To say that our hike around Sahalie Falls and Koosah Falls in Oregon was an epic experience is probably exaggerating. After all, it was only a 2.6-mile hike, around a moderately trafficked loop. We never spent more than 20 or thirty minutes without encountering another human being, had intermittent cell service the entire time and finished the full loop in half a day. It wasn’t even our first waterfall adventure in Oregon as we’d already visited McDowell Creek Falls and Tokatee Falls among others.
But Sahalie Falls and Koosah Falls are two of Oregon’s greatest delights and taking the Waterfall Loop Trail that joins the two together was an unforgettable experience. It gave a pair of mother-daughter travelers who don’t really like to live on the edge, a chance to experience a little of what it feels like all the same.
Where to Pick up the Koosah Falls and Sahalie Falls Trail Loop in Oregon
Sahalie Falls and Koosah Falls in Oregon lie roughly along the McKenzie River National Recreation trail, a 26.4 mile excursion that begins at the base of Mt. Washington in an ancient lava bed. It winds through the Willamette National Forest, visiting old growth giants, skipping across dry creek beds and ending near the Foley Ridge.
In between the trail’s auspicious beginning and its rather anti-climactic end are unforgettable sights, such as the aqua depths of Tamolitch Blue Pool and the astounding drops of Koosah and Sahalie Falls.
The area is steeped in Native American history, part of an ancient trade route where the Kalapuya, Molalla, Sahaptain and Chinook peoples traveled to trade their bounty in obsidian or huckleberries. The names for both waterfalls originate from Chinook Jargon, a trade language once developed to help neighboring tribes to communicate area news.
In the Chinook jargon, Koosah and Sahalie have important meanings. Translated, the lower Koosah Falls refers to the sky, while the upper Sahalie Falls means heaven.
The only way to really transcend from earth to heaven is to begin the hike at the Carmen Reservoir, the lowest elevation point of the loop. From here, Waterfall Loop Trail #3503 travels uphill along the eastern edge of the McKenzie River. Taking this journey, you’ll encounter Koosah Falls (sky) first, before ascending to the heavenly Sahalie Falls.
Or, you can do what we did and start at the heights of heaven.
Reaching the Sahalie Falls Viewpoint off Oregon Highway 126
Heaven, better known as Sahalie Falls in Oregon, is easily reached via a crowded parking lot off of Highway 126 in the Willamette National Forest. Informational plaques are available at the trailhead along with a map, but we were lucky enough to run into a solo female hiker.
As we discussed the trail laid out by dotted red lines on the plaque, she quickly interjected.
“Head straight,” she said. “And as soon as you can, go right.”
We’re always grateful for tips from more experienced travelers when visiting a new place, so we took her advice. At the first right, the trail immediately shot upward into the splendor of old growth timber. The brilliance of the sky overhead diminished in the cool shade of the towering branches. It’s impossible to stand in such majesty and not feel small and humbled, probably the appropriate feelings when approaching heaven’s gate.
Putting appreciation on hold, however, we followed the trail, inhaling sharply the aroma of… what? The fresh exhilaration is hard to describe and even harder to pin down exactly what you’re smelling, but it was heavenly, possibly a precursor for things to come, as we rounded a bend and the Sahalie Falls overlook came into view.
Despite the overcrowded parking lot, heaven’s overlook was less densely packed than one would imagine. We walked right up to the stone wall at the edge of the falls and followed the trail to the uppermost viewpoint overlooking the plummeting cascade.
Our only companions as we looked down into the maw of the Cascading Sahalie Falls was a group of adventurers who were bravely tempting fate at the precipitous height of 100 feet above heaven’s plummet to earth.
Against this stunning backdrop, a young woman was carefully stepping onto the gnarled roots of an ancient conifer. Suspended high above the falls, she hooked onto a safety line around the tree. Listening as nearby friends coached her off the relative safely of her root perch, she readjusted the harness around her waist and legs and clipped onto a slackline running in front of the falls to the distant side of the McKenzi River.
“Just do it,” a friend told her as she hesitated for a moment.
“Don’t do it,” we both said, watching the breeze elicit a wave along the line.
“Is she going to walk it, like a tightrope?” we both wondered.
We soon had our answer as she dropped off the root perch and hung suspended beneath the line. Breathing a sigh of relief, we watched her move, hand-over-hand, along the line until she hung suspended in front of the falls.
“It’s a heck of a view,” a young man informed us from behind. He was suspended in a hammock awaiting his own turn on the slackline.
Here we stood at heaven’s gate, so to speak, considering the exhilaration of hanging from a thin corded rope in front of the falls, feeling the spray of the water and looking down at the crystalizing droplets in the waterfall at the base. Could we do it? It was a situation where the spirit was willing, but the flesh was definitely weak.
Reluctantly turning away, we rejoined the trail, with a slightly springier step just from watching the journey of the young woman taking her first slackline adventure. Little did we know that it was not all heaven had in store for us that day.
The Surprises that Await on the Other Side of Sahalie Falls in Oregon
From the east side of Sahalie Falls, the Oregon trail through the Willamette National Forest heads north along the rapidly cascading McKenzie River. The trail tended to meander through some unremarkable territory for a bit, and while we passed a few other hikers, we were mostly alone, never far enough from the unusual aqua blue flow of the McKenzie to feel that we’d left the heavenly climes.
At the top of the trail head, we took a left over a log bridge and began our descent toward heaven and eventually the sky and earth below.
This area of the trail hugged the shoreline of the McKenzie, sometimes rising high on a narrow cliff-hugging trail before dipping down to kiss the shore. We eventually made our way back to heaven’s gate, looking down on Sahalie Falls from Oregon’s opposite shore.
While the McKenzie River is never wide, the chasm feels miles across when looking across the falls, so it was startling to realize we had come upon the same 100-foot drop, with the same slackline well in use. Only this time, a young man was attempting to walk it, making it only a few steps each time before slipping and falling.
Each time, he climbed back up, he spent several minutes getting his posture and balance right, initiating a gentle bounce on the line that would eventually aid his momentum as he stood back up. We watched for several minutes, inspired by his adventurous spirit and his tenacity. With each fall, he had to pull himself back up, regain his balance on the line and begin the process of standing all over again.
Eventually, we left Sahalie Falls behind and followed the river back to earth at the Carmen Reservoir.
After Tumbling to Earth, Making Our Way Skyward Again
After tumbling down from heaven to earth, we began the climb skyward again. Koosah Falls is the lesser of Oregon’s two falls. Coming in at around seventy feet in height, it is no less majestic than its heavenly neighbor.
Approaching Sahalie Falls and Koosah Falls from the south allows you to experience more of Oregon’s majesty as the trail heads into deeper and denser forest, still hugging the wild roar of the McKenzie River.
It isn’t long, however, before you come upon the first Koosah Falls overlook on this Oregon waterfall trail. This one provides more of a baseline view, providing a stunning visage of the entire falls, sort of like viewing the sky from the window seat of a jetliner.
As was the theme for this hike, we were enjoying the falls with more adventure enthusiasts, this time in the form of cliff jumpers. While it took a good thirty minutes, a young man finally gathered his courage and took the 70-foot plunge while a complete video crew recorded his efforts.
The next viewpoint for Sahalie is at the top of the falls. Here a walkway provides several vantage points to view the sky. The last is an overlook that provides a perfect birds eye view of the cascading whitewater as it tumbles into the depths of the earth.
Beyond Koosah Falls, and heading back up the Oregon Waterfall Loop, the McKenzie river was a riotous companion as we slipped quietly along the shoreline enjoying the cascading beauty of the aquamarine river.
In short order, we reached the trail back to heaven and exited the Waterfall Loop Trail, feeling accomplished. While our simple hike was tame compared to the adventurous pursuits of slackliners and cliff jumpers, we had just made the loop from heaven to earth and back again.
It isn’t every day that you can say that.
Willamette National Forest Oregon
THINGS TO DO NEARBY
Hackleman Old Growth Trail Hike
Tamolitch Falls Blue Pool hike
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