Waterfalls of the Lewis River – a Photo Guide
When you live in western Washington and are a nature photographer, you better have a a fallback subject to photograph in the rain. Luckily, we have such a subject – waterfalls. The Pacific Northwest is chock full of waterfalls. The most comprehensive list of local waterfalls is the Northwest Waterfall Survey. This site lists more than 2,000 waterfalls in Washington, about 1,250 in Oregon, and around 225 in Idaho.
When I decided to venture forth last Friday, I didn’t need the Northwest Waterfall Survey to pick a place to go. I had just the place in mind – the Lewis River in Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The Lewis River drains the south and east sides of Mount Saint Helens. I’d been in the area before, but had only photographed one waterfall previously. Yet, I know of several more. So, I headed out with Greg Vaughn’s book, Photographing Washington, in hand to explore the upper Lewis River valley.
The day was near perfect for waterfall photography – cloudy, with light rain on and off, but not much wind. Cloudy days work well for waterfall photography because of the contrast inherent when viewing white water, particularly when surrounded by dark forest. The rain gives the foliage a nice saturated look. And because, if you like the silky water look (like I do), you need long exposure times, so lack of wind helps.
To reach the Lewis River area, turn east off I5 at Woodland, take Highway 503, and just keep going. The highway, also known as the Lewis River Road, eventually turns south, but Lewis River Road keeps going straight eastward, eventually turning into Forest Road 90. The lower and middle portions of the river are dammed in three spots, forming large reservoirs. Near the end of the third lake, Road 90 turns right. Turn and stay on Road 90 (going straight will put you on Forest Road 25, which travels north away from the Lewis River).
About 5 miles from where Road 90 turns, turn left onto Forest Road 51 (shown as Road 9039 on Google Maps) to go to Curly Creek Falls.The trailhead to Curly Creek Falls is about 1 mile down the road, just uphill from the one-lane bridge over the river. An easy, 0.1-mile trail brings you to the viewpoint. The bottom of the falls is partly obscured by trees at the viewpoint, and a better view might be gained by bushwhacking down the steep hill. I had Nahla with me, so I stayed at the viewpoint.
Curly Creek Falls is one of the most unusual waterfalls in the Northwest – a waterfall with a natural arch over it. Actually, according to the Northwest Waterfall Survey, it has two arches spanning it. When I was there last week, however, the water was high and I could only see the top arch. The water level falls rapidly over the summer, exposing the second arch, and then eventually drying up the waterfall entirely. (According to the Northwest Waterfall Survey, the creek bed has intersected a lava tube, which shallows the entire flow prior to the falls. If that isn’t strange enough, this phenomenon reportedly did not happen prior to 2003.) If you continue down the trail another 0.25 miles past Curly Creek Falls, there is another, though less impressive, waterfall – Miller Creek Falls. The Northwest Waterfall Survey reports the view of Miller Falls is “quite obscured by several trees.” With bigger and better waterfalls waiting, I skipped it and headed back to the car.
Back out to Road 90, continue up valley for another approximately 3.8 miles to Big Creek Falls. This one is a bit tricky to find. There is no sign and the parking area (on the left side of the road) has been blocked off. If you drive over Big Creek, you’ve gone a bit too far. There is room to park on the shoulder near at the driveways to the blocked parking area. A short, now apparently unmaintained trail, leads east out of the former parking area.
The viewpoint described by Northwest Waterfall Survey and in Greg Vaughn’s book is no longer there (well it is partially there; the pad is there, but there are not guard rails and it’s a steep fall off the edge). You can see the falls from here, but the view is mostly obscured by trees. It looks like a nice set of falls, but I didn’t take my camera out of the bag. Further down this trail, about 1/2 a mile, there is another waterfall, Cave Falls. Reportedly, it’s a great waterfall, but only the bottom part is visible, and even that part is obscured by trees. Considering it was raining and I was with the dog, I skipped it and drove down the road.
The next set of falls down the road are easily the most accessible, arguable the most scenic, and probably the easiest to photograph. Lower Lewis River Falls, is the first of four large falls on the Lewis River. Northwest Waterfall Survey ranks Lower Lewis Falls as the 20th best waterfall in the Pacific Northwest. A little over 5 miles from Big Creek brings you to the Lower Lewis Recreation Area. Park at the day-use area (or camp here if you want to do more than a day trip), and the viewpoints of the falls are just a short walk away. There is a viewpoint directly at the top of the falls and several more downstream. For the view of the falls shown above, go to the furthest downstream developed viewpoint. It is also possible to get right down in the riverbed above the falls via a set of stairs, but with the high water I found, the bottom of the stairs was closed. At low flows later in the summer, it is possible to get some interesting shots from above the falls. The falls face west, and according to Greg Vaughn, are shaded in the morning, which makes that a good time for photography (if not there on a cloudy day like I was). With the western exposure, they also may get good light late in the day.
The next set of falls on the Lewis River is Middle Lewis River Falls. It can be reached by hiking 1.7 miles upstream from Lower Lewis Falls (the trail continues on to Upper Lewis River Falls and Taitnapum Falls) on the Lewis River Trail or by driving a mile down the road to the Middle Falls trailhead. From the trailhead, take the trail off the southern side of the parking lot which leads to the Lewis River Trail and turn upstream. The falls are about 1/2 mile from the trailhead. These falls are not as scenic as the Lower Falls, but are worth a quick visit if in the area. Unfortunately, the view from the trail is not the best – you cannot get an entire view of the falls in your frame. Reportedly, the view is better from the rocks in front of the falls, which are easy to reach from the trail. However, when I was there, these rocks were under flowing water, so I settled for the inferior view. Middle Lewis River Falls comes in at 46th on the Northwest Waterfalls Survey top 100 list.
When visiting the Middle Falls, it is also worth a stop to see Copper Creek Falls. Unfortunately, when I was there last Friday, I only had Greg Vaughn’s book with me, which describes a 1/2 mile loop trail to the falls. I didn’t see that trail, so didn’t visit the falls. Northwest Waterfall Survey states that the falls are accessed by a trail from the Middle Falls Trailhead parking lot. This trail leaves the left side of the parking lot and parallels the road and travels several hundred feet to a bridge over the falls. (This goes to show you should do your research before your trips! Had I done so properly, I could have seen these pretty little falls.) I did see Lower Copper Creek Falls, which are very close to Middle Falls. However, to get a good view of these falls, you need to be down at river level, which wasn’t possible when I was there due to high water.
If not hiking from Lower or Middle Falls, the next two falls on the Lewis River are reached by hiking about 1/2 and 3/4 miles from the Quartz Creek Trailhead respectively. That is the way I went. Quartz Creek Trailhead is about 1.7 miles from the Middle Falls Trailhead, just before the road crosses Quartz Creek. Hiking down the trail to the Lewis River, brings you in first to Taitnapum Falls. There is only one viewpoint for these falls, and that view is partially obstructed by trees. Due to steep canyon walls, scrambling for a better view looked extremely hazardous to me. A tall tripod will help take a few of the trees out of your frame.
A short distance further down the trail, you will come to Upper Lewis River Falls. The official viewpoint is down a short spur trail from the Lewis River Trail. This puts you directly above the top of the falls, making it difficult (if not impossible) to capture the entire falls in a single frame. Northwest Waterfalls Survey states the best view is from river level, which is accessed by bushwhacking down along the north side of Alec Creek (which the trail crosses a bit further downstream from the viewpoint). With the high water, I doubted I could get a good view even from there, and it was getting late in the day, so I hiked back to the car to visit one last waterfall for the day. Upper Falls is the tallest falls of the four on the Lewis River at 58 feet. It is similar in form to Lower Lewis Falls, and in fact, comes in on the top 100 list at number 24, only four spots lower than Lower Falls.
My last stop was Twin Falls. To reach this waterfall, travel about 9.5 miles further up the road, turn right on a side road to the Twin Falls Campground (at the time of my visit last week, the campground sign was missing, but the road is obvious if you are watching your mileage). Twin Falls is a double falls (the top one is only partially visible) on Twin Falls Creek that almost falls directly into the Lewis River. The campground is on the shore of the Lewis River directly across from the falls, and good photos can be captured from the shore at the campground. Northwest Waterfalls Survey report contrast can be a problem when photographing the falls, so a cloudy day like I had last week is the perfect time to photograph them.
Depending on how adventurous you are, there are more waterfalls in the area to visit. Northwest Waterfalls Survey lists many, some with easy access, others with impossible access. East of Twin Falls, Big Spring Creek Falls is very pretty and right next to the road. Or if visiting Big Creek Falls, there is a 3/4 mile trail to the viewpoint of the 250-foot tall Hemlock Creek Falls. You could easily spend several days in the area exploring nothing but waterfalls (but take time to look at the forest and flowers as well!).