Revisiting Little Zigzag Falls

Leisure is a form of silence, not noiselessness.  It is the silence of contemplation such as occurs when we let our minds rest on a rosebud, a child at play, a Divine mystery, or a waterfall.  

—Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979)

🌿  🌿  🌿  🌿

I love hiking, and while that might sound like a phrase from a bumper sticker, I can’t help saying the words. 

I love hiking for its own sake, but I also like to stop and look around, too often my husband complains, but I just can’t help myself.  I feel the need to absorb my surroundings, and take notice of what’s around me.  I find that when I allow the eyes and senses to adjust, I can see some amazing things.  

It was early autumn, and the rain had held off for months, which is unusual for Northwestern Oregon.  Wanting to take advantage of our fine weather, I suggested we revisit Little Zigzag Falls.  It had been a long time since our last visit, and it was time to see it again.  

Little Zigzag River flows beneath the historic 1920s bridge (no longer in use) that was part of the original Mount Hood Highway.  The bridge was decommissioned in the 1950s following the completion of present day Highway 26 relocated a half-mile to the south.
A piece of history

Little Zigzag Falls Trailhead No. 795C, lies just north of Highway 26, and the infamous Laurel Hill in the Mount Hood National Forest.  About a mile round trip, the trail winds gently through beautiful moss-draped, conifer forest.  The trail (along its entirety) follows the Little Zigzag River—a small, energetic, spring/glacier-fed, five-mile tributary of Zigzag River that drains from Zigzag Glacier high up on Mount Hood’s southwest slope.  Despite it being a casual trail, the area is incredibly scenic, which is why I make it a rule to never judge a trail by its ease or difficulty levels.  Great or small, each has its rewards.

It was a balmy, and somewhat humid day, something we Oregonians aren’t used to, but that quickly changed as soon as we stepped onto the trail.  In the forested canyon, nature’s air conditioning kicked in, and it felt ten degrees cooler.  Gentle breezes stirred the air with intoxicating aromas of moss, cedar, and fir needle duff.  At our side, the Little Zigzag flowed swift, clear, and glacier cold.  

Old growth Douglas-fir and western hemlock
Little Zigzag River
Animal signs along the trail

Only a few minutes in to our hike, we came across animal sign, several trees, five feet apart that had been used for scratching posts.  One was old, and the other recent, very recent, and we hoped that the animal that did this was long gone.  It was a good reminder to pay attention to what was around us.  Cougar are more worrisome than black bear, and we didn’t want our first big cat encounter to be along the trail. 

Overall, the canyon looked much as it did since our last visit.  The only obvious difference was the increased number of blowdown.  Trees crossed the trail.  They crossed the river.  Some had turned up root wads.  (A root wad is the upturned base of a tree that exposes roots, rocks, and soil.  Root wads provide important habit for many creatures; some birds even nest in them.  Along streams they provide cover for fish and other aquatics, and help stabilize the soil.)  There had been a number of windstorms since our last visit, and it was obvious these woods had taken the brunt.  Yet, despite all the blowdown, the area remains remarkably picturesque.  

Blowdown is important habitat for healthy streams and rivers
A lovely setting along a small rapid
Root wads help stabilize stream and riverbanks
This giant root wad was seven feet tall, and some fifteen feet across. Although not directly along the riverbank, it will provide important habitat for numerous plants and animals.
Blowdown along the trail

Next, we turned our attention to a lovely rock garden—a jagged wall of basalt that seeped of spring water that dripped from the rocks like rain.  From nooks and crannies grew gentian, mosses, and ferns.  A small white moth, ill disguised, clung to the rock.  Above, trees grew precariously along the edge of the basalt with a third of their root system exposed.  Feeling a bit uneasy standing beneath them, we thought it best not to linger. 

Basalt wall—a very scenic part of the trail that is always heavily shaded, cool, and moist.
A different kind of view!

Continuing on, we noticed a small change in the rivers pitch; it sounded deeper, more boisterous.  About ten paces off trail, and almost hidden by blowdown, we found the source—a small stairstep waterfall, a simple arrangement that produced enough energy to generate a bubbling, frothy pool.  Also catching our attention were beautiful colonies of western coltsfoot (Petasitespalmatus) and Devil’s club (Oplopanax horridus)—medicine plants that seemed to grow more lavish here than anyplace else along the trail.  

The little stairstep
Western coltsfoot (Petasites frigidus (palmatus)
One of few places along the trail that sunlight is able to touch.
Filtered light and deep shadows
Lichen-covered boulder
A welcomed sunspot in the forest

All too soon, we reached the falls where the trail officially ended, and the canyon rose sharply.  Gazing at the falls from an earthen platform reinforced with rock and wire I hoped would hold, Little Zigzag Falls boomed; its voice impressive for its size.  Its buoyant waters tumbled over boulder-tiered ledges, and spilled into a plunge pool forty-one feet below that stirred up ghostly clouds of mist. 

Boulder-tiered ledges of Little Zigzag Falls
Little Zigzag Falls


Copyright 2012.  All rights reserved

4 thoughts on “Revisiting Little Zigzag Falls

  1. Next time you are there, consider following the trail up along the left bank of Little Zig Zag – a beautiful unmaintained route that goes on for miles and miles along the river…

  2. Exquisite photos and a beautifully told story, Julie. I could almost hear the waters and smell the aromas. Reminded me of some of my favourite hiking spots.

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