By Ancil Nance
When I turned 70 years old I wanted to commemorate the passing years with some small adventure. Now, two years plus on I finally completed the hike to Devil’s Staircase waterfall.
My interest was piqued when I viewed an OPB Oregon Field Guide program about a remote waterfall that cascaded down a series of sandstone ledges in Wassen Creek, just north of the Umpqua River about 19 miles from the coast.
The write-ups about the falls all explained how there are no trails to the falls and people became lost looking for it. That was a challenge to me. I looked at the low quality maps that the writers provided online and in old trail guides. I made a tentative guess for a route on a USGS topo map of the area.
My first trip to explore the roads that might possibly get a person close to a start in the right direction was full of roads that would not work. When I finally picked an old forest road that had a spur heading in the right direction I parked my car and walked in a ways. I went less than a mile and the going became difficult and the way obscure, so I returned to the car.
The next year I returned with a friend, and we walked out just over a mile and thinking we were twice that far, descended to discover that we were on a tributary of Wassen Creek. It was too late to go downstream and the water was too deep to wade.
My next foray took to the same point, and I tried to figure out where we had gone wrong. This time I had an iPhone app turned on, Strava, that produced a GPS track of where I walked. When I got back to my home computer and went to my Strava download I saw right away our error. Instead of proceeding SE from the high point we had tried to force a NW route on a north running ridge.
When I returned for the July 2013 attempt, I made sure that we had our map and compass in play at that point and proceeded in the correct direction, picking up a bit of an obvious way someone had clipped bushes enough to get through without too much trouble. Martin and I moved forward with confidence, taking bearings at each high point along the ridge until finally we were at the lowest of the lumps at around 800 feet above sea level.
We did not descend from the previous mound at 1,200′ — where I had sketched a tentative path on my original topo map — but instead opted for a descent right off the end of the ridge.
It was not easy going, but the steep slope had no large drops and soon we were wading in Wassen Creek. I did not have a clear idea of where we were, so just to be sure we went downstream first but turned back when it became obvious that the creek was going mostly northwest with no bends. Our guess was that the falls were near a bend.
Heading back upstream we passed a tributary coming in from the east and then some high steep cliffs that made us glad we had not tried to access the river more upstream from our choice. Martin was ahead, walking carefully with sandals, swimming shorts and a wooden staff. I followed.
Then I heard him say my name. I looked ahead to where he was starting to walk around a bend and we saw a short falls, just a few layers high. Soon we were walking past a second falls, and our hopes rose. Ahead I could hear some water falling, and I could see that Martin was looking at a big falls this time. Devil’s Staircase, in front of us.
Our downstream jaunt had wasted a couple of hours so we had to take a couple of pictures, climb the rocky stairs and find a way back to the ridge. Martin spotted what looked like a bunch of foot prints in a path leading up from the falls. We went up on what looked like previously trodden ground. Then we lost that trail and made our way back to the ridge on undisturbed territory. There were places where we had to bear crawl and then baby crawl under the brush.
It was getting late, and by the time we reached the top of a 1,300′ hill we decided to spend the night. After eating Clif Bars, raisins, nuts, dried fruit we settled into our sleeping spots on the forest floor. A fresh orange and an apple served as dessert.
I had not planned for an overnight and one of my shirts was still wet from when I slipped in the creek below. I made up for the error by stuffing bearded lichen between my light coat and my windbreaker. My shivers stopped and Martin and I spent a night in clement conditions. The next morning we consulted map and compass and followed the direction down through a brushy mass, and broke out on the way trail which led to the next saddle.
Several times along the way we checked and corrected our direction with compass and map consultations.
Two and a half hours later we had covered the 1.3 miles from our night spot to the starting point. We had done it.