The Tualatin River meanders thru neighborhoods and industry on the western edge of the Portland Metro area.
It is a slow moving stream flanked by towering trees and it puts on quite a colorful show each Fall.
Yet, this sort of natural drama is only part of the Tualatin River’s story.
Recently, a platoon of adventurers from the Tualatin Riverkeepers, a local conservation group, gathered at Menefee Park in Yamhill County for a springtime getaway that takes effort, planning and persistence.
The hikers compared notes and prepared their gear before a day-long hike into one of the most stunning and surprising sites of the Tualatin River watershed.
“It’s rugged, it’s treacherous and you need a good topo map, a compass and a GPS would help you find it,” noted longtime Tualatin Riverkeeper Paul Whitney.
Tarri Christopher, a TRK member agreed, “Not everyone can do this. This isn’t a ‘take your family and go on a stroll’ hike. You have to be prepared – you have to be fit.”
Fit enough to tackle steep, relentless and unforgiving terrain along the upper Tualatin River in the Oregon Coast Range Mountains.
Lew Scholl joined the expedition too. He had been on a trip like this before nearly 20 years ago.
In 1993, he accompanied five friends from TRK who stumbled onto the remote stretch of river.
It was meant to be a two-hour hike but it turned into an all day bushwhack.
“The six of us got together and we were led by then-TRK President Rob Baur. We were just going to stomp down the river ...we really didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into as there was no trail and we constantly had to wade across the river; doing whatever it took to get downstream.”
After hours of scrambling and rambling up and down the steep-walled river canyon, marked by big trees, huge boulders and sheer rock cliffs, the group heard something loud and constant.
Scholl said it sounded like thunder: “We looked at each other and said, ‘Hmm, that sounds like water rushing,’ and we got up on some rocks and looked down and holy smokes, it’s a 45 foot waterfall!"
It was a waterfall that wasn’t on any map and the group was astonished to find a thick cord of whitewater rushing and spilling out of a hidden cleft in the ancient basalt rock.
The "discovery" was certainly a well-deserved reward for the group's efforts, but Scholl couldn't really believe that no one had ever heard of it.
“It was interesting because obviously the area was logged over at some time. So, someone knew about the falls and yet it wasn't on any map. In a way, we re-discovered the falls.”
Scholl added that they submitted a name for the waterfall to the State Geographic Names Board and eventually the 45-foot tall waterfall was added to government maps.
In 1999, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde recognized and blessed “Ki-a-Kuts Falls,” (kia-cuts) in a tribal ceremony at the site. The cascading falls was named for the last chief of the Atfalati Indians, a local band of Kalapuya Indians.
“The Elder KiaKuts stood up for his people back when Joel Palmer of the US Indian Bureau tried to get the natives to move off their land,” said Scholl. “The chief said, ‘No, we don’t want to go to a distant reservation – we want to stay right here. Why can’t you make a reservation here for us? The only thing I want is for the settlers to stop harassing my children.”
“It’s a fitting name because the falls wasn't discovered by the Tualatin Riverkeepers,” added Tarri Christopher. “The falls were here long before any of us knew about it. Native people knew the place long ago, so it should be rightfully recognized that way.”
Flanked by basalt columns and cliffs, KiaKuts Falls is a timeless and serene moment and a fitting reward for the effort that it takes to reach the remote but restful site.
Brian Wegener, a TRK member, added, “It is hard to believe it’s the same Tualatin River that most of us know in the Portland area. It is so different up here from what it looks like down in the valley. If you’re adventurous and in good health and you can use a map and compass and find your way, it’s a beautiful place to be.”
Tarri Christopher agreed and added, “If you see where it comes from and to see the beauty of it,I think we’re more likely to take care of it. It’s a special place and it’s worth the effort to get here.”
The Tualatin Riverkeepers is a good place to start for specific directions to KiaKuts Falls. In fact, you might consider attending TRK's annual fundraising event on April 14. The "Green Heron Gala" is held at the Tualatin Country Club and you can join in the fun and learn more about the rugged hike.
It deserves special note that planning and preparation are critical if you want to visit KiaKuts Falls. That means good hiking boots with proper arch and ankle support, pack plenty of water, food and rain gear. Don't forget a first aid kit.
Remember that it is a remote area with unreliable cell phone service and private logging roads. It is advised that you check with the Forest Grove office of the Oregon Dept of Forestry for information about road closures.
You may also want to visit soon because when fire season begins, access roads through private timberland close down.