Devil's Staircase Hike Not For Faint Of Heart Or Body

By Rachael McDonald

Oregon's coast range forests are a patchwork of private, state and federal land, much of it heavily logged for the past century. But one pocket of old growth forest southwest of Eugene has avoided the chainsaws, mainly because of its steep terrain. There's a bill in Congress to designate the 30,000-acre tract as Wilderness.

Devil's Staircase on Wassen Creek in the Oregon coast range. Photo by Rachael McDonald.Our journey begins at the end of a logging road about 10 miles northeast of Reedsport. Volunteer hiking guide Cameron Derbyshire is pointing out our route on a topographic map.

Derbyshire and Cascadia Wildland's Josh Laughlin are leading the hike. Also with us is Oregon State University geologist Steven Lancaster.

As we embark, Laughlin has some words of warning: "Let's all be very cautious with our steps. We're not going a long distance. It's just incredibly rugged terrain." Lancaster says "The biggest hazard is taking a misstep and snapping an ankle or falling off a log and you know impaling yourself so let's just be very cautious with our steps down in there so we can get there and back in one day."

There is no trail to the Devil's Staircase waterfall on Wassen Creek in the Siuslaw National Forest. To get there you have to climb over countless downed trees, crawl through huckleberries and sword ferns and scramble up and down steep slopes.

Photo: Devil's Staircase on Wassen Creek in the Oregon coast range. Photo by Rachael McDonald.

Every once in a while, Derbyshire and Laughlin stop to consult their maps and GPS devices.

We made it to the Devil's Staircase. It took us about four hours to get here and according to my pedometer we only walked about 2.5 miles. There were some spots where we got lost and had to double back through -- and basically crawl through -- huckleberries and fallen trees.

I'm exhausted. I'm totally wiped out and we still have to hike back. But it's beautiful here.

It really is a staircase, out of sandstone that forms a waterfall.

OSU Geologist Steven Lancaster is here for the first time too.

"I'm the kind of geologist that studies running water and the sediment that it moves and so stuff like this is just really cool," he says. "Why is there a big waterfall right here? So it's a bit of a mystery. It's a bit of an oddity."

This counts as the eighth time Cameron Derbyshire has hiked to the Devil's staircase. One of the reasons he likes it here is his love of fishing.

"I'm quite interested in the area for the habitat and protection it has for the salmon and steelhead," says Derbyshire. "As well as i8t's just such an area that just hasn't really been explored. It's so rugged and so vast."

Congressman Peter DeFazio has been here. So has Senator Jeff Merkley. Along with Senator Wyden, they agree this area should be designated Wilderness. There's a bill in Congress to do just that.

But muddying the waters is the fact that DeFazio's O & C logging proposal also includes protection of the Devil's Staircase.

Josh Laughlin of Cascadia Wildlands thinks it shouldn't be combined with a plan that calls for ramped up timber harvest on other federal land in Oregon.

"This place is incredibly unique because it's really a remnant slice of what the coast range once looked like," Laughlin says. "If you go above in an airplane at this part of the Oregon coast range, it's been heavily fragmented -- greatly impacting clean water, water quality, some of these older-forest dependent species."

Laughlin says old growth forests in Oregon can store carbon to mitigate the effects of climate change.

For now, he says, this is de facto wilderness.

"It's so steep it's so remote. However there can be future potential for timber sales in here."

Conservation groups hope to continue building popular support to designate the Devil's Staircase Wilderness.

It takes us another four hours to hike back to the car. By the time it's over, I can barely lift my legs and I'm covered in bruises, but exhilarated.

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