Surrounded by primeval rainforest in one of Oregon’s most inaccessible canyons, the multi-tiered waterfall cannot be reached by road, trail or easy route.
'It’s as wild as wild can get'
“It’s as wild as wild can get,” said Andy Stahl, who first traveled to the region northeast of Reedsport in the early 1980s. “Unless you are very skilled, just don't even try. This place is too dangerous. It's too wild. It's too remote.”
In the coming months, Siuslaw National Forest will do an inventory of the newly-created Devil’s Staircase Wilderness — a 30,000-acre patch of old-growth established by Congress and signed into law earlier this month.
They’ll consider how to manage the largest wilderness area in Oregon’s Coast Range, including whether to improve access or build trails.
It’s not a simple question.
Should we cut a trail into one of the last wild places in Oregon so more hikers can experience the majestic waterfall and old-growth forest — and possibly increase tourism in an economically depressed part of rural Oregon?
Or should the wilderness stay open only to elite adventurers, keeping the emphasis on preserving habitat and limiting human encroachment?
Glory and damage on a hiking trail
Hiking trails have long been viewed as the best option for enjoying a special place while still preserving it.
Instead of the paved roads blasted into many national parks, low-impact trails have been the only recreation allowed in spectacular yet fragile wilderness areas.
But faith in forested trails has been tested of late, especially in northwest Oregon, as the number of people hiking wilderness pathways has skyrocketed.
Once secluded mountain lakes have become so overrun that vegetation stops growing. Trees are cut for firewood. Mountain meadows are filled with trash, diapers and yes, even human poop.
The situation has become so pressing in Oregon’s Central Cascades — including the Mount Jefferson and Three Sisters wilderness — the Forest Service is planning to limit the number of people allowed to enter a half-million acres of the state’s most iconic backcountry.
And yet, trails and outdoor access have never been more important and popular to an increasingly urbanized world.
Outdoor recreation saves $1.4 billion annually in healthcare costs in Oregon by reducing chronic illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, depression, dementia, diabetes and several cancers, according to a study by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.
Oregon’s outdoor recreation economy also produces $11.2 billion annually and is routinely touted as among the best hopes for economically depressed rural areas impacted by the decline in logging.
For a healthy and fruitful Oregon, the overarching message has been clear: build more trails.
Once and future trails in the Devil’s Staircase?
The U.S. Forest Service has considered building trails into the Devil’s Staircase and Wassen Creek area before.
In the 1990s, Siuslaw National Forest planned to build 12.5 miles of trail into what was then known as the Wassen Creek undeveloped area.
It never happened, in part due to lack of funds, and in part because there wasn’t much interest in one of the last blank spots on the Western Oregon map.
Oregon’s Coast Range is one of the best timber growing regions in the world, a place humans have been harvesting trees for well over a century. That’s led to somewhat limited recreation in a splintered region of clear-cuts, tree farms and private timberland bisected by a seemingly endless number of roads.
Wassen Creek and the Devil’s Staircase remained the exception, in large part, because of the inhospitality to human access.
The canyon was so steep and erosive no logging and very limited road building occurred into the 1980s. Later, proposed timber sales were killed by lawsuits and the rising tide of environmentalism.
Wassen Creek canyon was left as a truly rare slice of untouched Oregon rainforest — an intact ecosystem of titanic Douglas fir and head-high ferns, of spotted owls, giant Pacific salamanders and marbled murrelets.
“Everywhere is green,” Stahl said of the area. “The forest floor is green. The vine maple, and the salmonberry, and the huckleberry, it's all green. The understory trees coming up, the grand fir, the Douglas fir, green, the cedars. Everything is green there.”
Waterfall myth becomes reality
It started as a rumor.
A beautiful waterfall was out there, somewhere in the depths of Wassen Creek canyon.
Problem was, nobody could find it.
Every bushwhacking adventure into the cliff-walled jungle ended in failure, often after a miserable rain-soaked night in the wild.
“A lot of people thought it didn't exist," Stahl said.
Finally, Stahl decided he had to know for sure. With a young environmental activist named Sherry Wellborn — who would later become his wife — Stahl traversed over 30 miles of Wassen Creek in tennis shoes.
On the third day, the young couple came across what would later be dubbed the “Devil’s Staircase” — where Wassen Creek drops 50 feet down a series of sandstone tiers.
Even more striking was the complete solitude. In three days they saw more wildlife — black bear, river otter, elk and signs of cougar — than during a year's worth of hiking and backpacking.
"I saw no evidence of humans,” he said. “Not a fire ring, blaze on a tree or boot mark. It was remarkable — not a scintilla of human presence.”
As the campaign to permanently protect the area ramped up, Devil’s Staircase became one of the most famous Oregon waterfalls. Pictures of it graced newspapers, magazines and websites countless times between 2007 and 2019.
Yet it remained almost as isolated as ever, with relatively few people making the trip.
“It's too rugged for anyone to include in a guide book, and most online descriptions have referenced that the hike is brutal and not appropriate for most people to attempt, so that has kept the numbers in check,” said Erik Fernandez, wilderness coordinator for the environmental group Oregon Wild. “It's only been after media mentions that you get a short term spike, but it’s still a very relatively minor number of people.”
Should the Forest Service build trails to Devil’s Staircase?
Now that the Devil’s Staircase has become an official wilderness, Forest Service officials will start considering how to manage the area.
Not much is expected to change in the short term, said USFS spokeswoman Lisa Romero. The previously planned 12.5 miles of trail didn’t happen because there wasn’t the money or interest.
“We will have internal discussions about whether to develop a trail or not — and what that actually looks like,” she said. “But there’s no immediate pressure. The Devils Staircase and Wasson Creek area is remote and has never been in high demand in terms of recreational opportunities.”
If there’s a surge of interest or people heading into the canyon, perhaps damaging the area with thousands of bushwhacking trips, that could change. But she stressed that building any trails would need to balance the benefit of recreation with the terms of the Wilderness Act — which famously describes humans “as visitors who do not remain.”
“It’s a really interesting question,” Romero said. “A lot of it will be driven by the public — how much interest is there in a trail? Where could we actually put one? We don’t have answers for those questions yet.”
Reedsport trying to become ‘recreation hub’ after mill closures
It hasn’t been an easy decade for Reedsport and Gardener, the closest cities to the Devil’s Staircase area.
In 1999, the two coastal towns endured a major gut-punch when the gigantic International Paper mill and sawmill closed, leaving 1,000 people without jobs and sparking an economic slowdown that remains to this day.
“A lot of the community was built around that mill,” Reedsport city manager Jonathan Wright said. “The community grew up around the timber industry, and once it left, things really stagnated. We still haven’t recovered from that hit.”
Storefronts remained vacant. A high school built for 900 students enrolled 300. Housing values plummeted.
Eventually, the city decided to rebrand around tourism and outdoor adventure. It’s not easy because Reedsport sits back from the ocean, but the combination of scenic rivers and rugged forest outside city limits does feature the chance to become “a hub for unique recreation” that includes paddling, hiking and biking, Wright said.
Wright said he supports building trails that offer more recreation opportunities in the Devil’s Staircase area, pointing out that the trail to Kentucky Falls, another remote coast range waterfall, has become one of the area’s most popular trips.
“Being that hub where people stop to stay at a hotel, eat in a restaurant or buy supplies before heading out on their adventure — that’s a big deal for us,” he said.
Major trail would 'ruin the wilderness experience'
The environmental groups who’ve sought protection for the Wassen canyon since the 1980s all said that no major trail should be cut into the new wilderness, and especially not to Devil’s Staircase.
“The Devil’s Staircase is not something that should be merely experienced in a short day-hike with enough time to get back in cell range to post one’s selfie before hitting the brewpub,” wrote longtime environmentalist Andy Kerr. “It should continue to be hard enough for one to put it on one’s bucket list.”
Josh Laughlin, executive director of Cascadia Wildlands, said he worried a major trail would “quickly ruin the wilderness experience,” he said. “Think fire rings, broken bottles, trash, feces.”
Laughlin and Chandra LeGue of Oregon Wild said they’d be open to turning Forest Service Road 4100 — which runs across a ridge south of Wassen Creek and bisects the wilderness — into a de-facto trail for the area.
“It’s already well on its way to being reclaimed by the forest already,” LeGue said, although it wouldn't reach the most scenic spots.
Landslide-prone hillsides, wildlife habitat and the limits of the Wilderness Act were also mentioned, in addition to the fact that many Oregon wilderness areas, including much smaller Rock Creek and Cummings Creek wilderness areas, have zero or very limited trails.
“The problem is there are too many Oregonians already,” Kerr wrote. “Increasing hordes mean defiled wilderness unless use is limited by government. There is only one South Sister. There is not another one out there in reserve to meet increasing demand.
“If the Devil’s Staircase area is to retain its primeval wonder, no trails.”
The case of Opal Creek
In the late 1980s, the environmental groups trying to protect the Opal Creek area east of Salem were growing desperate.
A timber sale had been proposed, and Michael Donnelly and George Atiyeh weren’t sure they could stop it this time.
So they built a trail up Opal Creek to “show the world” what was at risk.
It worked better than they could have dreamed. The spectacular trail turned the tide toward conservation, leading to creation of the Opal Creek Recreation Area and Wilderness in 1996.
Today, Opal Creek is among the most beloved natural playgrounds in Oregon — and home to a wilderness education center that inspires generations of city-dwellers to experience nature at its best.
Yet it has come at a cost.
Growing crowds have brought major parking problems. Drug use has increased. Drinking is a problem. Mossy groves of giant trees have lost their vegetation.
“We saved Opal Creek from logging,” Atiyeh told the Statesman Journal in 2016. “But now it’s being completely loved to death.”
In the end, the question of how to manage the Devil’s Staircase comes down to a question of values. Is wilderness a means to an end — a tool for helping us live better lives? Or it is a place that ought to exist for its own virtues, where humans are not and should never be the focus?