Cottonwood Creek Falls (Mt. Thielsen Wilderness) 15-Jul-2016

Last year, we did a loop hike through Thielsen Meadows in the Mount Thielsen Wilderness. Our report on this (post) triggered some comments about the spring (shown on the USGS and USFS topo maps for this area) in the large pumice basin immediately east of Mount Thielsen. I was also interested to find that this topic had been brought up on the Oregon Hiker’s site back in 2011 (post). So, last week, we explored a cross-country path from the Howlock Mountain trailhead to Thielsen Meadows on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and then up to the Sawtooth Ridge overlooking the pumice basin – it’s actually called Cottonwood Creek Basin and is an area with unique botanical species (postpost). At that time we decided not to press on down into the Basin to actually see the spring. It was the right decision then but it left unfinished the business of actually seeing this fabled spring. So yesterday I went back up there to rectify this situation.

After parking at the Howland Mountain trailhead, it was back through the tunnel under Highway 138,

Mount Thielsen Wilderness Oregon

The hiker & horse tunnel under Highway 138

along the Howlock Mountain trail and across delightful Thielsen Creek,

Mount Thielsen Wilderness Oregon

Thielsen Creek

and then up the Thielsen Creek trail to the PCT and the start of the cross-country portion of the hike. The return to this point was speeded along by recent trail maintenance that had cleared all the downed trees on the Thielsen Creek trail (Yeah!  And thanks!).  Going cross-country up the headwaters of Thielsen Creek gave me another stunning view of the contorted geology that defines Mount Thielsen.

Mount Thielsen Wilderness Oregon

The north face of Mount Thielsen

The mosquitos were moderately bad on the trail – not bad at all IF I kept moving – but once I moved on to the snow for the final climb to the Sawtooth Ridge, these winged vampires pretty much disappeared. There was, however, one bee or wasp that pestered me relentlessly all the way to the Sawtooth Ridge, snow or no snow.

Mount Thielsen Wilderness Oregon

“I will not ‘bee’ dissuaded…”

Soon I was once again on the Sawtooth Ridge. From there, I had a great view of Diamond Peak to the west,

Mount Thielsen Wilderness Oregon

Diamond Peak on the western horizon

and of today’s objective – Cottonwood Creek Basin – below me to the east.

Mount Thielsen Wilderness Oregon

Looking east into Cottonwood Basin

It’s about 600 feet down the eastern slope of the Sawtooth Ridge to the Basin. I accomplished the descent down this rather steep slope by first contouring north on open ground and then going almost directly down through the trees (if you go straight down from the Sawtooth Ridge, you’ll run into an awkward-to-cross boulder field).  And, by following this route back up, the 600 foot return climb turned out to be a lot less painful than expected.

Mount Thielsen Wilderness Oregon

My route down into Cottonwood Basin

Once down, I got a full view of the rarely seen eastern face of Thielsen – one truly twisted piece of volcanic rock – which looms over the Basin.

Mount Thielsen Wilderness Oregon

The east face of Mount Thielsen; the Divide is the low point on the ridge to the right

The aerial photos I’ve seen of this side of Thielsen don’t capture the incredible mix of rock types that makeup this face: columnar and smooth basalt all twisted together.

Mount Thielsen Wilderness Oregon

A closer look at the east face of Mount Thielsen

Nor such details as this huge “cave” (maybe a “popped” bubble of molten basalt?), now oozing water and greenery on to the lower face.

Mount Thielsen Wilderness Oregon

A “cave” in the east face of Mount Thielsen

Nor do they capture the colorful convolutions of lava that form Point 8457 to the south of Thielsen’s summit.

Mount Thielsen Wilderness Oregon

The northeastern face of Point 8457

The floor of the Basin is a parched expanse of pumice, gravel, and sand, with nary a drop of water in sight. But this is really 20 to 30 feet of porous rock that captures the entire drainage of the Basin, drains it down to an impermeable layer, where it then flows to daylight at the springs. This is not to say there isn’t overland flow at some points in the year but it’s this groundwater that seems to sustain the creek and the falls.

Mount Thielsen Wilderness Oregon

On the floor of the Basin, looking west toward the divide

I pushed on along the north side of the basin toward where the spring is shown on the map, through some terrain that didn’t look anymore “wet” than the Basin behind me.

Mount Thielsen Wilderness Oregon

Heading toward the spring

I dropped into an unusually flat channel that may have been formed by occasional flushes of water,

Mount Thielsen Wilderness Oregon

In the “channel”, still heading toward the spring

and followed it out and around to a view of a green area sporting not one, but two, springs!

Mount Thielsen Wilderness Oregon

The flows from two springs converge

The “southern” spring flows out from beneath the pumice over toward Point 8457,

Mount Thielsen Wilderness Oregon

The southern spring

while the “northern” one does the same more in line with the Sawtooth Ridge.

Mount Thielsen Wilderness Oregon

The northern spring

Although each is only a few inches deep at the start, their two flows soon merge together in a small meadow,

Mount Thielsen Wilderness Oregon

The flows from the two springs merge

and then, in combination, become Cottonwood Creek.

Mount Thielsen Wilderness Oregon

Cottonwood Creek is born

I soon started to hear what sounded like a waterfall but nothing of the sort was visible at this point. So I kept going east, following the new creek to where it suddenly leapt over a lip,

Mount Thielsen Wilderness Oregon

Cottonwood Creek falls out of the Basin

and became Cottonwood Creek Falls!

Mount Thielsen Wilderness Oregon

Cottonwood Creek Falls

I like waterfalls in general but not obsessively. Still, I was almost stunned by my first look at Cottonwood Creek Falls. Maybe it was the effort it took to see them, maybe it was the unexpectedness of them existing only a few hundred feet from a (seemingly) waterless expanse, maybe it was the cool breeze and spray they wafted over me, maybe it was the little rainbow at the base of the falls. Regardless, seeing them was totally worth it. Amazing!

Mount Thielsen Wilderness Oregon

Cottonwood Creek Falls

Mount Thielsen Wilderness Oregon

Cottonwood Creek Falls

Mount Thielsen Wilderness Oregon

Cottonwood Creek Falls

Mount Thielsen Wilderness Oregon

Cottonwood Creek Falls

Mount Thielsen Wilderness Oregon

Cottonwood Creek Falls

After this drop, the terrain that created the Falls starts to level-out a bit,

Mount Thielsen Wilderness Oregon

The Falls become a cascade

and the Falls become a cascade that runs off down the valley for a half-mile or more.

Mount Thielsen Wilderness Oregon

The cascade heads downhill to the east

After this, it was all anti-climax as I retraced my steps back up the slope to the Sawtooth Ridge.

Mount Thielsen Wilderness Oregon

Back up 600 feet to the Divide

After that, it was all downhill over easy cross-country and good trail back to the car (and the mosquitos that had waited there all day for another shot at my vital fluids…). There are five things about this hike (14.3 miles round-trip (mostly on trail); 2,800 feet of elevation gain – 600 feet of which is getting back out of the Basin) that make it (IMHO) one of the premier hikes in this wilderness: (1) the Divide, with its fun cross-country approach and big views, (2) the contorted eastern face of Mt. Thielsen, (3) Cottonwood Basin, 30+ feet of porous rock over an impermeable layer, (4) the springs (yes, there are two) that come from beneath the pumice as trickles and within 100 yards are a creek, and (5) Cottonwood Creek Falls (WOW!). The Falls are a worthy destination but one that seems to only get mentioned in passing or with generalities. But I found a 1998 notice of an Oregon Native Plant Society of Oregon 3-day/2-night backpack to the Basin, so I suspect they’ve been a local “secret” for sometime.  The drive home featured a stop at Beckie’s in Union Creek to pick-up one of their delicious apple pies!

Mount Thielsen Wilderness Oregon

My track to Cottonwood Creek Falls from the west

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4 thoughts on “Cottonwood Creek Falls (Mt. Thielsen Wilderness) 15-Jul-2016

    1. Boots on the Trail Post author

      I was stunned when I first saw it up close, having been alerted to it by another hiker who saw it on Google Earth, but didn’t hike to it themselves. It isn’t marked on USGS or USFS maps and you can’t actually see it until you get to the far east end of the basin. I’d guess its 30 to 50 feet high.

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    2. Boots on the Trail Post author

      From the Howlock Mountain trail (#1448) trailhead at Diamond Lake, it’s 14 miles round-trip to the Falls, going in and out over the divide north of Thielsen.

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