By Ryan Dawes

In the late 1800s, a sawmill worker of unknown name and origin came to Oregon from the Southeast. His friends called him Kentucky.

On a hunting trip, Kentucky stumbled upon three massive waterfalls in a rainforest canyon south of Mapleton. His discovery, and his nickname, would be memorialized as Kentucky Falls, one of the Oregon Coast Range’s best hiking destinations.

Today, the two-mile Kentucky Falls Trail leads hikers through an old-growth forest and misty ravines to this homestead-era discovery. Upper Kentucky Falls’ 100-foot sheet of whitewater tumbles into a moss-laden canyon, while side-by-side Lower Kentucky Falls and North Fork Falls roar down into a stunning stone amphitheater. From the base of these lower falls, the North Fork Smith River Trail follows a scenic watershed past ancient trees, swimming holes, and pristine wildlife habitat for a total of 8.5 miles.

“The Kentucky Falls Special Interest Area is one of the best examples of a wilderness-like experience in our part of the Coast Range,” says Kraig Lindelin, trails coordinator for Siuslaw National Forest’s central coast district. “There are only a handful of trails in the central Coast Range you can spend a full day on, let alone a backpacking trip. I’ve seen bald eagles, elk herds, and spawning coho salmon out here.”

This wild and scenic rival to any of Oregon’s more popular waterfall destinations was not always so easily accessible, however.

Back in Kentucky’s day, a trip to the falls required a week-long bushwhack through thick undergrowth and steep terrain. Even as late as the early 1980s, visitors would spend a full day crashing through brush to reach the falls from the nearest logging roads.

“Until fairly recently, Coast Range trails were not a part of the outdoor recreation experience,” says Mark Buehrig, retired recreation manager for the Mapleton Ranger District. “If you wanted to recreate, you went to the beaches and dunes.”

With the public’s eye focused on the beach, the Coast Range’s forests and waterways were left to the mercy of the timber industry. Buehrig, however, had other plans.

Inspired by the falls and the beauty of the North Fork Smith River, Buehrig used limited funding to mobilize a skeleton crew of Youth Corps members, volunteers, and a small contracting company to build 2.2 miles of trail to the three falls. Completed in 1985, it was one of the first trails to be built in the central Coast Range.

“None of my colleagues thought it would get any use,” says Beuhrig. “Even I was a little worried I had built a trail to nowhere.”

But when hikers from Eugene, the coast, and abroad flocked to the trailhead, leaving notes of appreciation and even hundreds of dollars in donations, the initial concept of a recreation-free forested Coast Range was utterly shattered. Soon after, the Forest Service designated the falls and upper North Fork Smith River drainage a Special Interest Area, with near-wilderness protection status.

But Buehrig’s vision for the area was far from realized. He surveyed and flagged a route for a much longer section of the trail—a 6.5-mile path following the North Fork Smith River downstream from the falls to a lower trailhead. Unfortunately, his district lacked the needed funding.

For a small team of local volunteers, however, scrapping the project was out of the question. Partnering with Buehrig, they spent three years grubbing, picking, and chiseling through steep bedrock and Coast Range thickets, three days a week, rain or shine. By 1999, they completed the trail, creating an 8.5-mile corridor through one of the central Coast Range’s largest protected areas.

Hikers enjoyed a decade of the whole trail remaining intact before a winter storm destroyed one of the trail’s four footbridges in 2012. A year later, a high-water event altered the course of the North Fork Smith River, leaving a second bridge on an island between two new river channels.

“One bridge was totally shot, the other aged beyond its years,” says Lindelin. “And once you stepped off of it, you were basically looking at another river to cross.”

After several years of planning and allocating funds, the Forest Service reopened the full length of the trail last fall, replacing the two bridges with new, stronger, wildlife-friendly structures. Trail workers rebuilt the first bridge in its exact location, but riparian specialists relocated the second to a narrower area of the river that’s less likely to change course.

“The project took a lot longer than I hoped, but in the end we took the time to do it right,” says Lindelin.

This summer, Lindelin will lead a trail team to repair and improve the section of the trail between the bridges and the base of the falls, cutting back encroaching vegetation, removing winter storm debris, and grading trail tread. Like the many determined workers, volunteers, and explorers before them, their efforts to improve and share this stunning area should benefit visitors for years to come.

Visiting Kentucky Falls Special Interest Area

Ready for the adventure? The quickest way to see the falls is a 4.4-mile hike down the original Kentucky Falls Trail. About half a mile from the trailhead, the first misty views of Upper Kentucky Falls emerge. From Upper Falls, it’s a mile of creekside ambling and a half mile of descending switchbacks to a viewing platform for Lower and North Fork Falls. Hike back up the 2.2-mile trail to return to your car.

To experience the full length of the 8.5-mile trail system, start at the lower North Fork Smith River trailhead and ask a friend to pick you up at the upper Kentucky Falls trailhead. The trail meanders along the river, crossing the two new bridges around 1.5 and 3 miles from the trailhead. Less than a mile before reaching Lower Kentucky and North Fork Falls, you’ll reach a spectacular swimming hole beneath a 6-foot waterfall.

Getting There

Take Highway 126 west from Eugene for 33 miles. Between mileposts 26 and 27, turn left at the sign for Whittaker Creek Recreation Area. Drive for 1.6 miles, then turn right at a bridge and another Whittaker Creek sign. In 1.5 miles, fork left onto Dunn Ridge Road. Climb the curves for 7 miles until you come to a “t” in the road, and turn left on Knowles Creek Road. In 2.7 miles, turn right on Forest Service Road 23. After 1.6 miles, turn right onto paved Road 919. The Kentucky Falls trailhead will be 2.8 miles down the road on the right.

To reach the lower North Fork trailhead, instead of turning right from Road 23 onto Road 191, turn left to stay on Road 23 (now paved) for 5.7 miles.

Most of gravel road sections of the drive are in poor condition, and intersections are not well-marked. We strongly recommend using a GPS in conjunction with these directions.