Everyone around here has been to the lovely Deschutes River waterfalls by the old Olympia Brewery. Easy to reach by car, it is a popular spot to bring visiting families. We are not talking about that park. Twenty miles upriver, far away from town, there is another park full of waterfalls covering a much larger 154 acres.
This other park, much wilder and inaccessible by automobile, boasts a 75 foot gorge, a mystical forest dripping with moss, plus the remains of a century old campground. This other park exists, but you are not allowed to enter it.
Deschutes Falls County Park, east of Yelm near the Bald Hills, was purchased by Thurston County in 1993. Its history as a park dates back to the turn of the century, where for 5 cents a head, families could bring a picnic and swim in the river on hot days. The park was closed up in the 50s, and aside from the boundary fence, no human development has occurred since.
Exploring it now, you will find picnic tables rotting back into the earth, collapsed latrine-style bathrooms, and illegible rain-bleached signs whose messages are lost to time.
Down past the picnic area roars the Deschutes River, pouring over two waterfalls and dropping finally into a majestic gorge. The river banks are lined with old growth drift logs polished to a shine, run aground on fantastic rock outcroppings.
The surrounding trees are draped with a bewildering array of green life, moss and lichen hanging from every branch like a primeval gala. A powerful history lives here, both of an ancient river thundering towards the sea, and also of the ghostly structures left behind by people.
This natural wonder is off-limits to the public, surrounded by a cyclone fence for the last 15 years. Legend holds that too many beer addled teens were cliff-jumping to their demise. And to be fair, it is a very slippery and steep slope by the falls.
Thurston County Parks did a cost assessment of reopening the park sometime in the future. The opportunity for a truly spectacular public park exists here, but the expense of implementing safety features and building facilities keeps its development low on the priority list. For now, it stays locked up.
And behind that fence, doing what they have always done, the cold river continues to carve the land, and the woods continue to swallow up what we once built.