Hiking the North Umpqua Trail

The beautiful North Umpqua Trail

The North Umpqua Trail

Every summer I get together with my old college roommate for our annual BFF camping trip. Since my friend lives in Klamath Falls and I live in Cottage Grove, we find a campground roughly halfway between us and plan to spend 24 hours hiking, swimming, talking, and laughing together. Over the years, we’ve camped at Davis Lake, Odell Lake, and Waldo Lake all along Highway 58. This year when my friend suggested we meet somewhere along Highway 138 – the North Umpqua Highway – I jumped at the chance. I’ve always wanted to explore the North Umpqua River, and I don’t know why it has never occurred to me to combine it with our annual camping trip.

"Dread & Terror" segment of the North Umpqua TrailThe lower reaches of the North Umpqua are popular for rafting and fly fishing while the upper reaches are home to numerous, spectacular waterfalls. After looking at our camping options, we chose Toketee Lake Campground because it is located roughly half way between us, it is close to the two waterfalls that I really wanted to see, and it is a smaller, quieter campground.

We loved the campground and we loved the waterfalls. Both Toketee and Watson Falls were amazing and will get their own blog posts; however, by far, my favorite part of the area was our hike Tuesday morning along the North Umpqua Trail.

Completed in 1997, the North Umpqua Trail is a 79 mile path that follows the North Umpqua River. One thing that I like about the trail is that it has been organized into segments, which makes this long trail easier to plan and comprehend. The Forest Service hiking guide is organized by these segments and the signs along the trail correspond. Tuesday morning we drove northwest from the campground to the parking lot for the North Umpqua Hot Springs; then walked along the river exploring the “Dread & Terror” segment of the trail, viewing both Surprise and Columnar Falls.

Columnar Falls along the North Umpqua Trail.

Columnar Falls along the North Umpqua Trail.

Visiting the North Umpqua in late summer, I was worried that the river and the waterfalls would have such low water flows that they would not be enjoyable. I was wrong. The river was magnificent and this part of the trail, despite its alarming name, was in my friend’s words, “magical.” And I heartedly agree. Surprise Falls is indeed a surprise because it literally shoots out from the dry ground. Everywhere along this segment, water was dripping down rock walls, cascading over ledges, bursting out of the ground, or flowing down the trail. To go earlier in the summer must be an extremely wet experience.

Temperatures near the waterfalls dropped dramatically as the cool water flowed under and sprayed over the trail. I discovered after we returned that the North Umpqua gets its water from melting snow which is trapped within the volcanic soil. That means that the water flows stay higher in the summer than other rivers and the water stays a cool, even temperature.

Surprise Falls along the North Umpqua Trail.

Surprise Falls literally gushing out of the ground under the North Umpqua Trail.

Already my friend and I are making plans to return to the North Umpqua Trail. Both Toketee Lake Campground and the North Umpqua Trail are used less than other places we’ve been, the result – I believe – is that the people you meet are friendlier and more welcoming. We talked to the other campers at Toketee Lake Campground and chatted with the people we met along the trail (generally mountain bikers) in a way that isn’t common in more popular areas. It made the experience even more enriching.

It took me two hours to drive to Toketee Lake Campground, I could have made it sooner but I kept slowing down to look at the beautiful North Umpqua River as I drove. Luckily, at least on the days that I was there, traffic was extremely light, so my slowing was not a problem. Other sections of the river and trail are even closer to Cottage Grove. I encourage you to download the trail guide, pack the car, and head down I-5 to Roseburg. Follow signs to Diamond Lake and you’ll soon be alongside the beautiful North Umpqua River for your own Trail experience.

7 thoughts on “Hiking the North Umpqua Trail

  1. Beautiful pics!

    Using Google Maps, I found some of the places you mentioned, including the campground, the river, and Tokatee Falls. With the campground close to 138 out of Roseburg, the trip from CG looks easy–to that point. However, the trail segments shown on the trail’s website are all described as “moderate” or “difficult.” The ‘Dread and Terror” segment is “difficult.” 😦 But, it sure looks like a lot of fun!

    The water coming out of the ground at Surprise Falls seems like it’s coming from a type of spring (from volcanic soil, right?) that I’m not familiar with. I thought mountain springs came from water deep within a mountain’s rock formations and sometimes traveled for years before reaching the surface. (I find river headwaters and springs a bit fascinating.)

    Looking forward to your posts about the Tokatee and Watson falls.


    • The part of the “Dread & Terror” segment that we walked was definitely not difficult. My guess is that it is rated “moderate” because of the amount of water on the trail — which is probably worse earlier in the summer and spring. We had to step across small creeks on rocks and logs, definitely not difficult or hard, but it would have been more so if the creeks were flowing more.

      I’m not a geologist or biologist, or whatever it is that studies water flow and soil types, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Surprise Falls is the result of an underground river (flowing through the volcanic soil) coming to the surface. But I could be totally wrong there.

      The waterfalls were beautiful! I didn’t want to take my good camera camping, so these photos were with my point-and-shoot. I was disappointed with them, so I am delighted you like them. Thanks.


      • I love your pictures of the basalt water wall near just down the trail from the hot springs, it’s a favorite. A must re-do in the winter when it’s really cold, it’s so cool frozen with icicles that grow to monster-cicles

        The water… you are so right…….It’s drainage from Thorn Prairie, the miles of flat prairie above the trail that runs from the hot springs to Lemolo, that yes, it can be many years old before it emerges clean clear and cold, with the Umpquas underground springs from the old cascades basalt. How it rumbles the earth beneath your feet, even from a couple spots right on the trail as millions of gallons flow. So awesome! I think a few of the springs deserve the underground river title they are so huge.

        By the way its Toketee….. I know hadn’t caught you with for you a incredibly RARE spelling error since you were in 6th grade 😉

        Dread and Terror segment, I believe was rated before the access trail was added near Dread and Terror Ridge on Thorn Prairie, so the trails length at that time upped the difficulty rating. A few board walls washed out about ten years ago, the beavers had dammed the river and it finally went in high water. 😦 So it does have a few water spots, but even winter is passable in water proof boots and some sprite in your leap.

        One of my favorite wildlife sightings was on this segment. After a couple bear sightings as we were enjoying an Easter morning breakfast when we thought an otter or maybe weasel was frolicking up river on the far side, but the closer it got we discovered it was a much better sighting prize…….a mink! We sat so still for almost an hour, as it hunted and played, but we needed to move on. To our total shock and amazement, forgetting everything we’ve read. We then had the mink follow us for a couple miles people watching us! A thrill, even if it followed on the far side of the river. After thousands of miles on the trail and in the bush, our only mink sighting in Oregon. And let the disbelievers LOL like they did the Wolverines, that a few of us hardy hikers were seeing on the east side of Mt. Thielsen a few years back. So wonderful how wildlife is really making a come back. Thank you for brightening my morning! I hadn’t thought about that mink in awhile.


      • Thanks Carol! I was hoping you would add some of your experiences with the trail. I am looking forward to going back and exploring more.

        And, thanks for catching my spelling error. I should have double-checked that, like I did with all the other names in this post. Opps. Oh well, it is fixed now.


  2. Having driven the N Umpqua a few times I was fascinated by the geological scenery. Now after reading your post I’m going to HAVE to check out this trail. I want to see the columnar falls; I’ve never seen rock strata or falls like that back east (the columns are a volcanic formation). Thanks so much for the detail on the water flow rates; I would have thought, like you, that it would diminish in the late summer. Tourist publications don’t usually include such important tidbits.


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