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.


8 responses »

  1. Gayle Reichel Simmonds says:

    Deschutes Falls was owned by a pioneer family and was open to the public into the 60’s. It was not closed in the 50’s and I have pictures to prove it.

  2. Mark Plantenberg says:

    Hi Ryan!

    Thanks for posting about the old park. I used to go to this park often in the summers in the 70’s and 80’s. I have many fond memories going there as a teenager with my friends from school.
    As Gayle mentions, a family that owned the property for many years had it open to the public into the mid eighties I believe. They charged a dollar to enter. Well with the price! I’m sure they finally got too old to run it. I used to talk to the very nice older man that was at the gate by his house, letting people in. He loved people and the treasure of his property.
    Back in the day, he used to get much of his iron-work needs done at my grandfathers (Plantenberg) shop, Capital City Forging Works. It used to be where Lake fair is. My grandfather donated that property to the city for the park.

    ‘The Falls”, was and still is a magical place. As you saw, there are wonderful pools, waterfalls, and bubbling rapids, to swim and fish in…or just enjoy the natural beauty of it. We used to go there on a whim on our motorcycles and enjoy the place. Sometimes, as a big group and picnic, swim, and play baseball in a field by the river. I’m sure nature has reclaimed it now.

    We used to jump off the cliffs by the big falls all the time…which is why it is now closed. It was a very popular thing to do. Unfortunately, too many people got too drunk or high and jumped to their ultimate end…like they did at Tumwater Falls Park. Which is why that has fences all over the bridges.

    I hope one day that the county re-opens this place to the public. It really is a wonderful place to see!

    Keep up the great work with your photo journalism!


    • Mark,
      Thank you for the personal spin on such a magical place, and also the kind words about my blog. I hadn’t considered that this stretch of falls is really no more dangerous than the one downstream, by the brewery. So perhaps the county will open it to the public again one day, fencing included!

  3. cindy connelly says:


  4. Bart says:

    My family owned the park and surrounding land for many years. As a kid and teen I helped to mainain the place, emptying garbage from customers and pouring lyme into the outhouses. Due to my grandfather no longer being able to take care of the place due to his age, and a house fire, we moved him out in the late 80’s and hired a caretaker to keep the public out due to liability and the hastle of dealing with the public. when my mother decided to sell the park, there were some serious offers but selling to Thurston County posed the fewest hastles. We kept 13 acres of riverfront but I understand that she sold those acres a few years ago. It was great to see the pictures of the old place and recognize the various remaining structures. Thank you for posting.

  5. joe rakas says:

    i used to go there every summer in the late 60s and early 70s.always had fun.i still remember swimming into the little cave behind the 1st fall and sitting on the edge of the 2nd fall .my friend and hiked the trail to the bottom of the 2nd fall and took a small raft up the gorge to the bottom of the 2nd fall.had a great time!to bad it is closed to the public.people are really missing out ! lot of good memories there

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