Best falls not named Sahalie

By Alandra Johnson The Bulletin Published Jul 16, 2014 at 12:11AM

If you go

What: Proxy Falls

Difficulty: Easy, footing can be tricky near the falls

Getting there: From Sisters, take McKenzie Pass Highway about 30 miles. The trail is marked with a large sign and parking is available on both sides of the road.

Cost: Northwest Forest Pass required, $5

Contact: McKenzie Ranger District, 541-822-3381

Date night doesn’t come around too often at my house with a 3-year-old and no family in town. When these opportunities do arise, my husband, Robin, and I tend to go for the tried-and-true standard date night practiced by millions of others: dinner and a movie. I mean, there’s a reason why that combination is so popular.

But last Friday, when we had signed up for a sitter, that old standby just didn’t strike our fancy. It had been blazing hot all week, and, like many people in Central Oregon, we do not have air conditioning (my poor husband has been working the graveyard shift and had to try to sleep in the heat, ugh.) The movies would offer an air-conditioned reprieve, but we had something else in mind. We wanted cool, fresh mountain air. So, I came up with the idea of a dinner picnic somewhere lovely.

Friday afternoon arrived, and I couldn’t wait to get off work. I was ready to stretch my legs and feel a cool breeze. That’s when I noticed some ominous-looking clouds overhead. The chance for a thunderstorm was supposed to be low, but I didn’t want to be overly ambitious with our hike. We decided to ditch our planned picnic at Happy Valley. Instead, we made the drive part of the adventure, just in case the rain began to pour.

The drive

First stop? The grocery store, where we picked up our picnic supplies. From there, we headed to Sisters and onto McKenzie Pass Highway. This windy, twisty, skinny road is probably my favorite in Oregon. It meanders and zigzags in between the Three Sisters and Mount Washington, offering stunning views.

I like how the road sinks in between giant lava fields, so that you feel as if you’re driving in a little canyon made from lava. We passed up the Dee Wright Observatory, a little castlelike structure made from lava — but it alone is well worth a visit if you haven’t been.

From there, we drove by more than a half-dozen trailheads where Robin and I would take turns saying either, “I really want to try that trail” or “remember when we did that hike? It was so great!” Little Belknap Crater, Scott Lake, Hand Lake Shelter and Obsidian Trailhead just to name a few. These trails are the quintessential High Cascade trails that include bursts of wildflowers and clear alpine lakes.

But that’s not what we had in mind. Robin drove on, now sharply descending in elevation along a series of switchbacks.

Every time I drive this section of the road, I get flashbacks to the B&B Complex fire from 2003. I was living in the Willamette Valley and had been on a river trip on the Deschutes with my best friend and her dad. We were headed back to Springfield, towing a drift boat, when we realized the fire had broken out. Everyone on the highway was detoured over the McKenzie Pass Highway. That’s right, we were in a line of traffic that included RVs and many other recreation vehicles, driving over that narrow pass and on those switchbacks. No one spoke the entire time, and I watched my friend’s dad drive in a state of intense concentration. When we finally made it back onto the regular highway, we all hooted and celebrated as if we’d just won the World Cup.

Point is: This road isn’t for big rigs or boats. It’s for bicycles and Sunday drivers who want to take in the scenery. If you’ve got someplace to be in a hurry, this isn’t the way to get there.

Descending the pass, the scenery changes dramatically. All of a sudden, it got a lot greener (and cooler — the temperature had plummeted down to a lovely 68). Just past the snow gate on the west side, we arrived at our destination: Proxy Falls.

Proxy Falls

We decided on Proxy Falls for a few reasons. The hike is short (we did encounter a few drops of rain on the drive), and the views are spectacular.

The hike is a short loop. The path winds through a small field of lava, but this one surrounded by towering trees and lined with lush shrubs. From there, the trail heads deep into a thick forested area and becomes covered in soft pine needles. If you like the color green, this is a good hike for you, as everything seems to be some shade of green.

After a short walk, we came to an overview of the falls. The falls aren’t a rush of overpowering water, like Sahalie Falls. Instead, the falls are rushing and intense, but delicate, too. The water runs down a giant mossy cliff in rivulets. The water descends 226 feet into a lovely creek at the bottom.

If fairies lived in Oregon, they would live here.

Robin and I trekked down what we thought was an official path to get a closer look at the falls. Instead we just got eaten by bugs and had to climb over many downed trees. Back up the hillside, we returned to the overview. We sat on a downed log beside the path and ate our picnic dinner. Rain started to fall, but thanks to the towering trees, we didn’t get too wet.

Once we finished scarfing our feast, we headed back around the loop, stopping to check out a second waterfall. Upper Proxy Falls is smaller and less noteworthy, but hey, how can you complain about a waterfall? This spot would actually be better for swimming, as it leads into a nice shallow pool below.

Having taken in the falls, we headed back to the car. The hike was short, but we felt incredibly refreshed. With Robin driving back home, I stuck my feet out the window and let in the breezy mountain air.

Who needs dinner and a movie?

— Reporter: 541-617-7860, ajohnson@bendbulletin.com

Alandra Johnson / The Bulletin The footing of the path is a bit uneven, especially as it winds through a lava field.
Alandra Johnson / The Bulletin After the water falls from Proxy Falls it descends to this quiet, bubbling creek.
Alandra Johnson / The Bulletin Do you like green? You can't beat the green you'll see on this hike to Proxy Falls.
Alandra Johnson / The Bulletin The Proxy Falls hike starts off in a lava field, surrounded by tall trees.
Alandra Johnson / The Bulletin Upper Proxy Falls leads into this calm pool, which would be great for a dip on a hot day.
Alandra Johnson / The Bulletin Proxy Falls is one of the loveliest waterfalls in Oregon, and the drive to get there may be even better.
Alandra Johnson / The Bulletin Foliage grows lush at the bottom of Proxy Falls.
Alandra Johnson / The Bulletin Robin Johnson sets up a picnic dinner on a log in front of the towering Proxy Falls.
Alandra Johnson / The Bulletin Upper Proxy Falls is a nice side trip when visiting Proxy Falls.