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home : columns : columns September 15, 2014

7/22/2014 12:16:00 PM
Echo Basin area offers a unique outdoor experience
Echo Basin opens from the mountainside to form an extensive bog and meadow system that gives birth to Echo Creek. photo by Craig Eisenbeis
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Echo Basin opens from the mountainside to form an extensive bog and meadow system that gives birth to Echo Creek. photo by Craig Eisenbeis

By Craig Eisenbeis

Here is a great little hike just off Highway 20 on the other side of the pass. It's one of those little-known places that is easy to drive by on your way to somewhere else, without ever knowing it's there. I'm talking about the Echo Basin Trail between Santiam and Tombstone passes, and it's a pleasant contrast to some of our local burned-over forests.

The Echo Basin Trail works its way up Echo Mountain to the headwaters of Echo Creek. A narrow, but good, gravel road trims two miles and several hundred vertical feet off the climb. Just before the trailhead, however, there is a break in the road that could be hard on a low-clearance vehicle. The trailhead is clearly marked by a sign on the right, but the parking area is little more than a wide spot in the road.

The trail follows a pair of abandoned logging cables up an old, overgrown logging road. The grade is steady but moderate. This dense, canopied, westside mixed forest is cool even on some of our hottest days; and the gurgling of Echo Creek makes it seem even cooler. There is a rich variety of trees, shrubs, and many wildflowers. One unexpected feature of this hike is the presence of a goodly number of old-growth Alaska yellow cedars. The wood of this tree appears yellow when wet, hence its name.

Oregon tree guides say that the Alaska yellow cedar is scarce in Oregon and found only on the western slopes of the Cascades. Also, the tree rarely occurs south of Mt. Jefferson, so its presence here is all the more unusual. There are some very big specimens on Echo Mountain, and they are easily recognizable by the shaggy appearance of the bark and needles. The needles are quite different in appearance from the other cedars we usually see in Oregon.

After about three-fourths of a mile, the trail splits; and the right fork crosses Echo Creek on a nice footbridge. We took the right fork, and the Alaska cedars begin to appear shortly afterward.

When the forest eventually gives way to the open landscape of Echo Basin, the lush ground cover is a sharp contrast to that of the forest floor. In some areas, bracken ferns tower above head height and all but obscure the well-worn trail. At one point, the trail becomes very, very steep, but only for a short distance. Don't turn back now, because it's about the same distance back in either direction. The total vertical climb on this hike is about 600 feet.

This unique, boggy, horseshoe-shaped basin is carved out from the sides of Echo Mountain. At the high point of the trail, the entire soggy basin floor is alive with a myriad of tiny springs, which collectively give birth to Echo Creek. Wooden boardwalks have been installed in the wettest portions. Still, there are some deep holes and hazards to be avoided where the vegetation has overgrown the trail, so be careful and watch your step.

The basin's meadow-bog is loaded with Indian paintbrush and many other wildflowers. We also saw red columbine, fireweed, asters, elderberry, wild celery, devils club, and a host of other plant life. A special treat, however, are the salmonberries, which should be ripening over the next few weeks.

Salmonberries are a compound, yellow or light-orange berry that resemble in structure a cross between a raspberry and Himalayan blackberry. The taste is kind of a blend between the two, as well.

As it leaves the basin, the loop trail plunges back down into the forest and returns to the same bridge crossing where the trail forked on the way up. The total hike is only about 2.5 miles; and, even at a very slow pace, it took us only an hour and forty minutes to complete the trip.

In spite of a few difficult spots, this is a relatively easy hike. This outing is easily paired with the even shorter nearby Hackleman Old Growth Trail, a half-mile farther west. So, we did that one, too. The Hackleman Trail system highlights huge, old-growth Douglas firs. The trails are flat, and the core trail is even wheel-chair accessible. We also stopped for a picnic at nearby Lost Prairie Campground, so there is a variety of things to make for a nice outing along this section of Highway 20.

To reach the Echo Basin turnoff, travel west from Sisters to the Santiam "Y" and turn left to stay on Highway 20. Travel another 3.5 miles and stay straight on Highway 20 at the Eugene turnoff. From there it's another 5.1 miles to the Echo Basin Road (Forest Road 055). There is no advance warning for this right turn except that it's almost immediately after the sign that announces the upcoming Hackleman turnoff, which is on the left a half a mile ahead. There were no signs requiring a Forest Pass.

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