Finding Autumn on the Umpqua

October 21, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

I simply couldn’t let October pass by without getting out into the Cascades to enjoy the fall colors. Which meant putting aside hiking into alpine terrain for a few days to explore the river valleys, where maples and oak trees shine orange amongst the sea of evergreens.  In past years, I have bee-lined for the Columbia River Gorge - after all, it has waterfalls, amazing foliage, and views of Hood and Adams. But being a regular visitor to that area in all seasons, I wanted to try somewhere new for my autumn road trip this year.

I settled on a grand loop tour of the Umpqua and Willamette Rivers.  I had driven the road along the Willamette several times, usually heading towards Diamond Peak, but never slowed down to really appreciate the twists of the river and the surrounding forest.  The Umpqua is often cited as the best drive in Oregon - the “highway of waterfalls” - but I had only done it once on a tight schedule.


My travel buddy, Pete, taking in the scenery of the Umpqua.


So, in early October a buddy and I set off for the Umpqua Highway with gloomy skies and an ominous forecast.  We didn’t let the rain stop us, though (it is Oregon, after all!), taking every turn-off along the highway as a chance to get down to the river and explore the huge boulders and rock walls that make it so special among Oregon’s big rivers. We weren’t alone, despite the rain - fly fishermen were out in force along the river looking to land chinook salmon.


Fly fishermen calling it a day after spending the morning on the river.


The gorge of Toketee Creek, just a hundred feet upstream of the famous waterfall.


By the end of the day, we had climbed the highway all the way to the Cascade crest around Diamond Lake and were treated to an autumn scene that could only happen in the mountains.  Across the lake, a snowstorm over Mount Bailey was illuminated by a brilliant sunset, while looking further east Mount Thielson was swept by clouds with only its summit peeking into view.


Mount Bailey's summit was covered in clouds while the sun set over the western Cascades.


When we set out the following morning, the snow started again in earnest. I couldn’t resist spending nearly an hour at a dock on the lake, abandoned for the winter and accumulating snowflakes. Of course, it didn’t take long for my fingers to start hurting from the cold and I was cursing myself for not thinking to bring a pair of gloves.

The drive through the Cascade crest, just outside Crater Lake National Park, was almost eerie. On the arrow-straight road, we could see the headlights of the few oncoming cars from miles away, while a glow from the sunrise backlit the grey-blue clouds to the east. As we crossed into pine forest, the snow stopped as suddenly as it began - a pretty stark example of the Cascades’ rain shadow effect!


Looking east down Highway 138 as the snow fell heavily around us.


After heading north through the high desert, we turned back into the mountains to make our way down the Willamette River.  I stopped for a short time along Crescent Creek, following the footpath of fishermen towards the creek before sinking into the surrounding marsh. As we began to head downhill, spectacular orange maple leaves once again dotted the fir forest lining the road.  The most notable part of the day was spent exploring the railroad line that leads up to Pengra Pass - just as we arrived at the tracks, we heard the unmistakable rumble of a train climbing up the line.


A wheat train rumbled slowly up the tracks towards Pengra Pass with the help of 7 locomotive cars.


Two days on these rivers was hardly enough, but thankfully there’s still time left to catch some color before the mountains settle into winter.







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