Monday, September 11, 2023

Panther Creek Falls

Our next adventure takes us to the absurdly photogenic Panther Creek Falls, a bit north of the Columbia River Gorge in Washington's Gifford Pinchot National Forest. This is a bit further afield than most of the weekend hikes I post here, so a few notes are in order: It's about a 90 minute drive from Portland, first heading east to the town of Carson, WA, and then north on Wind River Highway (or Wind River Road; signs are a bit inconsistent on this point). The map above has all the route info you need, and I would just add a couple of details:

  • First, the directions have you turn right off Wind River Something-or-other onto Old State Road. This is a loop road that intersects the highway twice, and the directions assume you take the second turnoff. If you leave the highway and the intersection isn't a right angle, you jumped the gun and are on the first of the two junctions. Just stay on the road till you're back at the highway, do a U turn, and you're back on track. I think the road you turn left onto is initially called "Panther Creek Road" and doesn't become forest road NF-65 until the national forest boundary.
  • Second, the parking lot for the falls could really use an official sign to that effect. But right now there isn't one, so your best bet is to look for what looks like an old rock quarry on the right side of the road, forming a rough parking lot. There's only one of these along the road, unless maybe you're on completely the wrong road, so it's a good clue that you've arrived. Most likely there will be a few Subarus parked there already when you arrive. I was strictly looking for official USFS signage and kept going for a few extra miles before turning around, but that's just me.

As far as I can tell, as of 'press time' you don't need a Northwest Forest Pass to legally park here, though that could change at any time. This is the regional National Forest parking permit, which runs $30/year, or you can rely on $5 one-day passes you can print at home if you don't like planning ahead and don't mind paying the inkjet cartels every so often. I had a day pass with me due to an earlier stop the same day, so (required or not) I left it on the dash just in case, as a sort of talisman to ward off prowling tow trucks.

I think there is supposed to be a sign for Trail #137, right across the road from the quarry/parking lot. When I stopped by there was just a bare pole on the left side of the road, but there was only one of those, and the trail starts just to the right of that pole. The trail switchbacks downhill a short distance to a junction: A sign there says "viewpoint" is to your right, and to your left is another trail branch to the base of the falls. The viewpoint is not at the actual top of the falls, but at the point partway up where Big Huckleberry Creek rumbles in and joins the main falls. That's the heavily-flowing bit in the first photo. If I was going to be a tedious pedant about it, I would pause here and go off for a few paragraphs arguing that it's actually a separate waterfall and then try to think of a name for it, since the side creek already has lower, middle, and upper falls of its own. The more important thing for you to notice is all the wooden railings keeping you on the trail, and the multilingual forest of warning signs, and the makeshift memorial right behind you as you watch the falls from the viewpoint, all of which are due to a tragic fall back in 2018.

Backtracking up to the trail junction, the other branch of the trail heads downstream a little and then switchbacks down to another viewpoint. This is where the first photo was taken, and you can see the whole falls you had a partial view of at the top. But wait, there's more: This lower viewpoint is also the top of another, lower tier of the falls, which adds another 30' or so to the total height of the falls. Right now there's no legal way down to the bottom of this bottom tier, and I have no idea how one might get down there safely, or back up. Strictly from a picture-taking standpoint the ideal thing would be a bridge at the same level as the inter-tier viewpoint, but downstream a bit so photos can include the whole falls, and make it a proper solid bridge, not a bouncy one, so long-exposure shots aren't ruined by other people walking across. But the Forest Service will probably never have that kind of money, and I'm pretty sure I can live with the current arrangement if I have to.

This is one of those places that the internet made famous, and this humble little blog is far from the only place you can read about it. It has the inevitable Washington Trails Association, Friends of the Gorge, and OregonHikers pages. And, unusually, its own Wikipedia entry, which features a photo seemingly taken from a point that's now off limits after the big post-2018 trail redesign. Other pages about the falls include ones at Adventures PNW, Aspiring Wild, Outdoor Project page, and World of Waterfalls. And despite all the stereotypes about social media, I have not actually encountered any Instagram photos of anyone doing yoga poses in front of the falls, unless maybe you count this one from early 2018. And it might also be of someone doing Gangnam Style dance moves instead, and either way they're far away and in rain gear, so I don't think it counts.

You might think a 140' waterfall that looks like this would've been famous since pioneer days, or at least from Carson's heyday as a hot springs resort town in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I mean, just look at it, c'mon. But that doesn't seem to have ever been the case. I fired up the local library's database of the local newspaper, which runs back to sometime in the 1850s, and there is precisely one mention of the falls in all that time, and it's a story about the accident in 2018.

So looking at other pre-internet (or at least pre-WWW) print media, the falls got high marks in both Plumb's Waterfalls of the Pacific Northwest and Bloom & Cohen's Romance of Waterfalls, two early guidebooks on the subject, both from the early 1980s. But many potential visitors would have read the parts about following bad roads off into the middle of nowhere, where -- if you could even find the trailhead -- you then faced a steep scramble downhill through the brush to a sketchy, dangerous viewpoint, while lugging a heavy camera and tripod around, and hoping a few of your 36 film photos turned out ok, or fewer than that if you were shooting 120 or 4x5 film.

The only other pre-internet mention of the place I've come across (though surely not the only one that exists anywhere) is a 1990 Forest Service publication, specifically some appendices to the master plan for the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Page E-5 explains that despite the falls, Panther Creek as a whole just isn't "outstandingly remarkable" enough to qualify as a federal Wild & Scenic River.

It turns out that this isn't the only waterfall named Panther Creek Falls; an oddly similar one exists in the mountains of northern Georgia, and is also owned & operated by the US Forest Service. In fact it's only a few miles from Tallulah Gorge, which I visited and took a few photos of back in the late 90s. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution article from September 2023 (a few days ago) offers the heartwarming tale about an elderly golden retriever that got heat exhaustion along the long trail to the falls, and all the strangers who pitched in to help along the way to get the dog back to the trailhead safely. The dog is fine now, btw, but has officially retired from further hiking adventures.

I went back to the newspaper database and tried a few other search terms, just in case that led to anything interesting. The falls have evidently never gone by "Panther Falls", since the only use of that phrase came in a 1931 headline, when a woman and her daughter homesteading near Coquille were startled awake by a cougar either falling or jumping onto the roof of their cabin. (Slow news day, I imagine.)

In the same vein, there are Panther Creek high schools in both Cary, NC and Frisco, TX, and whenever one of their sports teams loses there is often a headline containing the words "Panther Creek falls", like this example from 2022.

And finally, I tried just "Panther Creek", and found a few results for that at least:

  • Most were about a different creek by the same name near McMinnville, namesake of a prominent Yamhill County winery and a bunch of area real estate listings.
  • The correct creek was mentioned briefly in a 1981 Roberta Lowe article in the Oregon Journal, but just in the driving directions on the way to an even more remote trailhead, the start of a long, technical hike up in the Indian Heaven area. Lowe columns were often like this, because the Journal felt its readers were grown-ups and trusted them to judge for themselves if they were up for that level of adventure. The paper went out of business the next year for unrelated reasons, and we never had to witness how this policy fared during the heyday of personal injury lawsuits.
  • A March 1937 first-person account, relating what sounds a bit like a 1930s version of Cheryl Strayed's Wild: Miss Jacqueline Arte (age 24) becomes fed up with the noise, chaos, commotion, hypocrisy, artificiality, and general wrongness of modern life, turns her back on society, and sets off to hike the Cascade Crest Trail (a predecessor of the Pacific Crest Trail), packing a change of clothes, a book of Nietzsche, and a .38 pistol. (Ok, not just those three items, but it sounds more 1930s, more hardboiled when put that way.) She started off at Panther Creek -- which served as the boundary between the modern world and the great wilderness -- and headed for Mt. Rainier, by way of endless meanderings and side trips. In Part II, she decided to hole up in a remote cabin and spend the winter writing a book. But ended up blowing out a knee dealing with firewood, and eventually had to be rescued after running low on food. Though she initially refused to leave until she was done writing.
  • This wasn't Arte's first wilderness adventure; in October 1934, the Oregonian noted her arrival at Crater Lake, having set out on a unhurried trip down the Skyline Trail (Oregon's predecessor to the PCT) the previous April, this time with the aid of a wayward pack horse named "Red Wing". The article said she was done hiking, but Crater Lake is of course nowhere near the California border, and she continued on her way south and eventually wrote a first-person account for the paper once she decided she was actually done for real, in January 1936. Fifteen additional months seems an exceptionally long time to hike from Crater Lake to California, but she explained she'd run low on money and supplies at one point and took a job as a ranch hand for a while, after panning for gold didn't, er, pan out.

I really wish I knew what became of Miss Arte after the 1937 episode; she doesn't appear in the Oregonian again after that, or in any other newspaper covered by the library's newspaper database, for that matter. I also don't see any references to books published under her name, though using a pen name would explain that. Maybe she decided society wasn't so bad after all, and settled down and had a quiet ordinary life after this; or maybe she hit the wilderness again and went completely off the grid this time, and vanished once and for all, the end; maybe she just moved out of town or across the country or changed her name and news of her further adventures never made it back to little old Portland. In short, the trail has gone cold. So on the remote off-chance anybody out there happens to know the rest of her story, please feel free to drop a note in the comments down below. Thanks!