Hiking the Shale Ridge Trail brings views of the North Fork of the Middle Fork Willamette River and earns you your hot springs reward later. Photo by William L. Sullivan.

Big Trees and a Hot Soak

Hike an old-growth forest trail on the way to Terwilliger

Hot springs should be earned. A soak certainly seems more satisfying after a day of hiking. And I don’t think the quarter-mile trail to Terwilliger Hot Springs at Cougar Reservoir is long enough to qualify. The closest real hike, along French Pete Creek, burned to snags in a 2018 wildfire. What to do instead?

Try taking Aufderheide Drive to a forgotten corner of the Waldo Lake Wilderness, where a three-mile portion of the Shale Ridge Trail ambles amid unburned trees even bigger than French Pete’s. Then swing by Terwilliger Hot Springs (known to most as Cougar Hot Springs) on the way home.

The trick to this loop is that you don’t start by driving Highway 126 up the McKenzie, the shortest route to the hot springs. Instead, drive toward Oakridge. From Interstate 5 just south of Eugene, take exit 188A and follow Highway 58 east for 30 miles. Opposite the Middle Fork Ranger Station veer left at the Westfir exit for 1.8 miles to a stop sign beside a covered bridge. Then continue straight on paved Aufderheide Drive for 30 miles to the trailhead.

About Aufderheide Drive: It’s too scenic to drive in a hurry. The pavement also has some unexpected dips and bumps that can damage your car if you’re going much faster than 40 miles an hour. 

Just before milepost 30 on Aufderheide Drive, watch for a brown hiker-symbol sign on the left. Turn into a trailhead parking area on the right, in a grove of towering trees. You’ll need to fill out a free wilderness registration card here, but no other permits are required.

The most obvious path is the North Fork Trail to the right, but it heads back toward Westfir. Instead, walk to the left on the Shale Ridge Trail. This nearly level path ambles up a box canyon toward Waldo Lake. Some of the Douglas-firs and hemlocks along the way are 7 feet in diameter and nearly 200 feet tall. A ring count of one fallen giant showed it sprouted in 1673.

In spring the woods are carpeted with white wildflowers: star-flowered solomonseal, vanilla leaf and three-petaled trillium. The trail tread is as springy as a cushion, a relief for feet tired of pounding on pavement.

After 2.1 miles you’ll reach Skookum Creek. “Skookum” means “powerful” in Chinook jargon, the trade language of the old Oregon country. The whitewater creek brawls down from its headwaters at the Erma Bell Lakes in the Three Sisters Wilderness. Those lakes are accessed by a trail with permits and crowds, very different from the solitude down here.

The creek fans out amid rocks and logs, so you usually can get across dry footed.

Beyond Skookum Creek 0.9 miles you’ll traverse a grove of 10-foot-diameter redcedar trees at the end of the valley’s box canyon. Up to this point the North Fork Middle Fork Willamette River has been a distant whisper, but now you’ll see it come roaring out of a canyon. The mossy riverbank here is a good turnaround point.

Theoretically, the Shale Ridge Trail continues across the river and up a ridge to Waldo Lake, but the 40-foot-wide river has no bridge and the area ahead burned, so the rest of the trail is all but unfindable.

Back at your car, you’ve earned your hot springs!

Continue another 20 miles north on Aufderheide Drive. A mile after crossing a bridge at the head of Cougar Reservoir, park in a pullout on the right between a shed and an outhouse. Then walk a gravel path beside the highway 0.1 miles to a booth at the actual trailhead for Terwilliger Hot Springs, where there is no parking.

A caretaker will accept your $10 per person fee — cash or card — to use the hot springs for two hours.

Pets aren’t allowed, and the pools close each Thursday morning for maintenance. The short trail passes the spot where the Terwilliger Fire began in 2018 — the same blaze that later jumped the reservoir and burned French Pete. Smoking isn’t permitted on the trail, but the caretaker who reported the fire says it almost certainly started when a hot springs visitor tossed a cigarette.

After 0.3 miles you’ll reach a changing shed and a staircase down to a string of pretty rock pools. The uppermost is the hottest, topping out at 114 degrees Fahrenheit. The lower pools are progressively cooler. Drugs and alcohol are not allowed. Clothing is optional.

After relaxing your trail-weary muscles — a just reward for the old-growth forest hike — continue driving north on Aufderheide Drive seven miles and turn left on Highway 126 to return to Eugene.

In terms of pleasure drives, this is the prettiest loop ever, complete with a hot springs you can earn.

William L. Sullivan is the author of 23 books, including The Ship In The Woods and the updated 100 Hikes Series For Oregon. Learn more at OregonHiking.com.