Proxy Falls is beautiful and easy to get to.photo by Craig Eisenbeis
So far this year, this past winter's snowfall has continued to limit access to the high country; but the number of recreational trails that are open has been steadily on the increase. In addition to the obvious benefits of glacier replenishment and healthy water supplies, a big snow year has other positive aspects. Specifically, the circumstances make this a good year to explore some of the lower-elevation hiking options that are sometimes overlooked in the rush to enjoy the more remote areas up in the mountains.
Proxy Falls, just on the other side of McKenzie Pass, is one such hike; and, at an elevation of less than 3,200 feet, the area is completely free of snow. Another consideration in selecting this hike is that I often hear from people who prefer outings that offer a unique outdoor experience without all the preparation associated with a Himalayan expedition.
With that in mind, the hike to and from Upper and Lower Proxy Falls is also the kind of experience that can be enjoyed by a wide range of outdoor enthusiasts, including some whose enthusiasm may be limited. This hike is easy and short, and the trail's ups and downs are relatively gentle. In fact, even though it offers some spectacular forest and Cascade mountain scenery, it is still necessary to engage in a bit of extra wandering in order to eke out a whole mile of walking.
The trailhead is west of and outside the upper snow gate on the west side of Highway 242; so, even when McKenzie Pass is closed, the trail is still accessible. Of course, when McKenzie Pass is closed, it is necessary to take the long way around over Santiam Pass and Highway 126 through Belknap Springs.
A small roadside parking area at the trailhead has an informational kiosk that encourages counterclockwise travel around the loop. Adherence to this policy helps to limit encounters with other hikers, thus enhancing the forest experience. The lower and upper falls are found off separate little spur trails that stick out like little horns from the southwest and southeast corners of the loop.
The waterfalls are beautiful but are only part of the story here. The trail snakes through a lush mixed conifer forest with plenty of vine maple that is bright green now and will offer beautiful color accents in the fall. The geologically recent lava flows in this area are coated with thick blankets of lichens and mosses. Take the time to examine these fascinating tiny forest worlds clinging to the trailside rock.
At Lower Proxy Falls, there is a poorly defined side trail that leads from the viewpoint down to the base of the falls. We enjoyed this little side excursion and spent some time lingering here to look up at and enjoy these magnificent falls. The lower falls is the more photogenic of the two, but the upper is the more interesting.
Each waterfall has its own separate stream, but the upper one doesn't appear to go anywhere. Upper Proxy Falls drops into a scenic pool, from which there is no visible outlet. As is the case in much of the McKenzie region, the lava flows have created porous substrata that redirect surface water to springs that may reappear several miles away.
The circular path leading to Proxy Falls is like a nature trail and lies in a dense westside forest that includes Douglas fir, an assortment of true firs, western hemlock, and western red cedar. The vegetation, combined with the geologic and hydrologic features, make this little jaunt in the woods a veritable scientific field trip.
If more hiking is the goal, it is an easy matter to do as we did and combine the Proxy Falls loop with a hike to nearby Linton Lake. A round-trip hike to the lake is a little under four miles, and that trailhead is only a couple of miles to the east. The Linton Lake hike will be covered in my next trail column.
To reach this hike, take Highway 126 over Santiam Pass to Belknap Springs and turn left onto Highway 242; the Proxy Falls Trailhead is about 9 miles east between mileposts 64 and 65. When McKenzie Pass is open, simply head west on Highway 242 past Sisters Middle School. The Proxy Falls trailhead is about 14 miles on the west side of McKenzie Pass.