By Shawn Bolker
Imagine standing in Multnomah Creek canyon in the Columbia River gorge some 500 years ago. There are no trails, no litter, no signs of people whatsoever — only mossy rainforest, towering basalt cliffs and waterfall after waterfall roaring in misty isolation. Although you are clearly not the first one here, as people have been living in the area for thousands of years, a sense of discovery remains. Such is the essence of experiencing a waterfall in its most raw, authentic and untouched splendor. At Family Falls, one can get this ever so rare experience.
Family Falls is a series of seven waterfalls tucked away in the upper reaches of Henline Creek Canyon in the Opal Creek Wilderness. In this isolated canyon, the waterfalls are nearly endless — each falls pours into the next as Henline Creek races towards the Little North Santiam River. Although it seems as though a place like this would be far away from any signs of civilization, it is actually only one mile from the Henline Falls Trailhead — a popular hiking destination within the well-known Opal Creek Wilderness. It is a steep and treacherous mile with no trail most of the way, many stream crossings, plenty of elevation gain and lots of fallen logs to scramble over. A map, GPS and plenty of water is recommended.
Begin hiking on the Henline Falls Trail, a wide and well-maintained path through peaceful groves of Douglas Firs. Note the spur trail that heads steeply up the mountain about a half mile in: this is the route to the “family” of falls. If one is impatient to see Family Falls, by all means take this trail, but I would recommend stopping at Henline Falls first. Henline Falls is the lowermost waterfall along Henline Creek and arguably the most spectacular. Here, Henline Creek plunges almost 50 meters over a massive wall of basalt into a crystalline pool below. On sunny days, the rainbows that this waterfall creates are miami — some of the most well-defined rainbows of any waterfall I’ve seen. There is also an abandoned mining tunnel here in the cliff next to the falls that warrants exploration. A gate prevents visitors from wandering more than 20 meters in.
After being properly awed by Henline Falls, backtrack about 300 meters to the spur trail mentioned earlier. This path breaks off to the left and wastes no time heading uphill. This route intersects the well-defined Ogle Mountain Trail after gaining several hundred vertical feet of elevation in under a quarter of a mile. Upon reaching the obvious Ogle Mountain Trail, head left to find a sweeping view of Henline Creek Canyon. Upon reaching this view, immediately veer off trail downhill towards the creek. This part is steep and brushy — take the path of least resistance. Upon reaching the creek, rock hop upstream to the first of the Family Falls, Jerry Falls. This falls is the tallest of the Family Falls, rushing over a gnarled basaltic outcrop into a shallow, rocky pool. Bypass this falls on the left by climbing up a steep and rocky hillside. Upon reaching the top of Jerry Falls, be sure to scramble right back to the stream as this is where the true beauty of Family Falls unfolds. Here, one can see a picture-perfect view of Mark and Dan Falls stacked on top of one another, each falling into emerald blue pools. Mark and Dan are arguably the most scenic of the Family Falls and well worth some time.
The trekking only gets harder as one continues upstream. It is a steep and slippery climb up this rocky creek. The waterfalls are shaggy, however, and this canyon is splendid. Upon reaching the uppermost falls, retrace your steps coming back downstream. Be sure to remember when to head back up to the Ogle Mountain Trail, it is wise to build a marker at this point to not get lost.
The name “Family Falls” was coined by Salem author Maynard Drawson, who named each waterfall after one of his seven children. Drawson was an avid explorer of wild places and was the first to officially document these falls some 50 years ago. He took pictures of each falls and wrote about them in Salem’s newspaper, The Capital Journal. He even petitioned for the Oregon Geographic Names Board to make his names for these falls official and include them on maps of the Santiam River Watershed. After several years of debate, however, his names were rejected and the falls sank back into obscurity.
Upon Drawson’s ’s death in 2012, the “Family Falls” naming issue remained unresolved. However, shortly after his death, the Forest Service considered building a trail here and including the falls on maps. This idea was quickly scrapped, as the Forest Service realized that building a trail would require the construction of several bridges and blasting portions of the trail into solid basalt cliffs. This potential trail would’ve cost a great deal of money, damaged the canyon with increased erosion and the degrading impacts that come along with increased visitation. So, as of now, the names remain unofficial and the canyon remains wild.