Exploring Oregon’s forests: A wintry waterfall hike


Tucked in the deep western side of the Oregon’s Cascade Range is a world that can be described as “clamorous serenity,” at Sahalie and Koosah falls. 

The falls are in the Willamette National Forest off Highway 126, about 75 miles east of Eugene. Known as the McKenzie Highway, 126 runs parallel to the McKenzie River, all the way to its source at Clear Lake. A visit to Sahalie and Koosah – spectacular waterfalls nestled in a lush Douglas-fir forest – is one of the many highlights along the route that showcase Oregon’s natural beauty.

Wooden sign on tree that reads "Waterfall Trail."

On a recent winter Saturday, I hiked through the forest to view the magnificent falls. There are more than 70 miles of road from Eugene before you get to Sahalie and Koosah. It’s worth every mile. After leaving the industrial strip of Springfield, the road mellows. Low, verdant Willamette foothills nestle the communities of Walterville, Leaburg and Vida. The scars of the 2020 wildfires still permeate the higher foothills. Patches of reforested saplings trim the evergreen horizon as the hills ripple in the background. The tumbling McKenzie River alongside the road reminds visitors of the inclining journey. The town of McKenzie Bridge is the last stop before the true climb into the Cascades. 

As I approached the mountains, cars bound for Central Oregon followed the highway’s curve to the north, tracking on pavement peppered white with fresh snowflakes. The forest slowly swallowed the space flanking the road as I hit an elevation of 2,000 feet. Out the driver’s-side window, a brown and yellow sign signaled my first destination: Sahalie Falls.

Snowman in the forest.

The metropolis of Douglas-firs that awaited me was bustling with life. Entering the forest from the highway requires cautious tiptoeing to reach the trailhead. Smiling faces returning from an adventure with star-struck eyes ascended the trail to the busy parking lot. The water’s rush became audible as I stomped down on the icy snow and grabbed the mossy railings. Then, following the camera flashes beyond the snowy cliffs, I saw Sahalie Falls. The behemoth roar was inescapable as the whitewater ripped through adolescent trees and scalloped cliffs, misting the slick green rocks below. Undisturbed, decomposing fallen trees hugged the moss and snow in the shallow river valley. It was hard to imagine what else could hide in this winter wonderland. 

Waterfall with snow-covered rocks surrounding it.

Sahalie Falls is an exciting start to the Waterfall Trail hike. “Sahalie” is a Chinook word for “high.” Navigating the snowy path required stepping into the foot-size impressions and grabbing the thin trees for balance. It would be easy to become a victim of gravity on the icy layer of snow covering the trail. It felt like a narrow busy street, with the rush of the McKenzie River like rush-hour traffic and the towering trees like skyscrapers. I stomped down the center of the trail, occasionally stepping too far to one side and finding my lower leg swallowed by the snow. Luckily, the younger trees along the trail guided my direction. Trees filled with heavy clumps of snow escorted me along the trail of muddy rocks and hemlocks. Eventually I saw the familiar sight of a mossy banister. 

Waterfall with split flows surrounded by trees.

After drinking in the majesty of Sahalie, I continued until I recognized the echoes ahead. I eased around the corner to see Douglas-firs projecting from the cliffs. I assumed any root damage might cause a long drop into the pool below. The evergreen facade eventually faded and revealed Koosah Falls. The Chinook translation of “Koosah” describes the heavenly descent of the water from the sky. The twin falls flooded the mossy river bottom. The double-trouble mist caused cloudy turbulence, as if to shield what hides behind. I reflected, perched on a damp wooden bench as the smell of conifers filled my nose. The tumultuous river and the immovable forest in this world of serenity contrast with the natural clamorous environment. There’s peace in the balance of chaos and tranquility. I took a moment to pause and reflect on this symbolism. Breathe in, breathe through, breathe deep, breathe out. This was the good life.

Sign that says "Willamette National Forest viewpoint Sahalie Falls

Oregon’s forests are amazing. To check out this breathtaking hike for yourself, learn more here

Trey Pokorney
Social Media & Outreach Intern 


9755 SW Barnes Rd., Suite 210        
Portland, OR 97225        
Phone: 971-673-2944        
Fax: 971-673-2946

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