Hidden gems on the Oregon Coast Range: 100-foot waterfalls

The Coast Range is not famous for waterfalls.

Within the green and blue mosaic of rolling mountains, you’ll find patches of old-growth trees, silver streams and a lush rainforest of wildlife and plants.

But waterfalls?

The few that drop through the Coast Range rarely eclipse 40 feet and are certainly no match for the thundering majesty of cascades in the Columbia River Gorge or Silver Falls State Park.

Except, hidden in a remote canyon of mist-soaked mountains, at the end of gravel roads filled with potholes the size of swimming pools, is a trio of waterfalls that can challenge anything in Oregon.

The Kentucky Falls Trail, southeast of Florence, combines coastal lushness with the raw power of water dropping more than 100 feet. If the name feels out of place, than so do the cascades, two of which thunder side-by-side in one of the state’s most spectacular hideaways.

The trail is moderately strenuous at 4.4 miles round-trip, dropping (and then climbing back up) a total of 825 feet. Kentucky Falls Trail connects with the North Fork Smith River Trail to form what a few years ago was among the state’s most impressive routes.

Sadly, a devastating series of storms and high water events knocked out two of the bridges on the North Fork Trail and left it in ragged condition. (The Forest Service hopes to raise enough money to fix the bridges by next year).

Still, it’s possible for adventurous types to continue up to 10 miles on the combined trails during a longer hike or backpacking trip.But no matter how you choose to experience the Kentucky Falls area, just reaching the trailhead is half the battle.

The drive

A common theme when it comes to visiting the Coast Range’s most beautiful places is the pain-in-the-butt drive that’s required.The Valley of the Giants, home to some of Oregon’s largest and oldest trees, is only 33 miles from Salem as the crow flies but a whopping two hours and 15 minutes of driving on a maze of logging roads.

Kentucky Falls Trail demands even more time in the car and a similar adventure on unmarked logging roads where a wrong turn could lead to a serious amount of confusion.

The exciting part of the drive starts off Highway 126 west of Eugene, following the Siuslaw River and Whittaker Creek, climbs almost 2,700 feet past active logging, clear-cuts and a peak apparently called “Roman Nose” where the views spread across the rolling lumps of the Coast Range.

While logging trucks barreling down the road are the greatest danger, and there’s a bit of white-knuckle exposure near the highest point, the biggest annoyance are massive potholes and a confusion of unmarked roads. Many people have been forced to turn around after getting lost on these roads.

Eventually, you’ll reach a paved road that glides downhill to a wonderful little trailhead with picnic benches and an outhouse that registers a “moderately awful” rating on the stink-o-meter.

Double falls

Even in the most famous locations, you’ll rarely see two different 100-foot waterfalls standing right next door to each other.

Yet in this canyon of black columnar basalt and thick mossy green, both North Fork Falls (120 feet) and Lower Kentucky Falls (100 feet) drop side-by-side, joining together in a crashing, misty pool where hikers can watch the show from an observation deck or scramble to a small island for a better view.

From the trailhead, the hike begins by entering a forest of old-growth Douglas fir and, during spring, passes wildflowers that include white trilliums and a multitude of smaller, red, gold and purple wildflowers.

At mile 0.6, the trail passes the first of three waterfalls — Upper Kentucky Falls — a multitiered giant that on any other hike would be the major highlight.

The trail crosses a pair of footbridges as it weaves downhill, the forest growing ever denser until it halts at a T-junction. To reach the two spectacular waterfalls, turn right.

Most people will check out the double waterfalls and go back the way they came to complete the 4.4 mile out-and-back hike.

But if you’ve got energy remaining, consider exploring the North Fork Smith River Trail. The scenery isn’t quite as dramatic — that would hardly be possible — but the forest here is more lush and the trees larger.

The trail wasn’t in great shape during my visit. It was clogged with downed trees and washed out in some areas.

Still, two smaller waterfalls and an absolutely gorgeous swimming hole await down this path, which heads about three miles before reaching the first knocked-out bridge.

The Coast Range is not a place famous for waterfalls, but on this remote trail, you’ll find a collection that can challenge the state’s most famous cascades.