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Our adventure of the weekend called for something new, and my husband brilliantly suggested we visit an empty lake. Every year, Fall Creek Lake is drawn down to the historic stream level. In other words, they open the dam and empty all the water so just the natural stream is flowing. The Army Corps of Engineers draws down the lake to improve passage for juvenile salmon. As a result, the lake is very low during the fall and winter months.
Fall Creek Lake
Hiking to the bottom of Fall Creek Lake met our criteria for an interesting family hike. After all, just imagine what you can find at the bottom of a lake! We weren’t sure about the stroller, but as it turned out, we were able to take the stroller all the way to the bottom, which was nice for our toddlers.
We parked at the gate at the North Shore entrance. First, we checked out the dam. And what to our wondering eyes would appear? A paved road to the bottom of the lake! We unloaded the stroller and off we went. Past the gate is the usual parking area, with picnic tables and vault toilets (which are usually locked in the winter but thank goodness one was open this time!) And past that trailed a paved road, down, down, down to the bottom.
Road to the Bottom
The scenery was like a crayon box. A bit of snow on the hills, the astonishingly green moss, the pastel grasses, and the sometimes-blue sky reflected in the water below. I took dozens of photos as I marveled at all of the colors, far more than I expected for the bottom of a lake.
My older kids set off to explore, and it was easy to keep them in sight almost anywhere in the lake basin. Stumps abound, along with small rivulets of water streaming toward the lake.
Is this really Oregon?
At one point on our hike, I parked the stroller and looked around. I’ve never been to Ireland or Scotland, but the landscape of the Fall Creek Lake reminds me of Ireland in the movies. Thick green mosses with boulders and stones peeking above, and the sound of water trickling. Was this really Oregon?
Fall Creek basin
As we walked deeper into the lake (such a weird thing to say, right?!) the landscape changed from grass and moss to rocks and stumps. This entire area was formerly a forest, and the stumps remain several decades later. Some of the stumps are from huge old-growth trees. My kids had a blast playing tag around them and jumping off of them.
We continued to follow the road down toward the water. The road took on more of a “road” look, and we could see white center striping. And next to the water…a parking lot. I’ve asked around online and I can’t find anyone who knows what the parking lot was for. Perhaps it was for the construction work while the dam was being built. Perhaps it was for recreational parking during periods of lake draw down. If you know, contact me or leave a comment below!
2022 Update: Sean Stewart, a ranger at Fall Creek Lake, explained more of the history and answered my questions:
The old road that serves as the low water ramp was a temporary road built to go around the dam while they were building it. It connected the old Fall Creek Rd down by the Unity Covered Bridge to the remaining road allowing folks to go around the dam. The parking lot is for a low water ramp. For many years, the lake was held at an elevation just below the parking lot so people could fish year-round. When the dam was finished, they also finished building Big Fall Creek Road, Winberry Road, and Peninsula Road so you could drive all the way around the lake. The old Fall Creek road is still visible at the bottom of the lake and meets the new road at Cascara Campground.
What we found at the bottom of the lake
While I was oohing and aahing at the scenery, my kids were busy looking for treasure. We found plenty of tennis balls and litter (some of which we picked up, thanks to our commitment to leave it better than we found it). My husband found scores of rusted nails (did someone drop a bag of nails from their boat?) But we also found some crystalline rocks and some pretty awesome pieces of melted glass. Note: it is illegal to collect rocks and minerals at Fall Creek Lake (Article 327.14).
History of Fall Creek Lake
Fall Creek Dam was built in 1964-66 at a cost of $22 million. Primarily built for flood control, the dam is 205 feet high, and holds 125,000 acre-feet of water. The lake historically is filled to a depth of 160 feet. Each year, it’s drawn down to allow for flood control, but in 2011 the Army Corps released water all the way down to stream level for the salmon migration. In 2021, the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon passed an injunction that affect water levels even more.
Edited to add: I’ve kept digging for information about this road, and I finally found it in some old maps. The road was part of a paved road system through the Fall Creek area and connected to the old Highway 58 (before it moved due to Dexter Lake). For your viewing pleasure…
If you go
If you go, and you really should, here are the details.
Fee during the winter: none
There are several entry points around the lake. We entered at the North Shore boat ramp. During the summer, there are vault toilets at this location (and on our visit, one toilet was open, to my relief).