One of my life’s joys is finding waterfalls. I am blessed to live in a state that has hundreds, if not thousands, of waterfalls. I devote weekends to visiting Oregon’s famous waterfalls, as well as her rarely visited waterfalls. After a few dozen waterfalls, a waterfall becomes just a waterfall. Not all are impressive or stunning. Of all the waterfalls, however, some are so breathtakingly beautiful, they instantly earn a place in your heart. Waking up on a cold and rainy February morning, I just had go visit one such waterfall: Tokatee Falls.
To the early native people of the Pacific Northwest, Tokatee meant “beautiful” or “graceful.” This is a fitting name for this little-known waterfall. Tokatee Falls sits between Crater Lake and the quiet town of Roseburg on Highway 138. While being an easy to access waterfall, it is not as well known as some of Oregon’s other waterfalls. This is mainly due to Tokatee’s location in Southern Oregon. But, those who venture away from the old beaten path of Crater Lake and travel down Highway 138 are treated to some of the most beautiful scenes that Oregon has to offer. The driving down Highway 138 is easy, and informational road signs easily get you to the Tokatee Falls Trailhead.
As you pull into the trailhead parking lot, the dominant feature is the massive pipe used to direct some the Umpqua River from the dam to the power generators. Probably the first thing everyone notices about the pipe is the various streams of water squirting out of the pipe. The streams of water come out with the pressure of someone holding their thumb over the end of a garden hose. This is a refreshing oasis during the summer. Not so much in the winter. As you approach the water pipe, you discover that the pipe isn’t concrete or corrugated steel, but wood planks. The water pipe is constructed of wood planks and held in place by metal bolts and bands. Built in 1949, it is constructed much like a giant wooden wine barrel. A kiosk near the trailhead informs visitors of the North Umpqua Hydroelectric Project, the dam, and tells you about the wooden water pipe. It also tells you about some of the more interesting geological features you’ll see on your way to the waterfall. The signs make finding the trailhead simple.
Soon after starting down the trail, the parking lot and the stave pipe disappear behind a wall of Douglas Firs and Maple trees. The ½ mile trail starts off nice and level. Even on this wet February day, the trail is still easy to hike. A rocky wall edges the trail on your right-hand side, while the Umpqua River edges the trail on the left. The large trees, the moss, the ferns, and the rocks all join to make this a serene part of the trail. Old growth firs have exposed roots on the hillside, as natural erosion has happened over time, giving one a glimpse of how massive a tree’s root system can be. The forest floor rises and falls as massive roots sculpt the landscape from below. I’ve noticed the first section of the trail sees the slowest hiking, as everyone seems to slow down to enjoy the unique beauty. Not too much further down the trail, things start to get rockier.
The terrain changes and the river enters a chasm. It is shallow at first, but the height of the chasm walls grows as the river flows toward the fall. The trail skirts the river but your distance to the river increases, as the trail follows the ledge at the top of the rocky chasm. While a nice short hike, this section has caused some to label the hike as difficult. The trail is clearly marked and provides the safest route over the rocky hill, but trails leading to the river are clearly visible. These small trails give you glimpses of the river as it travels down the chasm. The views are absolutely stunning! It is not uncommon to see smaller ‘waterfalls’ flowing down the walls of the chasm and into the river. Multiple whirlpools, cause by rocks being moved by the rushing river and boring holes in the riverbed, can be seen from various points along the chasm. The plant life in this little gorge is lush and just adds to the fairytale-like quality of the beauty. A medium sized fir’s life ended early, its final resting place spans the chasm, forming a bridge to the far side. This offers a rare and incredible view for those brave and/or crazy enough to venture out on this log of a bridge. This area is a hotspot for the shutter bugs and adventurers alike. As an avid explorer, it is nice to see that the visitors to Tokatee respect this treasure and litter and vandalism are almost non-existent. Meanwhile, the trail travels up and onward.
Towards the top of the hill, the trail’s incline is augmented by wooden stairs–in the neighborhood of 200, I’ve read. The stairs and a metal railing not only keep you on the trail, but also ensure you have a secure footing on the steepest part of the hike. Reaching the top of the hill rewards one with a wide-open view of the Umpqua River nestled in the mountains. Tall mountain peaks and the towering Douglas Firs, tenaciously clinging to the steep rocky sides of the mountains, perfectly frame the river as it winds its way downhill, on its journey to the Pacific Ocean. The weather here dictates how the view will look, but the view is always beautiful. This day was cold and rainy, so the clouds were low and heavy. There is something about low clouds and heavy fog in the mountains that excites my soul. Perhaps it is all the H.P. Lovecraft I read as a child. So, the view was even more captivating for me on this day. While the waterfall cannot be seen at this point, it can be heard. To view the waterfall, you descend a wooden staircase to the viewing deck.
The descent down the stairs is easy, as the stairs are actively maintained. Caution must be exercised while descending the stairs, as people often pay more attention to the unfolding scene than their feet. The stairs end at the viewing deck, which offers an unobstructed view of Tokatee Falls. Upon laying eyes on Tokatee, one instantly understands why this is a favorite to those who’ve made the journey. The wall of columnar basalt offers a contrasting backdrop to the deep blue water that flows out of the wall. Even from the viewing deck you can get a sense of the sheer power of the water. The water pools at the bottom of the waterfall, creating a scene of chaos and serenity. It also shows how clear and clean the Umpqua River is. The viewing deck looks down on the waterfall, so you can see the waterfall in the chasm, before the waterfall. No pictures will ever do this scene justice. No words can describe how refreshing the view is. And, for many, this is where the adventure ends. But, there are those who will feel the overwhelming desire to explore this waterfall further. Those are the people who notice a panel of fencing on the deck is missing. They are also the people who notice the hiker-made trail that leads down to the river.
While frowned upon by some, many hikers slip through the open fencing and make the risky trek down to the river. The ‘trail’ is a steep descent down a hillside that requires some hands and knees at some points. The view from the bottom, looking up at the waterfall, is nothing short of majestic. The high walls of the mountains and the old growth trees filter the light in such a way as to make the waterfall seem more like something that sprang from one’s own imagination. The pool at the bottom of the waterfall becomes the gathering spot for swimmers, explorers, photographers, and even the occasional cliff diver. Tokatee is one of those rare waterfalls that has an undercutting. Due to the unique nature of the undercutting, you cannot walk behind this waterfall. But, you can explore the cave-like undercutting beside the waterfall. From inside the undercutting, one can look up above and see the ends of the hexagonal columns that make up the rock wall and much of the rocky chasm above you. From here, the roar of the waterfall is amplified and makes for an exhilarating experience. It is my personal recommendation that everyone stand behind or near the bottom of a waterfall, at least once in their lifetime. On this particular day, I declined the journey down to the river. The mud covered adventurers, and the thick climbing rope someone had attached to a tree, struck me as more adventure than I wanted to embark on that fine day. So, I stayed on the viewing deck, humbled at the beauty around me, thankful to live around such beauty.