WILLAMINA, Ore. — Just the words, Niagara Falls, provoke an immediate response.
Whether you live in the Pacific Northwest, Midwest or deep South, the iconic waterfalls straddling the New York and Ontario border are so ingrained in popular culture that most can visualize it without ever visiting.
Which is why people react with a double-take when you speak of a little-known destination in the Oregon Coast Range called … Niagara Falls.
Despite the famous name, few people have even heard of this spectacular hideaway in Siuslaw National Forest.
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Two waterfalls eclipsing 100 feet thunder into a secluded box canyon, throwing mist into a fern-and-moss-covered forest best explored during winter or early spring.
And unlike the more celebrated Niagara, which lures 12 million tourists each year, chances are you’ll be enjoying Oregon’s version in solitude.
“That you can hike this trail and not see another person is pretty special,” said J.W. Cleveland, Hebo Ranger District trails manager. “It’s a true hidden gem.”
The fact that Niagara Falls Trail exists in such anonymity, considering its beauty, does seem strange on the surface.
A hike of two miles round-trip, the trail showcases waterfalls, wildflowers and coastal forest.
But Niagara has strikes against it. Stuck in a remote no man’s land between Mount Hebo and Willamina, reaching the trailhead requires navigating a series of sometimes-confusing Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service roads.
It’s a common problem in the Coast Range, where intimidating access has a way of keeping people from vising spectacular places such as Valley of the Giants and Kentucky Falls.
I set out with a GPS device and maps to establish a mile-by-mile route from Salem to Niagara Falls Trailhead — something not readily available online or in books, which usually give directions from the coast. Following days of heavy rain, I figured the waterfalls would be booming and the chance for photos at its best.
What I found was a drive of one hour and 20 minutes that wasn’t nearly as bad as expected. There are even helpful pointers along the way, though most were crippled by the shotgun blasts from people apparently offended by signposts.
And the hike exceeded expectations. The trail doesn’t traverse old-growth forest, but there are large Douglas firs along with a thick underbelly of sword fern and vine maple. Spring brings out wildflowers, including trillium and candyflower, and a trio of bridges crosses trickling streams.
The trail drops downhill at a steady grade and before you know it, the waterfalls come into view, splashing and roaring like next door neighbors in this misty, tight canyon.
It’s a beautiful place any time of the year, but especially in late winter and spring when the waterfalls are roaring at full-bore.
The first waterfall on the trail tests whether you brought a rain jacket. Pheasant Creek Falls drops 122 feet down a thick basalt outcropping, spraying a heavy mist over the bridge crossing below it.
Just around a bend is a small picnic area and Niagara Falls.
Unlike its famous counterpart, there is no Maid of the Mist boat tour here, no businesses exploiting the waterfall’s beauty or gladiatorial combat between tourists for the best views. It was just my dog and me, enjoying Oregon’s Niagara Falls in solitude.
Where does the name “Niagara” come from?
Oregon’s Niagara Falls wasn’t named in honor of the famous waterfall on the East Coast — it was named for a local landmark.
Problem is, figuring out which landmark has been the source of some dispute. Not only that, some insist the names of the waterfalls have been incorrectly swapped.
According to Northwest Waterfall Survey, typically the most authoritative source for waterfall information, the names Pheasant Creek Falls and Niagara Falls have been incorrectly swapped over the years.
NWS says the first waterfall you cross on the trail, over the wooden bridge, is actually Niagara Falls because the stream that feeds it, which is unnamed, runs off Niagara Point nearby.
They say the second waterfall — the more spectacular one — is actually Pheasant Creek Falls because the waterfall is fed by Pheasant Creek.
Officials at Siuslaw National Forest disagree and say the names on the map (and mentioned in the story above) are official. They say the name “Niagara” comes from Niagara Creek, the watershed that Pheasant Creek flows into downstream.