UPDATE: In August of 2017, this whole area sustained substantial damage from the Blanket Creek Fire, part of the High Cascades Complex Fire. Current trail and forest conditions are unlikely to match those seen here.
Stuart Falls is a gorgeous 40-foot or so cascade of silver water nestled in a spectacular forest in the Sky Lakes Wilderness, near the extreme southwest corner of Crater Lake National Park. It has some wonderful campsites at its base and used to be readily accessible via the Red Blanket Trail (USFS #1090) from a trailhead on Forest Road (FR) 6205 to the west. But then this area was touched by the 2008 Lonesome Complex Middle Fork fire, which removed a lot of the understory and ground cover. This was followed by two years of minimal snow cover, punctuated by short, but intense, bursts of rain. No longer slowed by an understory, this water tore down gullies and completely obliterated the #1090 in several places (and also closed FR 6205 2.5 miles from the trailhead). Using my 4×4 to reach the trailhead, I did this hike in 2015 and found the journey to the falls to be difficult at best and possibly even dangerous. A return visit seemed unlikely until I realized there was a safe (but slightly longer) way in from the east via the Pumice Flat Trail. So, leaving the LovedOne immersed in some sort of intricate fabric project, I headed out to return to the falls.
The Pumice Flat Trailhead is located within Crater Lake National Park on Highway 62 directly across from south entrance to the Lodgepole picnic area turnout and 2.75 miles south of the Annie Springs south entrance; the trailhead is on the south side of the road. The Pumice Flat Trail is wide and obvious and in good condition,
but was still covered by large patches of snow in a few places. This has certainly been the winter that keeps on giving!
Pumice Flat isn’t actually flat, but rather a huge sloping, rolling, open meadow interspersed with trees. There was a certain irony to climbing up and around snow on the trail while the meadows on either side were already starting to brown in the summer heat.
After three miles, I reached the junction of the Pumice Flat and the Pacific Crest Trails (PCT). At some point in the past – and as still shown on the USGS and USFS maps – the Stuart Falls Trail started directly from this junction and went down the upper Red Blanket Creek drainage to the falls and beyond. This is no longer the case, as the Stuart Falls Trail has been rerouted above the drainage and now starts about 0.2 miles north on the PCT. This trail is narrower than the Pumice Flat Trail but in equally good condition except for being covered in several places by that lingering snow. There was one stretch where the trail was still completely under snow and where a little navigating was required.
But most of the trail was gently graded and easy to follow,
and, since it was now up along the canyon wall, had two spots where I could get a view to the south on an otherwise viewless hike (this one being about falls, not views).
Wildflower season is quickly receding into memory but there were still a few species putting out flowers and attracting the attention of small critters.
Three miles from the PCT, I crossed from the park in to the wilderness, and started hearing the falls. A short detour off the trail let me get a look at them from above, which showed that they are quite a bit longer than the 40-feet or so you can see from the campsites below.
The falls are at the east end of several large, flat campsites that are clean and well-kept, with stone fire rings (for show only – NO OPEN FIRES!) and stumps for sitting and cooking (with a stove). The cutting off of easy access from the west has likely limited their use to hardier hikers, backpackers, or equestrians. Thanks to the wet winter, the falls were roaringly fuller than when I last visited them.
The mosquitos had been fierce at the trailhead but (thanks in part to DEET) had backed off a lot along the trail and were – surprisingly – not a big deal at the falls. The day was warming but it was cool and pleasant in the downdraft from the falls so I took a long snack break and spent even more time crawling over logs getting snapshots of the falls. Then it was just a matter of retracing my steps back to the trailhead. A longish hike (12.3 miles roundtrip) but with its 1,700 feet of elevation gain spread-out (there are no sharp or steep ups or downs) over those 12 miles, it’s a very moderate one. A great way to spend the day visiting what is now one of Oregon’s more remote waterfalls!