Hidden deep in Oregon’s Coast Range within Siuslaw National Forest lies one of the Pacific Northwest’s hidden gems, the Devil’s Staircase.
This remote and beautiful location is part of the proposed Devil’s Staircase Wilderness Area, slated for protection. Boasting one of the most remote locations in Oregon’s Coast Range, amazing forest is home to black bears, elk, and an abundance of other wildlife in addition to its namesake waterfall, The Devil’s Staircase, seen to the right.
This elegant, stair-stepped waterfall gracefully cascades down a total of 50 feet down 3-5 foot drops. With a backdrop of blooming salmonberry and old growth conifers, the Devil’s Staircase also makes a stunning fine art landscape photograph.
This beautiful new fine art print was hard earned. Having done a great deal of online research, I knew the journey to the falls would be arduous and disorienting.
Devil’s Staircase, The Adventure
My first attempt at finding this wonderful waterfall ended in failure. The drive from my home in Bend took about 6 1/2 hours, much of which was on remote logging roads, overgrown to the point that trees and brush connected together across the the roadway.
As there is little to no signage in the area, driving is a series of best guesses. Knowing that you are starting in the correct location is…. also a guess. I nervously navigated the clogged hilltop logging roads with their treacherously steep shoulders and eventually found what appeared to be the beginning of the on-foot part of my journey. I had read about a faint trail which traveled directly away from the road leading to the old logging landing I had presumptuously parked at. After arriving at my presumptuous starting location, I gathered my maps, compasses, 10 essentials, emergency overnight gear and approximately 30 lbs of camera gear. I took a literal leap of faith into the labyrinth like Siuslaw National Forest. My route entailed more controlled falling than it did hiking. On the ridgeline I was descending, I took a long series of muddy drops for about a mile until I ran into a small stream which was pleasant except for the fact that my intended route should not cross a stream for at least 2 miles!!!! Yikes! Was I already lost? I knew I could not be where I needed to be.”
I knew the wise thing to do was to retreat with my tail between my legs to the top of the brutally steep ridge I had just plunged down. The ascent was horrendous. For every two steps I slid backwards one step. Because there was no real “trail”, I spent much of my upward hike on my belly in mud, crawling under low-lying vine maple trees and and salmonberry bushes. Carrying a 40 pound backpack while scrambling over rugged terrain was an unbearable burden. Eventually I reached my parking spot and realized that I wouldn’t have time for another descent and still be able to get back to my truck before nightfall. I returned home to Bend humbled but not defeated.
The Devil’s Staircase Adventure part 2…
Weeks after my initial attempt to find the elusive staircase, I regrouped and doubled my efforts. I found better maps of the area which is located in Oregon’s Siuslaw National Forest between the Smith River and the Umpqua River. While planning my return, I realized I would need an able bodied
hiking partner for both safety and sherpa purposes. Enter Josh…former neighbor, great friend, excellent woodsman and as it turns out, a tireless backcountry hiker.
When I contacted Josh about the adventure, he eagerly signed on to the exploration. Thank God!
On the first logging road on the way to the waterfall, we encountered a downed alder tree across the road. It was too heavy to lift and too high to drive over. Fortunately we had packed a large hand saw just for this purpose. Josh and I took turns cutting out a road sized section of the tree and returned to the driving part of our adventure.
I’ve driven thousands of miles down forest service roads and have never seen a road more overgrown than the ones in this section of the Siuslaw National Forest. I intentionally drive a beat-up old Tahoe because it has good clearance and the paint job is already heavily decorated with “Oregon Racing Stripes”, scratches from trees and brush along narrow forest service roads. The overgrown roads in this part of the Coast Range weren’t a concern because they were torturing my paint job, they were problematic because we simply couldn’t see where the road was!
The shoulders of the road were exceptionally steep, precipitously dropping several hundred feet in many locations. On several occasions, we had to stop and get out of my rig to see exactly where the road was. Eventually, we found what we believed was the proper parking spot and beginning of our hiking route.
In preparation for my second attempt at finding the Devil’s Staircase, I downloaded maps which included waypoints which proved to be priceless in the first 2 miles of our expedition. These waypoints gave us the confidence to trust the faint, debris covered trail which departed from the logging landing where we had parked.
Our route to the Staircase meandered up and down zigzagging ridge lines through magnificent old growth forests intermingled with dense undergrowth.
In between anxious map,GPS, and compass examinations, we felt immersed in the dense ecosystem of this vibrant but forbidding forest, known as the “Dark Grove”.
We encountered countless snails and banana slugs, while enjoying the calls of woodland birds.
As an interesting side note, I’d like to mention Josh’s choice of footwear. Sandals! Keep in mind that he is an extremely experienced backcountry traveler. He explained that his feet have been hardened by countless miles of backcountry travel, they don’t get hot in sandals and with open toed shoes his feet dry off quickly. SaveSave
The “Trail” which descends into the “Dark Grove” quickly became difficult to follow. It required lots of scrambling on hands and knees to trudge
through sections like you see in the photo to the left.
Low lying vine maples and rhododendrons made wearing a heavy backpack with a beefy tripod a nuisance.
My tripod repeated got caught on branches which would pull me backward until I stopped to disengage the offending branch.
The lushness of the forest was remarkable. The Oregon Coast Range is notoriously damp and the section of woods in this proposed wilderness area are no exception.
Dense undergrowth was often accentuated with a layer of moss and lichen.
As our route drove us deeper into the heart of this 30,500 acre tract of land, signs of our trail became more sparse and extremely difficult to discern.
Elegant stands of old growth forest were interspersed with dense stands of Salmonberry, vine maple and rhododendrons.
According to the good folks at Cascadia Wildlands, the extremely steep terrain and remarkably loose soil in this proposed wilderness area made it exceedingly difficult for loggers. Fortunately, this is an example of accidental old growth forest preservation. Currently, two groups, Cascadia Wildlands as well as Oregon Wild are leading the charge to protect this magnificent part of the world against future logging.
The Devil’s Staircase is part of the largest unprotected tract of land in the Oregon Coast Range and it definitely deserves to be preserved.
As we continued downward toward the falls and Wasson Creek, we lost any sign of trail but we were greeted by plentiful signs of wildlife. We found lots of Black Bear and Mountain Lion scat as well as countless piles of Elk poop. Our route was riddled with faint elk trails which served as more of a distraction than a benefit. It was almost as if the local elk weren’t as concerned about getting to the Staircase as we were!
As we weren’t positive about exactly where the staircase was located and we no longer had GPS service, we opted to navigate conservatively. Instead of descending directly upon the waterfall, we opted to drop into Wasson Creek at a spot where we were confident that we would be downstream of the falls.
This navigational tactic may have prevented disaster but it definitely took us longer than a more direct and aggressive route would have .
We steeply descended into an almost impenetrable maze of salmonberry and the nefarious Devil’s Club whose thorny branches were an unpleasant surprise. From salmonberry brambles we made a series of unfortunate decisions which led us into a huge skunk cabbage bog. We slogged shin deep in mud and elk poop which threatened to remove our shoes. Keep in mind, Josh was wearing sandals for this entire exploration. He never lodged a single complaint about his footwear during our entire adventure!
The enormous old growth Douglas Fir you see to the left was typical of the cathedral like forest we enjoyed during our quest to find the elusive Devil’s Staircase.
After we excavated ourselves from the skunk cabbage bog, we thankfully made our way down to the banks of what we hoped was Wasson Creek. The banks of the creek were extremely steep and in most places there was drop of more than 10 feet down to the water’s edge. With some frustration, we found a passage down to water level where we blissfully waded knee deep in the direction where we hoped to find the Holy Grail of the Dark Grove, the Devil’s Staircase.
The Creek was enchanting and filled with life. Its clear water was probably a matter of seasonal timing as I suspect that with heavier stream flow, the creek would be much more turbid.
The creek was decorated with pleasant mini waterfalls which cascaded over small sandstone shelves and plummeted into intriguing “potholes” formed via the miracle of erosion.
The scene you see to the right was typical of our 1/4 mile wade through Wasson Creek. We honestly weren’t certain if the Devil’s Staircase was up or downstream from where we dropped into Wasson Creek but our educated guess was that it should be upstream. Imagine our exaltation when we first heard the roar of the falls, soon followed by our first glimpse of those elegant sandstone stair steps which compose Oregon’s most elusive waterfall!
The scene was absolutely breath-taking. The individual stairs of the Devil’s Staircase range from about 3 to 5 feet high with a total elevation loss of about 50 feet.
The scene is simply sublime. Water cascading over perfect natural stair-steps, intriguing potholes, abundant insect life and the serene backdrop of an ancient old-growth forest make for an awe inspiring experience!
Some notes about my fine art landscape photographs of the Devil’s Staircase
The intention of my photographs is usually to capture the essence of the beautiful environments I visit. This entails an analysis of what specific characteristics of a place make it unique. For my Devil’s Staircase Fine Art Photograph, I wanted to emphasize the waterfall itself as well as the unique pot holes in the stream bed and the enchanting forest. When I first conceptualized images of the Devil’s Staircase, I imagined a heavier water flow over the steps. This was of course out of my control and… I think would have been unfortunate. Heavier flow would have meant a simple series of white drops and would have obscured the features in the stream bed which help to define the place. I desperately wanted overcast skies to eliminate contrasty spots in future fine art prints of this special place. In total, I spent just over 2 hours exploring and shooting the falls from various perspectives and with two different cameras. I utilized a Sony digital camera and my “Big Rig”, which is my faithful Ebony large format 4×5 film camera.
The “Big Rig” is gorgeous, but heavy. It is what I use to capture all of the fine art landscape photographs you see in the galleries of my website. Because the image files from my 4×5 sheet film are enormous, I can make exceptionally detailed fine art prints at remarkably large sizes. I routinely sell prints which are 50 inches wide! While all of the photos in this blog entry are for sale, only the fine art landscape photographs of the Devil’s Staircase which were taken with my “Big Rig” can be printed at sizes larger than 20 inches in the long dimension. SaveSave
A couple notes about getting to the Devil’s Staircase….
I’m not going to tell you how to get to the Devil’s Staircase!!! This place is Really remote and I cannot over-emphasize how easy it is to get lost down there. The “Easy” way to the Devil’s Staircase is really difficult. Many people have gotten lost and had to unintentionally spend the night in that forest. Minor emergencies become major crises in places like the Dark Grove which has no cell phone coverage. I simple do not want the liability of contributing to other people getting lost trying to find this waterfall. OK..all of this being said, with some research, you can find plenty of information about routes to the Staircase online and most of the people who claim to have taken the “easy” route into the falls actually did take the easy route. You will get dirty, wet, sweaty, and possibly bloody( I did). You will get scratched, scraped, you will crawl on your belly, and you will slide, against your will down steep slopes covered in thick undergrowth and if you are like me, you will love it1 My advice is to go with a strong hiking partner, be VERY prepared and have finely honed route finding skills before adventuring to to this magical part of the world which desperately deserves the protected status of a designated Wilderness Area!SaveSave
Amazing, Mike! So glad you found the falls and the gorgeous photos are worth it!!
You are too kind, thank you! The hike was magical yet brutal!
we, my wife and i are continually surprised by abundance of beauty here in the great pnw…a mos def additional location to see..thank you for sharing
Thanks for the note! The PNW never ceases to amaze me! If you ever go to the Devil’s Staircase, be very prepared as it is really easy to get lost down there!
All the Best,
Love the pictures AND the description of your adventure.
Thanks for taking the time to share your kind words, Your kindness is truly appreciated!
Mike, great write-up… I have this all ‘mapped out’ on my gaiagps, plus various articles one can find online. All set to go.. but… As you mention, a good hiking partner is paramount, as simple problems can lead into bigger ones if done alone, and emergencies arise. Did you do this trip in the month of August, or was that just the date of the post? I’ve heard springtime is good. cheers.
I did not do the Devil’s Staircase Hike in August. The water levels in Wasson Creek get pretty low in the summer and in August, I would suspect it would be a trickle. I wanted moderate flow for photo purposes. I went in Early June. It is gorgeous. Be Safe, Have fun and let me know how it goes!
Congratulations. Great photos. Thank you for sharing. We are heading there later this month. I am going with a buddy who did the trip six years ago. What Forest road did you go in on? Last time my buddy took lower smith road BLM 36.0. I was just wondering if you recommend a better access point.
I honestly don’t remember which road I went in on but it was definitely from the Smith River side. Best of luck. You might bring a hefty handsaw or a chainsaw to cut fallen trees on the forest service roads. I sure needed one! Have fun and be safe. It is REALLY easy to get turned around in there. It is a magical place.
please do not use a chainsaw in the wilderness area though
Logan makes a great point since I wrote this blog post, Devil’s Staircase has received the protection it deserved and is now a designated wilderness area! Hooray. Chain Saws are of course strictly forbidden in wilderness areas. Thanks, Logan!
Wow, I just spent half an hour reading your stories about Bandon and this hike to the waterfall. I really admire you as a photographer and your absolute passion for photography. I wish you a lot more adventures and stunning works of art.
Thanks for taking the time to read my website, I truly appreciate it! Half the fun of my job is sharing adventures with others. I’m currently recovering from a big surgery but hope to be back to full strength in the next few months. Please check back in the near future to see my latest landscape photographs and read about my latest adventures.