A Must-Do Winter Walk at Fall Creek Lake

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This winter, we want to bring you the best, and most unique, winter hikes for kids near Eugene.  And this weekend, we found a doozy.  It’s a must-do winter walk, and you won’t find it in any guidebooks.

Our criteria are simple.  Each hike must be within 30 minutes of Eugene (we measure from Gateway Mall since it’s sort of centrally located and just off I-5).  It must be stroller-friendly (i.e. no mud!), and above all, it must be engaging for kids.  We have six kids, ages 20 months to 13 years, and while they’re used to our off-beat adventures, they still like to see something.

Girl looking at Fall Creek Reservoir from the dam.

Our 13-year-old checks out the colorful view over {empty} Fall Creek Lake. This is from the top of the dam.

Fall Creek Lake

Our adventure of the weekend called for something new, and my husband brilliantly suggested we visit an empty lake.  Every year, Fall Creek Lake is drawn down to the historic stream level.  In other words, they open the dam and empty all the water so just the natural stream is flowing.  The Army Corps of Engineers does this to improve passage for juvenile salmon.  The water is at the lowest point for just 2 weeks, and as you can see in the photo above, by mid-February the lake is filling again.  But the water is pretty low December-February and there’s plenty to see.

Hiking to the bottom of Fall Creek Lake also met some of our criteria: it’s only 16 miles from Eugene and it should be pretty interesting.  After all, just imagine what you can find at the bottom of a lake!  We weren’t sure about the stroller, but as it turned out, we were able to take the stroller all the way to the bottom, which was nice for our toddlers.

Taking a stroller on a winter hike at Fall Creek Lake

We parked at the gate at the North Shore entrance.  First, we checked out the dam.  And what to our wondering eyes would appear?  A paved road to the bottom of the lake!  We unloaded the stroller and off we went.  Past the gate is the usual parking area, with picnic tables and vault toilets (which are usually locked in the winter but thank goodness one was open this time!)  And past that trailed a paved road, down, down, down to the bottom.

Road to the Bottom

Paved road to the bottom of Fall Creek Lake

Was this an access road while the dam was being built? Or a bit of an old highway? We were grateful for a non-muddy way to reach the bottom, especially with our two toddlers who are 20 months old.

The scenery was like a crayon box.  A bit of snow on the hills, the astonishingly green moss, the pastel grasses, and the sometimes-blue sky reflected in the water below.  I took dozens of photos as I marveled at all of the colors, far more than I expected for a lake that’s normally full of water except for a few weeks a year.

This panorama was irresistible on such a glorious day. The sun peaked out of the clouds, along with cerulean sky. The moss was verdant green. Even the rocky exposed soils were a hint of red.

My older kids set off to explore, and it was easy to keep them in sight almost anywhere in the lake basin.  Stumps abound, along with small rivulets of water streaming toward the lake.

Fall Creek Reservoir when it's empty

What does Fall Creek Lake look like when it's empty

Tiny stream flowing into Fall Creek Reservoir

Tiny rivers, brilliant colors…what’s not to like?

Is this really Oregon?

At one point on our hike, I parked the stroller and looked around.  I’ve never been to Ireland or Scotland, but the landscape of the Fall Creek Lake reminds me of Ireland in the movies.  Thick green mosses with boulders and stones peeking above, and the sound of water trickling.  Was this really Oregon?

The bottom of Fall Creek Lake in Oregon

Our view was perfected by a bit of leftover snow. It had melted by the time we left only an hour later.

Fall Creek basin

As we walked deeper into the lake (such a weird thing to say, right?!) the landscape changed from grass and moss to rocks and stumps.  This entire area was formerly a forest, and the stumps remain even 55 years later.  Some of the stumps are from huge old-growth trees.  My kids had a blast playing tag around them and jumping off of them.

Empty Lake at Fall Creek Reservoir

Jumping off a stump in the empty Fall Creek Lake while on a winter hike

Underwater stumps at Fall Creek Reservoir - hike near eugene with kids

The stumps have been alternately underwater and exposed to air for 55 years. The changing conditions have carved them into individual works of art.

Hiking in Fall Creek Lake basin during the winter

Finally, water!

We continued to follow the road down toward the water.  The road took on more of a “road” look, and we could see white center striping.  And next to the water…a parking lot.  I’ve asked around online and I can’t find anyone who knows what the parking lot was for.  Perhaps it was for the construction work while the dam was being built.  Perhaps it was for recreational parking during periods of lake draw down.  Maybe it was leftover from the homes and business that were here before the lake flooded the valley.  If you know, contact me or leave a comment below!

Road at the bottom of Fall Creek Lake.

I assumed this was an access road–until we came across stripes. Then I easily imagined this before 1965, when this must have been a country highway winding through the forest. The road was absolutely ideal for hiking into the lake bottom with our kids.

Parking lot at the bottom of Fall Creek Lake on a hike

At last, we reach the water. And…a parking lot?! It’s an ideal spot to park the stroller and let the little ones out to run around. Beware, we did find a lot of broken glass here.

Fall Creek Lake - great winter hike near Eugene

The current edge of the lake. In a few weeks, this will all be under water again.

Hiking with kids in Fall Creek Lake in Oregon

Such beauty reflected in the water and in my camera lens. I was in awe of the richness of the many colors. I expected the lake to be brown and barren, but it was incredible.

What we found at the bottom of the lake

While I was oohing and aahing at the scenery, my kids were busy looking for treasure.  We found plenty of tennis balls and litter (some of which we picked up, thanks to our commitment to leave it better than we found it).  My husband found scores of rusted nails (did someone drop a bag of nails from their boat?)  But we also found some crystalline rocks and some pretty awesome pieces of melted glass.

What we found at the bottom of Fall Creek Lake in Oregon

This is a common finding in forests, but not so much at the bottom of a lake. It’s a logging choker cable, used to drag logs uphill to the landing. I’ll bet this was left behind when the forest was logged prior to the dam construction.

melted glass at Fall Creek Lake

When you toss a beer bottle into a very hot campfire, sometimes you’ll end up with these: chunks of melted glass. We found quite a few unique pieces, but brought this one home, just for fun.

Pick up litter at Fall Creek Lake in Oregon

The happiest litter we’ve ever found!

Rock hounding at Fall Creek

My kids found bits of quartz and jasper. The boulders at the bottom of the lake are crumbling into gravel, revealing interesting rocks and crystal formations.

Hiking at Fall Creek in Oregon

We even found a few tiny shells. These are about the size of a dime.

History of Fall Creek Lake

I really wanted to know about that parking lot.  What was it there for?  I never did find a solid answer, but I did find some other interesting details.

Fall Creek Dam was built in 1964-66 at a cost of $22 million.  Primarily built for flood control, the dam is 205 feet high, and holds 125,000 acre-feet of water.  The lake is normally filled to a depth of 160 feet.  It has always been drawn down some to allow for flood control, but in 2011 they began releasing water all the way down to stream level for the salmon migration.

History of Fall Creek Lake in Oregon

This photo from 1966 (by Don Hunter) shows the road we walked down, complete with white center stripes! Verification that this road wasn’t an access road, but a country highway. Photo used with permission by Lane County History Museum.

History of Fall Creek Lake in Oregon

Now I have to go back and get this same photo view so we can compare! This photo by Don Hunter was taken in 1966, the first year the reservoir was filled. Photo used with permission of Lane County History Museum.

Edited to add: I’ve kept digging for information about this road, and I finally found it in some old maps.  The road was part of a paved road system through the Fall Creek area and connected to the old Highway 58 (before it moved due to Dexter Lake).  For your viewing pleasure…

Topography map of Fall Creek Lake in Oregon

A modern day topography map of the Fall Creek area shows the outline of the lake and nearby hilltops.

1935 map of Fall Creek Oregon

I found a 1935 map showing roads in the Fall Creek area. The line delineating sections (1 mile by 1 mile) obscures the road, but close inspection shows two roads meeting east of Unity School.

Map overlay for Fall Creek Lake

I used Photoshop to layer the modern day topo map on top of the 1935 map, allowing the old road to show through. By lining up the topography (hilltops and peaks) I could pinpoint that this old road is most likely the same road that exists under the lake today.

If you go

If you go, and you really should, here are the details.

Fee during the winter: none

There are several entry points around the lake.  We entered at the North Shore boat ramp.  During the summer, there are vault toilets at this location (and on our visit, one toilet was open, to my relief).

GPS Coordinates
  • Latitude:43.945866
  • Longitude:-122.765811

Driving Directions

Fall Creek Lake is 25 miles southeast of Eugene, OR and 16 miles from Springfield off of Jasper Lowell Road.

I’m a middle-aged mom of 3-6 and sometimes more, depending on day. I’m out of shape and usually exhausted. Our favorite summertime activity (and often on dry winter days) is getting outdoors and finding adventure.

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