Clackamas / Memaloose Falls Adventure 08-05-17
We started out to adventure to Memaloose and Clackamas falls in the morning to attempt to beat the heat. We had done a bit of research and gathered all the information we could. We knew where the starting point was for sure but the rest took a little process to figure out. We started out at the Memaloose Bridge that crosses the Clackamas River. The gate is closed due to the fire and slides a few years back so you'll have to park on the highway and walk in from here. (More about the road possibly opening later).
Just a couple pieces of advice for anyone looking to tackle this. Bring gloves for the ropes and general climbing around. Doable without but I was pretty happy to have mine. Bring extra rope just in case. Hikers of the past have left ropes tied off in several locations but having your own just in case is a good idea. Bring flashlights and/or headlamps. The tunnels get dark, especially the upper. We did it with cell phones just fine but a headlamp would have been handy. I read a lot of people said to wear long pants. Probably not a bad idea but we all wore shorts and survived. Scratched up but not bad. If I were to tackle it again I'd wear shorts again but probably something a touch thicker than gym shorts.
Bring water and food obviously. Whatever your beliefs are about drinking water in the woods, you will eventually get to the South Fork Clackamas River and Memaloose Creek and be able to refill. This water fed Oregon City and West Linn for decades before any treatment and no one died. We all drank from it and no one has died. I brought a 32oz bottle and filled it 3 or 4 times on the trip.
I also brought a machete just in case the trail was horribly overgrown. We had read from someone previous that the trail was very overgrown. It wasn't bad. The machete was not necessary but it was nice to clear out some of the blackberry bushes rather than push through them.
From the parking spot/bridge/gate it is 1.5 miles up to the trail head. You will basically be walking up hill the whole way there on the paved road. It offers some views and isn't too bad but is a little trek. When the road opens you'll be able to park at the trail head eliminating the extra 3 miles of walking.
We had read several reports of it being .9 miles to 1.5 miles. Two of us were measuring with our electronics and I believe we determined it was 1.5 miles between both devices. Best way to describe it is about 100 yards past the section of road that is falling look to your right. (More about this section later.) You'll come to a point where there are boulders obviously placed to keep vehicles out. This is the old road that is very blocked off to vehicles. After finding it we noticed that someone had stacked a few rocks on the opposite side of the road to mark it. We stacked some on the correct side when we came out.
Once you turn off the paved road it seems like a nice stroll through the woods and some meadows. The trail is pretty obvious and this is the section I used the machete the most. You'll have to climb over and under some logs. Up and over a few tank traps. After a short distance you'll come to a makeshift little campsite with a basic rock ring fire pit. Just past this is where things get interesting.
The easy part of the trail
At what would seem to be the end you'll find a rope tied off to a tree. This is where things start to get interesting. It is a decently steep decent down from here with very little traction. The dirt and loose rocks make it interesting. I wouldn't call it impossible to do without the ropes but I don't think I would attempt it without them. Thinking back to when we arrived I wasn't sure we were going to do it even with the ropes. It is pretty intimidating standing at the top, looking down, and knowing that at the end of the day you still have to make it back up that hill to get out.
There were 8 lengths of ropes to use. Some were just not quite long enough so when you get to the end of them you'll need to carefully work your way to the next one. Who ever left these ropes, thank you. They were all pretty solid and I had no concerns but if one were to get worn I'd hope someone would replace it. I know we would have if we found such.
Once you successfully make it to the bottom you'll work your way to the right. There is a lot of mention of some kind of bench to rest on in this area but we never found it. It is possibly it was grown over or we simply just missed it. Once you reach this area you kind of take a breath and look back up at what you just came down. Memaloose Creek will be right there and you'll follow it down a ways.
The trail is overgrown and while I won't say it is obvious, if you take your time and use your head you'll see the path. It gets narrow, follows some edges, goes up and over some rocks, up and over some logs, there is a little mud, slick rocks, and all that good stuff but keep your eyes open and you'll be fine.
In a short distance you'll reach the first tunnel. These are the old Oregon Cit Waterworks tunnels. Best I can find in my google research is that in the early 1900's people in Oregon City were getting sick from their water. The filtration process back then wasn't very advanced so to fix their problem they started piping water from Memaloose Creek. These tunnels were for the equipment to access the area. This first tunnel is pretty short and gives you a decent idea of what you're in for.
Once through the tunnel it is more of the similar hiking. Again, the trail isn't obvious but if you use your head you'll find the way. We managed to get off trail a couple times but stopping, looking around, and thinking it through we were able to easily get back on. For that matter, maybe we were on the trail but it didn't seem like it. There was never a time that we questioned our ability to back track safely.
Along the way there is supposed to be a difficult path down to Memaloose falls. We weren't sure that we found it on our way in so opted to skip it for now and tackle it on the way back out. You will also pass by some concrete structures from the original waterworks effort. There is some steel pipe and valves as well. This is the original source of the water they piped into Oregon City in the early 1900's. This is the first time you'll also be right at the water and a good chance to step into it and wash off a bit from the scurry down the hills.
Just a little further where Memaloose Creeks flows into South Fork Clackamas River you will come to another obstacle. The bridge that crosses over the South Fork Clackamas river is missing a decent section of it. We had seen pictures of this and knew what to expect but what we didn't understand was how big the gap looked in pictures yet people said it was an easy jump. Seeing it in person makes sense. The washed out portion is not something I will be jumping at any time but to the right is a couple boards you can walk across to get close enough to take a big step. The boards felt fairly stable but if you have balance issues be aware. There is nothing to hold onto, no rails, and you will be looking down a long ways to the river below. (After a little reading it seems that those extra boards were a fairly recent addition by someone. Not sure how fun that jump was prior,)
Once onto the bridge it is pretty solid. There are a lot of open holes but again, very solid and no concerns walking across the bridge. From here we saw our first signs of other people. There were a couple people down in the river "enjoying" the secluded sunny weather. Right across the bridge there is another basic rock ring campfire spot and looks that people may have camped here in the past.
Directly across the bridge you'll find some more pieces of the waterworks system. A few large gate valves and some pipe will be in the overgrown area. You also have a choice to make of left or right. We opted for left to start.
The left patch takes you upstream along South Fork Clackamas River to Clackamas Falls. It appears that some people refer to this as the upper falls but that is incorrect. These are just the Clackamas Falls as the middle and upper falls are further up. They don't appear accessible but there are proposed plans to create trail system to get back to them.
One of the first obstacles you come to is the infamous rotten log bridge and you'll see how it got its name. One of our more adventurist members of the trio took a few steps out to see how safe it was. Keeping in mind it is over quite the canyon where you can see the other logs have collapsed into. There is also fire damage on it from the forest fire back here a few years ago. He opted to not risk it but while he was out there spotted a possible trail to the right. After some exploring it was a much safer goat trail. You're on the edge of a hill and have to climb a little but the risk isn't nearly what the bridge is.
If I recall correctly from here you can see the falls. You'll get your first glimpse of what you're trying to get to. There is also the pipe that was part of the second version of the waterworks project. Best I can find out in the 1930's they relocated the intake of water from Memaloose Creek (where the concrete structures pictured above were) to a spot above the Clackamas Falls taking in water from the South Fork Clackamas River. This is the pipe that ran the water down from there. The following picture/selfie was taken from the goat trail to bypass the rotten log bridge that runs along that pipeline. Can't see it in the picture because the pipe itself is blocking it.
From here you keep going up. You'll start with another tunnel that is pretty short. As soon as you exit this tunnel you'll have another little area with a closer view of the falls. The area is short lived as you will enter the upper tunnel at this point which is the longest and probably most difficult tunnel. I have read that it is 300 feet long and I'd say that is fairly accurate. From the start you can't see the light at the other end but don't worry, a short way in you can. The pipeline runs the right side of the tunnel and an old wore out rotten wood walking path is along side it. A few parts of the walking path is nice with roofing shingles for traction but most of it is sketchy and slippery. You'll want to use a light to see every step as there are a lot of metal things sticking up, supports for the old rotted away path, and nails sticking up. Be very careful.
Once you exit the top of the upper tunnel you'll have to climb out of a concrete structure of sorts. None of us had trouble doing so without assistance but none of us are what you'd consider short. If someone was lacking in the height department it might take some assistance to get up and over.
As soon as you hop over the concrete wall you'll be at the very top of the falls. To your left you can see the water disappearing over the edge into what is the Clackamas Falls. To the right you'll see a nice flow of water and the concrete structures from the water intake built in the 30's. You can walk up to the concrete structure, which resembles a dam of sorts, and easily cross the water as it is only a foot or two deep at the most. You can cross and come back down to the falls where you can virtually stand on the edge and look down the falls. We spent a little time up here enjoying it, hydrating, eating a snack, and refilling water bottles. (The water is delicious and cold).
Crossing the water
A selfie before heading down
From this area is where the proposed future trail will start heading towards middle and upper falls but for now you just backtrack. Going back down the upper tunnel is not as fun as one would think. Anyone who explores or hikes knows going down slippery areas can be more difficult than up. Again, lots of nails and metal objects that can cause damage. Just take it slow and be aware of your footing with each step.
Entering the top of the upper tunnel to go down
Interesting enough, as desolate as this area is, and as far as it seems from everything, it is only a few miles from home as the crow flies. Literally I think we mapped it at 3 miles. This is also why the forest fire here a few years back was such a concern and kept us so smoked in.
You keep working your way back down the trail, through the tunnels, back around the rotten log bridge using the goat trail, and continue past the washed out bridge over the South Fork Clackamas River that you crossed earlier. Continue on the trail, which is much like the others. Not hard to find but can be a bit overgrown. Continue on through a couple tunnels and you'll see what looks like a trail heading to the right straight down the hill to the river. There is a rope tied off to a tree just below and getting to that rope is about the most difficult part. Once you get to that rope use it to make your way to the river. Once to the end of the rope take it easy to the water and from here you can basically walk in the water. Head up stream and you'll see the lower Clackamas falls. These falls are incredible and another great spot to relax, hydrate, snack, and just take it in.
The only way down....
Once you've had your fill of these falls it's time to head back. Walk in the water downstream to the rope and scurry back up the hill. At the top of the rope, if you were to go right and continue you will end up at the Clackamas River with no more trail. It looks that you can take a raft or kayak directly across at this point to a parking area along 224 though.
Hike up the trail (to the left, the way you can down) through the tunnels to the washed out bridge over the South Fork Clackamas, make the jump, keep going the way you came following Memaloose Creek back. We were going to tackle the Memaloose falls on the way back but once we found what we believe to be the trail down opted out of it. We sent one person down with rope to check it out and he said it wasn't a good idea. If he isn't willing to try it no one else was. I did notice there were some stacked rocks at the top to mark the trail down. Maybe next time but probably not.
Once you get through all the tunnels it's time to work your way up the 8 ropes. It's not bad. I'd say it felt safer than coming down but is more strenuous to get up. You will use your upper body a lot pulling yourself up with the ropes. Once to the top it's a short hike through the woods, over and under logs, over and through some tank traps, and back onto the road.
Once we reached the road the excavators were up there on the washed out section working. In fact, in the few hours we were gone they managed to move a lot of earth and it looked nothing like it did earlier. We talked to the gentleman running the machine for a minute, showed him pics, shared our journey, and he said they were working fast to get the road rebuilt to reopen asap. They had a few pieces of equipment and a dump truck running all day so looks like they are doing what they can.
From there it is 1.5 miles, all downhill, on the road back to the gate, bridge, then parking. My fitness app said it was 8 miles exactly in total. The other said it was 7 so safe bet it to say it was 7-8 miles total.