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home : sports & recreation : sports & recreation June 20, 2018

6/5/2018 12:38:00 PM
Whychus Creek Trail impacted by Milli Fire
…but some portions of the Whychus Creek Trail took a beating. photo by Craig Eisenbeis
+ click to enlarge
…but some portions of the Whychus Creek Trail took a beating. photo by Craig Eisenbeis

Most of the Whychus Creek Trail survived the Milli Fire and remains in its pristine by Craig Eisenbeis
+ click to enlarge
Most of the Whychus Creek Trail survived the Milli Fire and remains in its pristine by Craig Eisenbeis

I had been lulled into thinking that our friendly almost-in-town hike along Whychus Creek was one last little bastion of safe green space among our thousands of acres of scorched forest in Sisters Country. Alas, I learned last week that that's not entirely the case.

Thankfully, the fire impact is not extreme, nor does it affect much more than a few hundred yards of this relatively new trail that takes off just four miles south of town. All in all, though, the Whychus Creek Trail is still an engaging and scenic trail that is easy to access at the spur of the moment if you, or your visiting guests, have a sudden urge for an outing. But, now, it also offers some lessons on the role of fire in the forest ecosystem.

This easy three-mile trail covers some very familiar ground along the local stream that I still have a hard time not referring to as Squaw Creek, the name by which it was known, until political correctness mandated a change several years ago.

Journeying south from the trailhead, the first mile explores some of my favorite old fishing holes from the days before fly fishing lobbyists made Central Oregon streams their private preserve. The second mile carves a pleasant path through a previously tick-infested jungle of manzanita that I frequently hunted in years gone by.

After the water-level first mile of the trail climbs up to and transits the manzanita plateau of the second mile, the trail tackles the basalt flow that separates the next reach from the closer-to-town stretch that people are more familiar with. This trail segment was intentionally left somewhat rough to limit access to foot traffic only, in the hope of minimizing human impact to the area. As a result, this relatively easy hike might justifiably be upgraded to a lower-level "moderate" rating.

It is this mid-section of the hike that bears new scars from the Milli Fire. The ancient lava flow that created Peterson Ridge continues down to the creek at this spot; and some mosaic burning is evident just before the rock steps that climb the north slopes of this ridge. At first, I thought I was seeing a small spot fire that burned the area only lightly.

After surmounting this little climb, however, it became apparent that the burn along the trail was much more extensive and linked directly to the more massively burned-over areas to the west. Between those upward leading steps and the trail's rocky descent back down to the creek, some rather severe fire damage becomes evident. In fact, the fire burned quite hotly in this area, marking the easternmost extent of the Milli Fire.

On the plus side of the ledger, however, the aforementioned manzanita jungle was already the least scenic part of the hike. Still, some Douglas firs and quite a few nice pines, including some big ones, were destroyed by the flames. When the flames gobbled up the manzanita, the potential problem of erosion and further habitat damage was created. As a result, the The Forest Service urges hikers to take extra care to remain on the designated trail.

Fortunately, the third mile - which is along the "wildest" portion of the creek accessed by this trail - remains unscathed. However, in some spots along this stretch, the Milli Fire burned all the way down to the water's edge on the west side of the creek; although it did not jump the creek in this area.

Prior to the creation of this trail six years ago, access to this area south of the Peterson Ridge lava flow was quite difficult. Although outside the official boundary of the Three Sisters Wilderness, this stretch of the creek offers all the beauty and grandeur of wilderness befitting the "Wild and Scenic" designation of its upstream stretches. So, although close to town, this wild and tumbling creek represents a reasonable facsimile of its more remote upstream wilderness identity.

Whychus Creek is largely the product of seasonal snowmelt, so the flow varies wildly from time to time; and that aspect of the stream is quite apparent on this segment of the trail. Many streamside rocks are beautifully sculpted by the rock-and-silt-laden high water flows that occur with regularity.

Multiple falls and rapids roar through narrowly carved cuts in the rock, or pass beneath log and debris jams that bear witness to the force and volume of more dramatic seasonal stream flows.

As the trail continues south, it passes ground zero of the 2010 Rooster Rock Fire, which is believed to have been human-caused. Arrowleaf balsamroot, penstemons, and other wildflowers can be seen; although wildflowers are not an abundant highlight of this hike.

The last stretch of trail terminates at the stream crossing for the Metolius-Windigo Trail, near a couple of dispersed camping sites that can be reached by a quarter-mile trail from the end of Road 880. This access point also creates the possibility of a car drop for a shuttle return, if a three-mile hike is all you are looking for.

The trail offers dozens of great stopping places along the stream for lunch or contemplation. There are rock perches where long stretches of the creek can be seen tumbling down from the mountains. From a few spots, the mountains themselves are visible; and there are many, many views of falls, rapids, and pools.

The return hike is a different view of the same country, but there are new sights every step of the way for a total hike of about six miles. It's great to have such a nice hike so close to town. This trail is designated for foot traffic only: no horses or bikes. Another favorable attribute of this hike is that it is pretty close to being an all-season trail.

To reach the northern trailhead, turn south off Highway 20 (Cascade Avenue) onto Elm Street, which becomes Three Creek Lake Road (also Forest Road 16) and continue south for 4.2 miles to a small gravel parking lot on the right. The trailhead is just behind a locked gate.

To reach the southern trailhead for a car shuttle and a three-mile hike, stay on Road 16 for a total of 7.3 miles and turn right at the Whychus Creek sign onto Road 1514 (good gravel), then 1.8 miles and right onto Road 880 (dirt) for two miles. There is a significant segment of burned-over forest along the 880 road.

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