Where does the mighty Willamette River begin? The Middle Fork Trail tries to answer that question by following the river’s main stem up a remote Cascade Range canyon. An easy hike on that route visits three of the river’s most interesting fountains — Indigo Springs, Cliff Springs and Chuckle Springs.
Hiking to these springs is also a walk into the scary history of one of the Oregon Trail’s most spectacular failures.
The Lost Wagon Train of 1853 brought more than 1,000 people to Lane County — but only after they had nearly starved in the rainforests east of Oakridge. Today, a 30-mile recreation trail follows the pioneers’ wagon ruts up the Middle Fork Willamette River. An easy 4.4-mile hike visits the tale’s highlights.
Start by driving Willamette Highway 58 east of Oakridge 1.3 miles. Between mileposts 37 and 38, turn south at a sign for Hills Creek Dam. After half a mile, turn right onto Road 21 and follow this completely paved route past Hills Creek Reservoir for a total 28.7 miles. Between mileposts 28 and 29, turn left into the primitive (and free) Indigo Springs Campground, a tiny camp with only two sites. Go straight 300 feet to a hiker parking spot. If the parking spot is occupied you’ll need to turn around, drive back to Road 21, turn right for 100 feet, and park in a large pullout on the right.
At Indigo Springs, a 0.2-mile loop trail tours a mossy glen where half a dozen major springs emerge. Part of the trail follows the 1870 Central Oregon Wagon Road. That route had first been scouted as a possible Oregon Trail shortcut across the Cascade Range.
The story begins in March of 1852, when John Diamond set out with six other Eugeneans to blaze a Cascade crossing. The pathfinders made their way east to Emigrant Pass. It’s a heavily forested saddle beside Diamond Peak, a mountain Diamond climbed on the trip and named for himself.
Diamond’s crew crossed the Deschutes River near present-day Bend and continued east across the high desert to the Snake River in Idaho. There they were attacked by Indians. Diamond and two others were wounded. They had to be hauled back home in a wagon via Oregon City on the usual Oregon Trail route.
Back in Eugene, the explorers reported over-optimistically that a wagon road could be built on their shortcut route for a mere $3,000. Early in 1853 they awarded a contract to begin construction at the trifling sum of 12 cents a mile.
Perhaps the most excited supporter of the new route was Elijah Elliott, a Eugene settler who had not been on the scouting expedition. He was expecting his family to arrive on the Oregon Trail that summer. Eager to help his family, Elliott rode all the way back to Idaho to let them know about the new shortcut.
Surprisingly, Elliott didn’t use the shortcut himself on his trip to Idaho. Because construction was only just starting on the new route, he rode east on the old Oregon Trail. When he reached Fort Boise, Elliott explained to the crowds of travelers there that work was underway on a new shortcut. He announced that he would lead all comers across the route, saving them hundreds of miles. Won over by Elliott’s enthusiasm, 1,027 people with 215 wagons agreed to follow him west.
Elliott failed to tell the travelers that he had never actually been over the route himself. The only guide he had brought was John Diamond’s sketchy notes. He also didn’t know that the roadbuilders had decided not to start work that summer after all. There was no road.
Elliott followed Diamond’s notes across the trackless desert of Southeast Oregon. Weeks were lost as the wagon train wandered. Most of the livestock died of thirst. Elliott kept looking for Diamond Peak, the mountain that was supposed to mark the finished road. On Oct. 2, when the Cascade Range finally came in sight, the travelers argued about which of the snowpeaks on the horizon was actually Diamond’s landmark.
To settle the question, two search parties were sent out — one to the Three Sisters and one to Diamond Peak. The first group scouted the windswept alpine notch between South and Middle Sister, a barren area that does not have a trail even today. “Surely no part of the mountains can be more rugged than we passed over,” the men reported glumly.
The second search party actually did find trees blazed with ax marks by John Diamond the year before. Although the road was obviously not yet completed, hopes ran high that they would meet the roadbuilders soon. Besides, they had come so far, and it was so late in the year, that there was no turning back.
And so the vast wagon train rolled up into the forested Cascades, blindly hacking a route through the timber as they went. The men chopped and sawed trees low enough that the wagon axles could clear the stumps. It was hard, slow work, and the food supplies they had brought were gone. Deer and other game seemed nonexistent, no doubt frightened away by the miles-long caravan. One starving family shot a squirrel and promptly ate it raw, brains and all.
The travelers inched across Emigrant Pass beside Summit Lake, throwing out gear along the way. Finally they abandoned their wagons altogether. On foot, they staggered down through the woods of Pioneer Gulch to Indigo Springs on the Middle Fork Willamette River. There they devoured a dead salmon they found by the river. Exhausted, sick, starving and cold, they sent the strongest men ahead to bring help from the Willamette Valley.
On Oct. 14, one of the men in an advance party wrote in his diary, “On this Night We Camped in the rain, & had a hard time to get our fire started, & McClure Was Sick, & discouraged, and Said ‘Boys I don’t think, I Shall ever be able to get into the Valley. But I want you to Save yourselves. Because While you are Stout enough to travel I think it would be wrong for you to perish, on my account.’ I said, ‘No, McClure, I’ll Never leave you in these Woods, as long as there’s a Button on your old Coat.'”
Andrew McClure and his friend stayed together by the river. Another traveler, Martin Blanding, was left to go on alone for help.
On Oct. 16, a 13-year-old boy was watching cattle near his family’s Lowell farm, 15 miles from Eugene, when he noticed an emaciated man lying unconscious in a field. The boy roused the stranger from his delirious sleep. The man mumbled that his name was Blanding. A wagon train, he said, was lost in the mountains. Would the settlers send food?
The Lowell-area settlers debated whether the bedraggled stranger was in his right mind. Who on earth would attempt to cross the vast, timbered Cascade Range without a road? Still, they sent a rescue party just to be sure. When the rescuers rode up the Middle Fork Willamette’s canyon, they were astonished and appalled to find that the stranger had told the truth. They found Andrew McClure and his friend, and gave them potatoes and butter to help them recover their strength. Farther on, the rescuers found hundreds upon hundreds of starving people huddled beside smoky campfires. Everyone greeted them with joy and relief.
In the weeks that followed, the rescuers made many trips, bringing horses loaded with flour. A 17-year-old girl from the wagon train wrote that the rescuers would take no money. “This is the welcome of the settlers in the valley to the emigration,” the rescuers said. “Put away your purses. We have been there. We know how it is ourselves.”
The people who were sick, pregnant or weak were helped onto horses for the last miles down into the Willamette Valley, while the rest of the travelers walked. By the time the snows of winter draped the mountains, the more than 1,000 people of the Lost Wagon Train had reached the Eugene area. Their numbers doubled the population of settlers in what became Lane County.
After hiking the short Indigo Springs loop, walk 300 feet back to Road 21 and turn left along the road’s shoulder for 400 feet to a sign for the Middle Fork Trail. Take a grassy spur road to the right 50 feet and then hike a connector path 0.1 mile to a T-shaped junction with the Middle Fork Trail.
Turn right, following the rushing 40-foot-wide river downstream through a forest of giant Douglas firs and red cedars. Rhododendron bushes 18 feet tall bloom pink in June. After crossing two footbridges the trail follows the lip of a basalt lava flow. At the half-mile mark Cliff Springs emerges from the base of the cliff. Hexagonal stepping stones by the springs are from the lava. Molten basalt cracks into six-sided columns if it cools slowly.
Turn around at Cliff Springs, hike back half a mile and continue straight 1.1 mile upstream. Here the trail enters a 2010 burn and climbs away from the river. At a trail sign in another 0.3 mile, turn left 200 feet to Chuckle Springs, where a 10-foot-wide creek slides out from a hillside and zips across a mossy pool.
A 0.2-mile trail from spur Road 404 also accesses Chuckle Springs, but it’s prettier to return as you came, on the trail along Middle Fork Willamette.
The Middle Fork Trail is lined with giant Douglas fir, western hemlock, red cedar and alder. Oregon grape, thimbleberry, yew and vine maple sprout from a thick carpet of moss. It’s a soothing rainforest garden in a forgotten corner of the Cascades — a delightful place for a Sunday hike, but a fearsome route for a wagon shortcut.
William Sulllivan is the author of 21 books, including “The Ship in the Sand” and the updated “100 Hikes” series for Oregon. Learn more at oregonhiking.com. Want more stories like this? Follow @CAFE_541 on Instagram and subscribe to get unlimited access and support local journalism.