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Forest Splendor and More On Tour to Kentucky FallsBy Tom Baake
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A hiker checks out North Fork Falls and Lower Kentucky Falls in the Siuslaw National Forest east of Reedsport.
Few places so neatly showcase the region’s diverse scenery as the Smith River country just inland from Reedsport. Indeed, a tour here takes in a vast ocean estuary, two coastal rivers, acres of pasturelands, hundreds of square miles of forests, many soaring mountaintops and impressive waterfalls, and even a fine hiking trail. Smith River Road is also a little-used “back way” to Eugene and other Willamette Valley destinations.
Yes, you could spend a lot of time exploring the miles of paved and gravel US Forest Service (USFS) roads in this neck of the woods, technically called the Siuslaw National Forest. Obtain one of their maps before going too far afield, however.
Some of the main destinations, such as Kentucky Falls – about which more in a moment – are fairly well-signed and reachable on mostly-paved roads, while other areas are more challenging, especially in light of reduced maintenance budgets.
Armed with the aforementioned map and perhaps a copy of my guidebook “Out Our Back Door,” it’s fun to explore, but if you want some guidance, go with the South Coast Striders hiking group this Saturday, June 30, on their annual trek to Kentucky Falls. As usual, there’ll be a short hike and a more challenging trek. Get details at www.coostrails.com.
From Reedsport, head north on US 101, cross the Umpqua River Bridge and Bolon Island, and turn right (E) on Smith River Rd. Zero out your trip odometer. The road crosses a trestle and heads up the river's north bank.
The water runs wide along here, a mix of freshwater flow and tidal influence, just part of the far-flung estuary that commingles the Umpqua and Smith rivers.
About 3.5 miles up is Stowe Marsh, one of the only places along the Smith River left in its natural state. To see this wildlife preserve, turn right (S) on Southside Rd., crossing a bridge over Smith River. Look for signs on the right just across the bridge. Marsh wren, green heron and a variety of waterfowl are among the residents of this reedy wetland.
About 8 miles upriver is USFS Noel Ranch picnic area, with a boat ramp and a couple of picnic tables. At 11.5 miles is Riverside County Park, with boat ramp, picnic tables and vault toilet. A couple miles past that a BLM sign declares this Smith River Timber Access Road, and provides some mileages. You'll notice a slight difference in pavement, and the absence of roadway lines and stripes. The pace palpably slackens; a roadsign lists milking times when cows might be crossing the road, what’s the rush?
At about 15.5 miles, turn left (N) on North Fork Smith River Rd. It meanders up through a river valley and into the woods.
At about 22.8 miles cross a one-lane bridge, the first of many over the North Fork. The road turns to gravel. At 25.2 miles at an unsigned “Y” intersection bear right (SE). Pavement returns briefly.
The road crosses and re-crosses the river nearly a dozen times, each seemingly more beautiful. Tiger lilies and other wildflowers nod gently in the breeze, while groves of huge old trees complete this picture of woodland perfection.
At about 25.8 miles at a “T” intersection, go right (E) on paved FS 2300. At about 29.5 miles is the lower trailhead for the North Fork trail. At about 35.5 miles at a “T” intersection, turn left (W) on paved FS 919 and follow it 3 miles to the Kentucky Falls trailhead.
An easy, 0.75-mile trail leads through wonderful old-growth forest to Upper Kentucky Falls. It’s another 1.75 miles to Lower Kentucky Falls and the nearby North Fork Falls: an unusual sight of two waterfalls falling off different escarpments. If you’re going down to the lower falls with kids or pets, keep a tight rein on them as there are several drop-offs on the way. Otherwise enjoy these splendid settings, then carefully retrace your downriver route, enjoying all the scenery a second time!
(Get full details and maps to Kentucky Falls and other Smith River destinations in Tom Baake’s guidebook, “Out Our Back Door,” available at bookstores, the Coos Bay Visitor Center or at www.scod.com/guidebooks.)
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