Drift Creek, and Drift Creek

Along the central Oregon Coast, there are two creeks named “Drift Creek”. Each is a window back in time to when the coastal forests were intact and pristine.

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These destinations are within about 50 miles of each other, which can lead to a bit of confusion. On this trip, I was joined by a friend who recently moved to the coast & looking to explore the area a bit more. Neither of us had visited these forest trails before. We first visited the northern Drift Creek, not far from Lincoln City. This is certainly the more well-known of the Drift Creeks, because of both the proximity to Lincoln City, the easy trailhead access, and a short rewarding hike to a stunning waterfall – Drift Creek Falls.

The trail is very well maintained (actually gravel for a good part of the way) and heads downhill about 1.5 miles through second-growth to the waterfall. Along the way, there is an alternate trail – the north loop – which detours through a small stand of old-growth forest. It’s not a huge section of old growth, but very nice for what it is. It’s also striking to see how the character of the forest changes when it’s dominated by large old trees. Soon after this alternate loop re-connects with the main trail, the path crosses above Drift Creek Falls on a large suspension bridge. The bridge and the falls is what brings most people to visit.

This isn’t the best time of year to photograph this area. The autumn leaves have mostly fallen from the trees, leaving them looking like a random bundle of barren twigs. But, this isn’t all bad… views are more open, and the moss is a richer green in the winter months. Plus, a recent downpour of rain made Drift Creek Falls gush. Many waterfalls look more elegant with a lower flow – more detail in the rocks under the falls is revealed. I’m not exactly sure if Drift Creek is better with a low flow or high flow, but I think the higher flow did make the falls expand horizontally – adding more side channels, which adds a bit of interest. Also, the higher flow made this waterfall stream away from the wall a bit… during times of lower flow Drift Creek Falls slides down against the face of the canyon wall, which isn’t as photographically dynamic or interesting.

Drift Creek Falls

Drift Creek Falls

I tried some very wide angle shooting from the base of the falls. My goal was to stitch together up to 15 images all taken at 24mm to make a giant mosaic that was otherwise not possible. Sure the result is pretty, but perhaps a bit too straightforward. When you go this wide, you are basically capturing “everything”. Much of what makes photography interesting and challenging is deciding what to leave out of the frame. Here, everything is in the frame – there is not much visual choice.  Anyway, with a subject like Drift Creek Falls, there is only so much you can do. There isn’t a lot of room to work with at the bottom of the falls, and you get what you see. Another issue is that such a wide shot creates a lot of distortion. Often this isn’t noticeable with landscape images, but when the image contains elements that are supposed to be straight, the distortion is a real problem. I had to work a little Photoshop magic after this image was stitched together in order to straighten the tree at the left, and attempt to straighten the bridge (which is still a bit bent, but that’s ok… I mean, lots of bridges are curved, right?)

Forest Near Drift Creek Falls

Forest Near Drift Creek Falls

Near the falls, I was delighted to find this scene. One important key to photographing old forest like these is looking for just the right lighting. In direct sunlight, there is simply too much harsh contrast for pleasing results. I’ve very rarely seen images of forests in full sunlight that “work”.  If the light is flat (i.e. from a solid gray sky), the results will be much better, but the forest will look as flat as the light. Ideally, I look for diffuse but side-directional lighting. This puts a soft cast on the sides of the tree trunks, giving them a three-dimensional feel. This kind of lighting is not always easy to come by however. In early morning or late evening, most of the light from the sky will be coming from one direction.  If there is an isolated cloud bank diffusing the sunlight, all the better.  But, even this kind of diffuse lighting can be shaded by a thick forest canopy, and down where you are, the light becomes flat again. The best situation to look for is a “hole” in the forest canopy that allows the diffuse light to come through from one direction and light up the lower trunks. Often these holes in the forest will be at the edge of a forest, or where some large tree has fallen down. An added bonus to a hole in the forest is that it’ll give you room to shoot – giving you more options to move around and play with the composition. The image at the start of this paragraph was an almost ideal situation – I had a nice foreground with some great roots for leading lines, space behind the foreground, and some large softly side-lit trees in the background. Compare this to the more flat image below… which is still nice, but missing the lighting and foreground that works so well in the first forest image.

There was still a bit of daylight remaining, so we decided to head down the road to visit the other Drift Creek –  the Drift Creek Wilderness (the largest designated wilderness area along the Oregon Coast). This is a completely different area, closer to Waldport – perhaps 50 miles to the south of Drift Creek Falls. There is no dramatic waterfall along this Drift Creek, and the road we took to the trailhead, while in good condition, was a narrow and winding 20 miles. This trailhead accesses the northern portion of the Drift Creek Wilderness.

Drift Creek Wilderness

Drift Creek Wilderness

It was nearly dark by the time we arrived, so we only had the opportunity to hike a small portion of the trail, and get a taste of what was there. Certainly, this is a place I’ll have to return to. The trail passes through a substantial old growth area – mostly Western Hemlock and Douglas Fir. The last giant mushrooms of autumn were melting in the wetness… and a few leaves hung on in the understory. I did manage a few shots of the forest, but the light was pretty flat, and exposures were running at 30 seconds. So, we turned around before too long, determined to return again on a day where we had more time…

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