William L. Sullivan
Call it butte envy. Springfield may have lived too long in the shadow of its larger neighbor, Eugene. An investigation by the Willamalane Park and Recreation District found that the Springfielders wanted a trail to match Eugene’s Spencer Butte.
This summer, Willamalane opened just that: a new trail through the woods of the 665-acre Thurston Hills Natural Area that climbs to scenic vistas atop a basalt plateau. The hike isn’t easy, with a round trip of 7.9 miles and a total elevation gain of 1,050 feet, but the woods are beautiful and the views are breathtaking.
Mountain bikers can take the route uphill – except for a final stretch near the viewpoint cliffs – and then take bike-only trails for the downhill return.
The basalt peak overlooking eastern Springfield has been there all along, of course, but the new public trail was made possible by landowners, Willamalane voters, and a grant from the Parks and Recreation Department of Oregon.
The Kalapuyans regularly burned the land here to improve the hunting and gathering of acorns in the oak forests. Willamalane has begun to restore open forests by removing overgrown brush and thinning out young Douglas firs that overgrow the oaks.
The first pioneer to claim here was Frederick Lutanner Gray. Born in Pennsylvania in 1831, he became a wagon scout during the 1849 California Gold Rush. Its 1,000-acre land claim in the Thurston Hills in 1853 was signed by Abraham Lincoln. The first house he built burned down, but the second from 1865 is the Heritage House, now publicly owned next to the park entrance.
According to a family history, Gray argued with a neighbor over a fence in the 1880s. The neighbor stabbed him and reported to the sheriff that he had killed Gray in a fair fight. When they laid Gray’s body down, he shivered. They took out the knife and it came back to life. The neighbor fled in terror, never to return. In the words of Hugh Gray, one of Gray’s descendants, “Those old guys were tough.”
In 2012, Hugh Gray and his sister, Connie Jaqua, began transferring their property to the city of Springfield and then to Willamalane. That same year, a Willamalane bond measure allowed the recreation district to begin development of the park. A north trailhead and 6 miles of trails opened in 2017. This year alone, a state grant of $238,954 enabled Willamalane to begin work on 5 additional miles of trails, including the new point loop. of sight.
To find the trailhead from the junction of Interstate 105 and Main Street in Springfield, head east on Hwy 126 for 2 miles. Just past Springfield Memorial Gardens Cemetery, turn right into the Thurston Hills Natural Area entrance. A gate here closes automatically at dusk, so don’t stay late.
The wide gravel path starts at the left end of the parking lot between a map kiosk and the restrooms. The Mossy Maple Trail gradually ascends through a meadow into a forest of oak, fir, and mossy maple. Occasionally you will pass junctions with dirt tracks – these are downhill routes open only to bikes, with looping curves and banked turns.
After climbing 1.9 miles, the trail levels out and traverses to the right for a mile. The tread is narrower and rockier here. The forest of large Douglas firs makes it easy to forget that you are so close to a city.
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After 2.9 miles you will come to a crossroads at the start of a loop. The marked Basalt Rim trail goes straight, but take a wider gravel path that leads left into a meadow. In the meadow, run to the right on a gravel road for 100 feet, then turn left on trail #1. This wide gravel road winds through beautiful oak forests for 0.4 miles before returning to a lower part of the gravel road. For the loop, follow the road to the left for 300 feet and turn right onto the Basalt Rim Trail.
The basalt ledge this trail surrounds is a remnant of a Three Sisters lava flow. Several million years ago, volcanoes sent a flood of lava into the ancient McKenzie River, forcing the river to carve out a new canyon.
On this southwest side of the outcrop, the Basalt Rim trail passes a wall of hexagonal columns.
After 0.3 mile on the Basalt Rim Trail you will reach a signed turnoff. The Basalt Rim Trail goes left, but veer right first onto “Trail 5″, a summit path where bikes are prohibited. This path goes up towards a sparsely wooded plateau with a large “Attention! ” red. sign. The trackless cliffs here are not a good place to bring inflatable pets or impulsive children.
Keep right at trail junctions for viewpoints of farmland to the southwest and forests to the northeast. The first panorama stretches from Mount June in the east to Spencer Butte in the west. The second panorama wavers atop a small, flat-topped basalt pinnacle. It’s pretty safe unless you look down.
The signs encourage you to follow the established trail, and the poison oak gives that really good advice.
After returning from the plateau, continue on the Basalt Rim Trail clockwise around the base of the rim to return to the Mossy Maple Trail.
If you’re on a bike, you’ll want to ride the last 3 miles downhill on the bike-only Yew Haw and Acer Spades trails. Otherwise, return to the gravel path and descend through Gray’s property.
Volunteers have given thousands of hours to help open this farm to the public. According to Eric Adams, Willamalane Facilities Manager, “We hired several groups to help build the trails, including Ptarmigan Trails (Mossy Maple), Oregon Woods (Trail 1, Basalt Rim and Super Maple), Disciples of Dirt (Acer Spades and Yew Haw), and Lane County Youth Services (trail 5).
Springfield may not have an iconic butte as recognizable as Spencer Butte, but the new road to the Thurston Hills may be even more spectacular than the butte path next to it.
William Sullivan is the author of 22 books, including “The Ship in the Woods” and the updated “100 Hikes” series for Oregon. Learn more at oregonhiking.com.