Ground Truth: Devil's Staircase

Information on the Devil’s Staircase

By Dave and Dee Tvedt

Thanks to everyone who supports protection for this one of a kind remnant wild area in the Oregon Coast Range. Almost all of the coast range has been logged. I’ve heard the statistic that only ~3% of the native forest remains there.

Driving the back roads much gives the impression that this is not an exaggeration. The proposed Devil’s Staircase Wilderness area is truly unique because it is distinctly different from the three already protected Wilderness Areas in the coast range north of the Rogue (Drift Creek, Rock Creek and Cummings Creek). The Devil’s Staircase area so deserves and needs official Wilderness protection. We ourselves have spent many days down there in the last year and really love this place.

The following is an attempt to clarify some of the misconceptions that seem to be out there about the area, getting to the actual Devil’s Staircase waterfall and also with getting around in the proposed Devil’s Staircase Wilderness in general.

The Devil’s Staircase waterfall is what the proposed wilderness is named after. Wassen/Wasson Creek (both spellings get used and are on maps) is the main creek in the proposed wilderness but there are parts of other creek drainages that may be able to be included in an official wilderness.

There are no official trails in the area and there is no trail or trailhead to the Devil’s Staircase waterfall. There are many elk trails and some minimally flagged “enhanced elk trails” that Spotted Owl biologists and others have been using in the broader area. Brush can vary from minimal to horrendous with evergreen huckleberry and other brush making impenetrable walls. If you get off of the enhanced elk trails and have to find another way out, you may easily be blocked by these walls.

Salmonberry is usually thick near the creek bottoms. Steepness varies from gentle to extremely steep and dangerous with cliffs and multiple drop-offs. Travel in the area has many dangers and should not be taken lightly. For people who don’t have a lot of off-trail hiking and route-finding experience, the Devil’s Staircase area is definitely not the place to try to gain experience with it on your own.

While the Devil’s Staircase waterfall is a very beautiful and worthy destination, as we explore the area more and more, we keep finding new enchanting spots that pull us back for more. There are many potential approaches to the Devil’s Staircase waterfall but some are much easier than others (none is even remotely “easy”).

We’ve traveled the creek bed the entire way except the last couple miles of industrial forest land near the mouth before Wassen Creek enters the Smith River. The creek bed leading out of Wassen Lake is certainly one of the more difficult and longer approaches to the Devil’s Staircase waterfall, and the brush in the upper creek makes for interesting and challenging travel.

The most “reasonable” creek routes to the waterfall are either off a road mentioned in William Sullivan’s “Exploring Oregon’s Wild Areas” and in the 1980 or 1982 editions of Sherry Wellborn’s “Oregon Coast Range Wilderness”, or, from the south tributary off of Golden Ridge that leads to Wassen Creek at its southern tip (we’ll give no details or directions as it’s not easy). Creek travel involves walking on wet bedrock a fair amount as perhaps 50+% of the creek bed is bedrock.

This bedrock can be very slick (think irregular, sloped black ice) at times so that travel on it can be treacherous with the risk of broken bones. Felt sole waders with studs greatly lessens this problem but ignores that the creek bed/riparian area is a very fragile area that cannot handle a lot of traffic without suffering damage. Mid to late summer yields more dry creek bedrock to hike on and the slickness seems less even on wet rock. The fragility of the creek and its banks is still there though and the riparian zone is at its least attractive and most dried out at that time of year.

As Andy Stahl has said, this area is very easy to get confused and lost in. This is especially true away from the creek. In much of its terrain, it is very dissected and is literally a maze of ridges and gullies without distinct landmarks that make route finding confusing and confounding. It is extremely easy to end up on the “wrong ridge” — 7.5 minute topographical maps are horribly crude/inadequate for the area and don’t show a fraction of what would help make sense of much of the actual terrain.

Having a compass is absolutely essential (at least as a backup for a good GPS unit). During foggy or rainy weather, visibility significantly drops and it’s all the easier to become disoriented so that your compass or GPS seem likes it’s “wrong”.

We were somewhat surprised that GPS (at least moderately powered) can at least at times work OK in the area considering the big tree canopy and the depth of Wasson Creek “canyon”. We haven’t personally used GPS but plan on getting one for pinpointing individual spots to re-find them easier later. For anyone using GPS and waypoints, make sure you know basic map and compass route-finding well in case your GPS stops working or batteries die.

People who have a lot of experience with Oregon coast range brush and off-trail route finding will likely not have too much difficulty in this area, but most people do not have this experience and should in no way take route-finding and travel in the area lightly.

People’s perceptions of “difficulty” vary tremendously. There is no way to clearly identify how difficult traveling in this area will feel to an interested party. For people determined to go into the area on their own, we think it best to start out with short excursions to see how difficult it appears to you before venturing deeper.

Another option is to go on led hikes into the area. The Cascadia Wildlands Project and possibly other groups or individuals will be leading hikes into the Devil’s Staircase waterfall along with other enchanting spots in the area starting early next year. Anyone considering these led hikes needs to keep in mind that there are still plenty of dangers and difficulty and that they are still ultimately responsible for their own safety. Follow this website or the Cascadia Wildlands site
( ) to find out about future hikes.

To protect this special place as an official designated Wilderness, it will take a lot of people knowing about it and writing their congressional representative and senators to support this happening. Please get involved and tell other people about the special and unique place that the Devil’s Staircase area is. If there are enough of us writing our political representatives, it will make the difference.

What an incredible area!