Snailback Falls (Oregon) 22-Feb-2019

Snailback Falls, when conditions are wet, cascades down a steep rocky ravine in the Illinois Valley just west of Selma, Oregon.  It’s not much to look at in the depths of summer but during and after winter storms the falls cascade over 400 feet and can be seen from quite a distance.  We first heard about them from a 2011 Medford Tribune article by Gabe Howe (Siskiyou Mountain Club).  The falls are only about 1.5 miles up from the paved Illinois River Road (Forest Road (FR) 4103) via an old mining road and some trail. This made them seem like a worthy, but not too difficult, goal.  And with all the weather we’ve been having lately, they were likely to be in full flow.  But, in our enthusiasm for something new and different, we blithely overlooked 🙄 all the lower-altitude snow we’ve been having this season – substantial amounts of which have accumulated below the base of the falls at about 2,400 feet.  But we needed a hiking endorphin hit, so off we went.

The informal trailhead for the falls is about 3.5 miles west of the blinking light in Selma on the Illinois River Road.  We parked at a small turnout on the road’s south side at an unsigned junction with FR 011 (Star Flat Road). A much larger pull-out can be found a little farther along the road to the west.  The hike starts on the north side of FR 4103, past a wooden log restoration fence. This was installed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to limit off-highway vehicle (OHV) access to slopes overrun by the Biscuit Fire in 2002 and then again by the Klondike Fire in 2018. The old mining road starts just on the other side of this fence. 

The old mining road starts directly behind the wooden fence

The fence seems to have done something to limit the maze of OHV tracks that used to plague this area, so the old mining road that was to be part of our trail was pretty obvious right from the start.

Starting up the old mining road
Higher on the old mining road
Looking west toward Pearsoll Peak from the old road
Looking west from where we reached the snowline at about 2,000 feet
Burned trees and snow

One thing about mining roads is that they don’t waste any time getting to the ore. So the old road took us almost 900 feet up in just 0.9 miles before ending – under about a foot of snow – on a ridge at about 2,400 feet.

View west from the end of the road on the ridge crest

After poking around a bit, we soon found the trail that contours north from the end of the road, past the Forgotten Copper Mine, to the base of the falls. This trail, despite being snow covered, was easy to see and follow to the old mine. Had it not been covered with snow, it would have been an easy stroll through a grand forest of soaring old trees that have easily survived the fires (which the brush build-up in the understory did not – this is a good thing). But the snow featured soft drifts, icy spots, and a breakable crust which made for cumbersome footing and some postholing.

Fire-touched but very much alive old Ponderosas along the trail

Even with this snow floundering, it didn’t take us long to get to the old mine whose claim, based on what we found nailed to a tree, had been recently renewed. There was supposed to be an old water wheel here about 20 feet up from the trail but we could find no sign of it. Beyond the mine, the trail became considerably less distinct and much more snow covered. Some of this snow hid fallen logs that acted as foot traps and potential ankle breakers. We pushed on to where we had a clear view of the upper falls, some 400 feet above us.

Upper Snailback Falls (arrow) from the trail
Close-up of Upper Snailback Falls

But the base of the falls was still some 500 feet or so farther on across snowy terrain treacherous with fallen logs and slippery surfaces. 😦 My back had already performed heroic duty getting us this far, so we called the hike here and headed back.

Starting back from our farthest point
Passing the Forgotten Copper Mine
One of the excavations at the mine
Back through the charred forest
And out into the sun, with Eight Dollar Mountain on the horizon
Looking east along the old mining road from the ridge crest
Down the old road through burnt shrubs

Had we gone to the base of the falls, the whole hike would have been just over three miles and, without snow but allowing for the steep climb, pretty easy. So we vowed to come back during that golden moment when the snow was gone and the creek was still gushing. 🙂 Then we made our way to Climate City Brewing in Grants Pass to gain energy for the drive home and to strategize about our next (snow-free) visit to Snailback Falls! 😀

Our track almost to the base of the falls
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