Driving the Waterfall Highway: Umpqua Hot Springs to Crater Lake

We turn off 138, Oregon’s waterfall highway, jamming to music and ready to bask in the hot springs next to the roaring Umpqua river–the 2 mile hike is only a few miles off the road. But instead we find ourselves curving up, up, deeper into dirt logging roads, and after a few minutes it becomes clear something doesn’t feel right… “Download your directions,” Chrissy had said. “There’s no signal up there.” Gulp.

The sign for Umpqua Hot Springs is tiny. But oh, we catch it the second time around! Just past a “forebay,” (above) and across a river bridge to park in the gravel lot and start prepping for that famed, shin-splitting fuckery of an uphill hike. Or, that’s what we thought.

We’ve come straight from Toketee Falls, which is right on the way to the hot springs. It’s free, and has a casual car wash in the parking lot (from a pipe thick as an elevator and bursting at the seams in about a hundred places, as it carries prime forest water to a hydroelectric plant). We hike the almost-mile long, dusty path under the trees to the Masterpiece Cascade with our intrepid four year old. Teens scramble up to the official Toketee Falls viewing platform from the precipice below, bright eyed and bragging that they went “all the way,” while I tilt my head, both envious and exhausted just looking at them.

Pulling up to Umpqua Hot Springs at last, it’s autumn. The secret’s out on this place, folks. Even the cooling temps of fall is doing nothing to deter visitors; the parking lot is a collection of every colorful US license plate. We start the hot springs hike to the cadence of several languages peppered all around us, and the occasional gong-rings of peoples’s water bottles clanking their metal belts and car keys. I sigh.

“Let’s pull over and wait for a sec,” I say to Sam, tucking behind a tree and watching the current horde babble by.

After they pass, I weave through trees towards the river, enjoying the growing quiet, and without much thought I start to Follow the Water (that should be my spirit name). All of a sudden it dawns on me that maybe we could make it all the way to the springs by skirting the river, without the crowds or the brutal stair master of a trail.

So we bumble along the shoreline, optimistic contortionists bending with the landscape, until we hit a downed fir tree and a muddy cliff face, and I stop, defeated. We could keep going, if we got into the river.

“We should bring waders next time,” Sam suggests.

“And I’ll bring a wetsuit,” I mumble, eyeing the frigid cascades tumbling by. 

Turning around, I stop at a little pond we just passed. Was that, like, a hot pool? I consider what I wrote off as river mist, swirling around its surface.

“Steam!” I scream, and dash over to dip my toe.

The rest of me soon follows, along with shrieks of joy, and a whole hour or so of prideful comments.

“I still can’t believe we found this.”

“How is there nobody else here?!”

Happy sighs. 

We dash to submerge in the freezing river and then back to the hot pond, skin sparkling.

I nibble on watercress, growing in a spot along the shore where some downed logs make a peaceful eddy.

No crazy steep trail. No crowds. Very, very happy.

But if you’re set on hiking to the hot springs for the much-photographed and gorgeous tiered pools on the cliffside, I’ll tell you a secret.

Adventurous souls can escape the crowds by skirting the pools on the left hand side, where you’ll find a short, steep trail down to to the river. At the water’s edge, there are hot ponds in the shadows of caves with bats and stalagtites (mites?) So cool. This was our original destination, before the Honeymoon Hole crossed our path. (This photo was taken in summertime, when the river was lower and slower, and the notion of hiking along it to the springs seemed more feasible.)

The next time I make this journey, I want to explore the Waterfall Highway’s lesser known sister road, looping just south of 138, called Little River Road. It’s also a National Forest Road, and it’s the gateway to a whole other set of waterfalls, like Grotto Falls and Wolf Creek Falls. However, you have to plan your journey well, as places to stay in this whole area, both Highway 138 around Umpqua and Little River Road, are VERY few and far between. I was surprised to find this beautiful spot with a hot tub on Little River Road


Or this place, on 138–right on the shores of the Umpqua River, and with a fireplace. Yum.


The only other option I’ve ever found in this area is called Umpqua’s Last Resort on Highway 138, which for the more, er, flexible traveler, you can rent simple cabins, RVs, a tiny home and glamping. 

We stayed in one of their retro RVs when everything else was booked, which was cute if not a bit cramped, but the glamping looked like a gorgeous set up. I peeked in at the private zones of fire pit, picnic table and high white canvas “ceilings” sheltering big cozy looking beds. And you can hear the rushing river from the whole property.


Now, on to Crater Lake. This photo is not enhanced in any way.

The quality of blue in this water, the thick and unrelenting hue of it, or maybe the echoing silence above it, or imagining the water going down two thousand feet with no inlet except falling rain, no outlet but evaporation, and the magic of a volcanic caldera brimming with of centuries of rainwater, I don’t know, all of it makes me want to cry at first sight. I can feel it. Can you feel it? This place is sacred.

We arrive late in the day to freezing rain, stoked to have booked a room at the Crater Lake Lodge months before. It becomes clear that my favorite part of the Lodge will not be its food. Although the dinner entrees and the cocktails are good. No, my favorite part is the walls finished in tree bark, and the oversized fireplaces, almost as tall as I am. 

We find our room and pray for snow as the wind howls outside and a maintenance guy tinkers with our broken central heating.

To my amazement, pushing back the curtains in the morning reveals the first snow of the season, with drifts so thick even the nearby lake is invisible. 

Celebration! Coming from Hawaii, this is pretty exciting.

When the snow is forecast to let up in the afternoon, we put a reluctant end to the clawfoot baths and red wine, and carpe the diem for a hike down to Cleetwood Cove, the only access to Crater Lake’s shoreline

As we leave the Lodge and drive along the West Rim to the trailhead, the snow turns to rain. Eek! Having forgotten a raincoat, I don a trash bag, rip a hole for my head with a fingernail, and get whipped sideways down the trail amidst sudden rainbows and pelting downpours.

Now, what is this thing, perched on the rocky edge…I think it’s an outhouse because it cracks me up.

The water at the lake’s edge is an icy-clear blue. Not much in here but rainwater. 

Even the fish don’t get too big, given the lack of aquatic ecosystem, and anyone is encouraged to snag them, without license or permission. You’d think the lodge would serve Crater Lake salmon and trout, right? But no, they import farmed species. Hello, Park Service, who runs the Lodge, here is an opportunity to solve several problems at the same time…

Next stop, Plaikni Falls, just outside the park.

Again, we are the only people on the trail. Fun, until Sam stops cold and announces, “I’m getting bear vibes.” At almost dusk and in the middle of isolated forest, we hustle the last bit to the falls, and skeedaddle right back out. 

The next day we have to check out, and leave Crater Lake via Highway 62, bisecting valleys and pastures in the lee of the mountains

and then follow the surging, rushing, icy cascades of the Rogue River. At Natural Bridge, a signed pull off, there’s a point along the river trail where the whole madness of this wild river just…disappears. Underground. And comes up again, frothing, furious, a little ways downstream.

Every place we stop along the upper Rogue makes me delirious with the intensity of falling water, the spectrum of greens, the softness of mosses, the delicacy of ferns…Every cell in my being feels alive. A feeling I’ll try (and fail) to keep with me as we end our journey of waterfalls, hot springs and snow.

Not pictured: calling the rental car company over and over hoping for a human being this time, fighting in the car, discovering in horror that last of the season’s blackberries have dried on the bushes, a lovely visit with Ivy and Carl in Ashland, and two long flights home squished in a middle seat in coach. And, it was worth every minute.

Have you explored this area? Feel free to share in the comments. Happy adventuring!

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