Chehalis River

The mirror-like Chehalis River reflects the summer sky on the Willapa Hills Trail at Bridge 16 near Dryad. The bridge was rebuilt in 2015 with Federal Emergency Management Agency funds, replacing a span destroyed in the 2007 flood.

 

Last week we celebrated our family’s 19th birthday (also known as our wedding anniversary) with a trip to a west Lewis County jewel — Rainbow Falls State Park.

This old growth forest park requires a bit more of a roundabout access than it was in days of old. The narrow car bridge and picturesque swinging foot bridge spanning the Chehalis River were washed away in the deluge of the 2007 flood, so the park is only accessible now from the back. 

With no Discover Pass on hand, we sought out the pay station to duly make our contribution, but we were pleased and surprised to see a “FREE DAY” sign taped over the top of the metal tube where we were set to drop our dollars. 

It turns out that the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission offered free entrance to state parks on Aug. 25 in recognition of the National Park System's 104th birthday.

As it happens, Sarah and I pledged our troth on the 85th anniversary of the day President Woodrow Wilson signed the act creating the National Park Service. 

Two great events on the same day, in my estimation. 

Bolstered by this auspicious sign, we headed down to the river. 

There were plenty of folks at the park’s namesake waterfall, lounging on the rocks and watching a few adventuresome young folks leaping into the churning water below the cataract. It looked a little crowded, so we headed upstream along paths lined with salal. My oldest grabbed a handful of beautiful blue Oregon grape berries and practiced tossing the sour orbs into the air and catching them with his mouth.  

Soon we found our own rocky outcropping we could call our own. 

We lept from stone to stone. Our kids tried in vain to catch the tiny fish that flashed just a few inches away from us underwater. Unable to catch them, we consoled ourselves by eating orange fishy crackers from the snack bag. We explored the little tidepools of water left behind in the gnarled rocks. We looked at patches of grass caught in the red osier dogwood branches high above us, and considered the power of this tame river once swelled by winter rains. 

Eventually we scrambled back up the bank and headed back to our bikes to cruise around the campground and catch the summer smell of campfire smoke wafting among the towering fir trees.

A helpful sign points from the campground to an access path leading to the nearby Willapa Hills Trail. Crossing Leudinghaus Road, we pedaled past pulsing streams of water from farm irrigation and finally hit the trail. 

I had a little idea in mind for a surprise treat, so I suggested we head left. 

My wife and I languidly pedaled behind as the kids raced ahead on the compacted gravel. Soon they stopped and as we caught up, we saw that they were picking gorgeous yellow transparent apples from a tree on the north side of the trail. The apples were a satisfying treat, especially for those of us (including yours truly, ahem) who had forgotten to bring along a water bottle. My teenager, who also stopped for blackberries along the way, was proud of living off the land and eating the fruits of nature provided along the trail. 

Soon we came to a long concrete span over the Chehalis River with stunning views of the clouds reflected in the clear water. A few tossed apple cores showed us that it is just as far down as it looked. 

According to an annotated map of the Willapa Hills Trail, created by longtime trail advocate Wayne VanWeerthuizen, this is Bridge 16, a 300-foot span paid for by FEMA to replace a bridge destroyed in the 2007 flood. It opened to the public in 2015. (Find the map at the Facebook group he maintains, Willapa Hills Trail Fans.)

We continued on and took a right at Doty-Dryad Road. The time for the surprise was near. A few minutes later we pulled into the historic general store in beautiful “downtown” Doty for what I knew would be the highlight of the trip for our kids: ice cream!

In addition to the clerk, we were also greeted by Tom, the friendly store cat, who walked with us across the creaking wooden store floor. He helped us choose our ice cream and kept us company as we ate our cones at the table on the porch under the building’s front awning. 

Fortified by the ice cream, we headed back down the trail for home. 

It was a simple moment in time in a wonderfully timeless place. 

•••

Brian Mittge and his family live south of Chehalis. Drop him a line at brianmittge@hotmail.com. 

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