Picturesque ravines drop hundreds of yards from ridge to water. Old growth giants tower above the creek. Waterfalls burst into mammoth basalt cauldrons. You wouldn’t think such a place existed in Columbia County.
And it doesn’t. But a mile outside the county border, hidden in the forested hills above Westport, runs a remarkable stretch of water called Plympton Creek.
Matt and I knew nothing about the creek before we went exploring. No one we talked to had been there before. Online info is minimal, especially regarding the upper stretch. But the map showed a scribbly mess of topo lines, OnX app noted waterfalls sprinkled along it, and we couldn’t pass that up.
On a cold February morning we drove ten miles past Clatskanie, four miles up MacLean Hill Road, and half a mile down a foggy dead road (very dead) into the middle of the Clatsop State Forest. There we stepped out of the car and dropped into the unknown.
There are no trails in Plympton Creek, so the route down is a choose-your-own-adventure. We aimed for the uppermost waterfall marked on our app, which meant dropping over 700 feet of elevation from the abandoned road to the creek. As we descended the trees grew older, the moss grew greener, and the ravine’s walls closed. By the time we reached the bottom, we were in a wet, secluded canyon.
I wandered upstream and found the first little waterfall of the day.
Though this was more of a waterfall trip than a herpetology trip, we couldn’t pass up perfect salamander habitat. In the splash zones we uncovered several larva.
Matt had expected to see more impressive falls, but the other spots we had marked were just rapids. We explored downstream in case our coordinates were off. There we encountered our first big surprise of the day: a stand of old growth trees!!!
In two years of surveying Columbia County, we haven’t found a single plot of old growth. So far as we know, no forest over 80-100 years old survives in the county. But here in Plympton Creek, an isolated stand of trees perseveres that may have stretched up towards the sun before Lewis and Clark were born. Ancient Western Hemlock, Western Red Cedar, and Bigleaf Maple were in the grove, but the largest of them all were two enormous Douglas firs.
If you love the forest, it brings joy to abide among trees of this age, to feel the knotted bark, to note how the forest floor changes and the light is different under a mature canopy. For a spell we forgot about waterfalls and lingered among the giants.
Just past the old growth, the basalt rose abruptly and the creek dropped off the face of a cliff. This had to be our waterfall… but how to get there? The creek was closed off by rock, so we worked to the side to ascend a slightly less steep wall littered with fallen trees.
On top, we encountered our second shock of the day – an immense moss-covered basalt shelf. To our left, the formation dropped to the waterfall that we still couldn’t see; to our right, it rose and split the forest. With great care (wet moss on steep rock is not a recommended hiking surface), we picked out the safest route down the slope. Around the bend we laid our eyes upon Upper Plympton Creek Falls.
The waterfall itself was unremarkable (the falls are 22 feet high), but the scene was breathtaking. Pictures can’t capture the 360-degree rock cauldron that surrounded us, with ridges rising hundreds of feet on either side. The waterfall dumped into a pool that implausibly split into separate streams, formed a circle at the bottom of the caldron, and then joined again at the lower end. I tried to make a video (skip to 5:40 to see our weak attempt) but panned around erratically; nothing in two dimensions can replicate the feel of all that wild rock around you.
After basking in the beauty of the falls, we picked our way back up the basalt beast. I had the bright idea of attempting to return by ascending the open ridge.
Unfortunately, the ridge narrowed into a knife’s edge, and when I peered over the side I encountered a 40-foot plumb drop that made my stomach uncomfortable. We backed off the rock the same way we had first climbed it, then headed through the old growth and straight up the ravine.
Forty minutes and over 600 vertical feet later, we reached the dead road perhaps half a mile from where we left it. The clouds that had been high over our heads while we were on the creek were now fog amongst us, giving the impression that it was anything other than 2:45 pm.
There was daylight available and a larger pair of waterfalls to chase downstream, so we drove to a different launch point and continued our adventure. But that will be a story for another day.
Between the old growth, the basalt-enclosed waterfall, and the canyon unmarred by roads or trails, we declare Plympton Creek to be the wildest stream not quite in Columbia County. Thank God for the Clatsop State Forest.