic, a novel, my swim trunks, a small towel, or heck, a can of beer. Part of me didn't even want to continue down the trail; I would've been perfectly content making a day out of hanging out on this rocky "beach." In fact, in the future, when I return to the Clackamas River Trail, I will likely do just that: remain on the "beach."
Here's what this rocky "beach" looks like, as well as that easy first leg of the trail that brings you to it.
If you can tear yourself away from the rocky "beach" (in a way, why would you?) continue upstream along the Clackamas River and down the trail. This second leg of the trail, roughly 1.75 miles long, fell victim to a forest fire in 2003 and the charred, hollowed out remains of old-growth trees line the trail like upright coffins. It's really a sight. Since this forest burned, it is also quite exposed and open to the elements. On a hot, sunny midday like the one I encountered today, you'll feel it most on this second leg of the trail as the sun beats down on you from directly above. (No worries, much better shade is not far ahead, in the third leg.) It is here, on the second leg, that you will start to experience a little elevation change. At certain points the trail will rise high above the level of the river, giving hikers good vantage points of the bright blue guided rafts floating on down below.
It is also on this leg of the trail where you may start to hear gunshots. That's right, gunshots. Far across the river, located on a mound above the highway, is an access area that attracts shooters. Fear not, they fire into the rock face in front of them, not in your direction whatsoever. On my way to Pup Creek, I stopped and just barely made out a few individuals firing a semi-automatic rifle at targets. You may not be able to see shooters very well from this distance, but unless you are stone deaf you will definitely hear them. The pop and crack of the discharges echo loudly in this small river gorge. Rather than fear the gunshots, fear the poison oak instead. This burn area has a decent amount of it. At one point, when descending down a stretch to reconnect with the river at its level, I nearly walked into an oily bush of poison oak that was about shoulder height due to its placement on the slope. So keep your eyes open!
Here are photos from the second leg of the hike, through the burn area.
The last leg of the trail leaves the burn zone and enters into a wondrous old forest that is far darker and shadier than the one you just left. In it you will find another small and shaded beach just off the main path, you will cross a campground accessed only on foot or by boat, and scramble down to a creek-side spot to sit near the bottom of the roughly 100 foot tall Pup Creek Falls.
Pup Creek Falls is a far cry from the beauty and grandeur of Ramona Falls, Multnomah Falls, or the biggies at Silver Falls State Park, but it is a very pleasant place to stop, rest your legs, and take in the rush and spray of a great waterfall. And besides, the one thing that Pup Creek Falls can offer you that Multnomah Falls or Silver Fall's State Park cannot offer you is solitude! I was the only person admiring Pup Creek Falls during the roughly 20 minutes I sat there. I could enjoy the sound of the waterfall in front of me and the river behind me. Try getting even a moment of solitude or peace and quiet at Multnomah Falls or Silver Falls State Park! Not going to happen! But Pup Creek, accessible only by foot via a 3.5 mile hike in one direction, is a great reward and a great place to take a load off for a while.
Here are photos from the beautiful Pup Creek Falls and the third leg of the trail.
It was moments before leaving my little nest at the base of Pup Creek Falls that it hit me: I had drank all my water, I had no food, I was extremely thirsty, hungry, and hot. And because of this, I felt very fatigued. Why do I do this to myself? I was in such a hurry to get out of the car and get some hiking done that I neglected to pull over on my way here and get something edible to pack in my bag; and I wrongly assumed that one Nalgene worth of water was enough. Realizing I had 3.8 miles to hike before I get to my car, and another 15 minutes worth of driving before I get into Estacada, I decided it was a good time to pack up, say tah tah to Pup Creek Falls, an book it back to my car. I don't think I've ever hiked this fast. I put the camera into my camera bag and was in a state of near-jog all the way back. Even though I hiked about as fast as I could, it felt like it took three times as long as it did because I was so hungry and thirsty (and therefore without energy).
I was relieved once I got back to the trailhead. I drove like hell back into Estacada, slammed into a parking spot in front of Fearless Brewing, all but sprinted into the front door, downed three glasses of water, destroyed a bratwurst and a catfish sandwich (both, as usual, amazing!) and slowly nursed two Fearless Scottish Ales while my body regained equilibrium.
So yes, I will not be doing that again. Especially if you're just day hiking, where weight is really not the biggest of issues, you're almost better off bringing too much water and food than too little. I have never really been a fan of heavy heat and blazing sun, and this trail had many more open, exposed parts than I thought it would. I sweat a lot of water out of my body on this hike, and I didn't have nearly enough to replenish. That's not a good feeling at all, let me tell you. And food! You need energy! Now I'm no expert hiker, but I'm certainly not a beginner either. But today, I acted like a beginner, and I learned a good lesson out of it.