Located deep in a remote part of the Siuslaw National Forest in Oregon’s Coast Range, is a trail that offers a trifecta for waterfall chasers. Three beautiful falls on one moderate 4.4 mile in-and-out hike that descends 800 feet to the bottom of a canyon and the North Fork Smith River. It’s a dense, wet, coastal rainforest that provides a misty, jungle-like feel in the fall, winter, and spring; and on warm summer days, a shady, cool respite.
Starting at the trailhead, hikers begin a steady half mile descent through old-growth Douglas fir, hemlock, a variety of green fern, and moss-covered basalt rock walls. It’s a silent place, save for the chirping of a Pacific wren or a chattering squirrel. But soon the sound of falling water comes into play. The trail traverses a number of switch backs down to the base of the first waterfall, Upper Kentucky Falls. With its stately tiered formation and gentle falling ribbons dropping 100 feet into Kentucky Creek, this waterfall alone would be worth the trip.
The sometimes soft, sometimes rocky, and always damp trail, then follows the creek and its pounding white water (especially powerful in the winter and spring). Since the trail isn’t heavily used or maintained, downed trees and washouts may provide some occasional challenges, and care should be taken when traversing a narrow rock ledge.
After about 1.4 miles from the upper falls, the trail ends at a wooden observation platform and a set of spectacular twin falls located at the bottom of the canyon. Lower Kentucky Falls, (on the right), drops gracefully 100 feet to join the North Fork Smith River and creates a ton of mist and spray.
For the best vantage point for 120 ft. North Fork Falls, (the one on the left), scramble carefully down from the platform over slippery rocks and logs for an unimpeded view. When the water is really flowing, the power and spray of this waterfall is amazing.
The hike back up to the trailhead is a solid workout, and seeing the upper falls again is a bonus. Expect to see an abundance of verdant moss at any time of year and wildflowers in late spring and early summer, especially trillium and oxalis. A plethora of salmonberries ripen by late summer, and in the fall, there are a variety of mushrooms to be found, accompanied by the brilliant foliage from big leaf maple trees.
Getting to and from the Kentucky Falls trailhead can be perhaps the biggest challenge, as winding logging roads with plenty of potholes and narrow turns require a vehicle for that purpose, and a careful focus on following good directions.