Short Hikes, Big Waterfall Views

Less than an hour from Medford, a pair of hikes at Prospect Scenic Viewpoint deliver a fairyland of moss, mist and cascading water.

Oregon is rich with waterfalls—there’s a reason the state’s major mountain range is called the Cascades. And southern Oregon in particular, with its abundance of rivers, lakes and streams, is home to some of the most beautiful falls imaginable. There are a lot of choices, but one must-do in the Medford area is Prospect Scenic Viewpoint, formerly known as Mill Creek Falls Scenic Area. A series of short trails on both sides of the North Fork of the Rogue River (aka Upper Rogue) lead you to three splendid, uniquely different cascades, and down to a geologic feature known as the Avenue of the Boulders. 

Prospect Scenic Viewpoint is near the small town of Prospect, which dates back to 1870, when it was the site of a sawmill. About midway between Medford and Crater Lake National Park, Prospect today is surrounded by excellent outdoor recreation opportunities. The viewpoint was once a private hiking area owned by timber/logging companies. There are still huge Doug firs, oak and maple stands. And the trails are open year-round and the falls are beautiful in any season, though spring is the best time for full-throttle gushes. Water aside, there are plenty of birdwatching opportunities as well, and in the spring, an abundance of wildflowers tucked into carpets of fern and moss.

There are two great, established trails; one on either side of the Rogue River Canyon. The first is a short, half-mile trail (on the west, river-right rim of the canyon) to the Mill Creek and Barr Creek Falls overlooks, which provide full top-down views of both falls across the river as they tumble and crash into the mighty Rogue. The path to the viewpoint is well-maintained, but there are exposed sections and steep drops, so keep kids and dogs close. From the trailhead (take a phone-pic of the trail map there), hike down a quarter-mile to where the trail forks. Stay right for the Mill Creek Falls overlook and continue on 0.125 miles to the Barr Creek Falls overlook. On your way back to the car, you can take the other fork (the Mill Creek Spur Trail), which runs north a quarter-mile (upriver) to the Avenue of the Boulders.

Mill Creek Falls has a classic, unimpeded 174-foot drop. The mist from the falls makes the end of the overlook hike feel like you’ve been transported through a portal into a magical world. Keep walking south a few hundred yards and you’ll see Barr Creek Falls, a three-drop, 240-foot waterfall with one a freefalling 150-foot plunge.

Recommended Route 

To reach the second hike (on the other side of the river), drive another 0.2 miles north, upriver, beyond the Mill and Barr Creek Falls Trailhead. Right after you cross the river (where you’ll catch amazing views), turn right into a big parking lot with restrooms. Walk the 1.2-mile nature trail, south, past the wider, lower-angle Pearsony Falls. It’s a multi-leveled cascade on Mill Creek (upstream of Mill Creek Falls), with hundreds of rivulets of water splashing over a tumble of moss-blanketed rocks and downed timber. Then head downhill to the Avenue of the Boulders at river level. There’s a short (less than a quarter-mile) offshoot when you reach the cliff above the river that takes you south (downriver) to a nice outlook above Mill Creek Falls. Unless you are a very experienced hiker, and know where you’re going and trail conditions, avoid “citizen trails” and stick to the marked, maintained nature paths.  

Added Adventures

Just before the Mill and Barr Creek overlooks is a primitive kayaker’s path that leads another half-mile to the water, but it is very steep and treacherously slick with moss and mud, though expert hikers’ efforts will be paid off with views of the thundering falls from the bottom up. (There have been multiple fatalities over the years; the American Whitewater listing for the section recommends bringing a rope.)  

Skilled kayakers can access Class IV rapids below the falls, with more technical rapids upriver at the Avenue of the Boulders (up to Class V when the water is high). Swimming at the Mill Creek confluence is not recommended as the Upper Rogue is a cold, fast-moving river as it drops through the deep canyon. At lower water levels, the Avenue of the Boulders is actually a better spot to take a dip amid some car- and truck-sized rocks that date back to the eruption of Mount Mazama (which is now nearby Crater Lake National Park) some 7,700 years ago. There are some natural slick-rock slides, pools, and boulders that attract experienced rock climbers. It’s simpler to access (via the Recommended Route above) and a tranquil spot for picnicking, sunbathing and cooling off on hot days. Remember that it’s a swiftwater environment, with rocks that can be slick, so exercise caution and good judgment with the right outer- and footwear.  

Getting There

From Medford, take state Route 62 (aka Crater Lake Highway) toward the town of Prospect. After 43 miles, turn right onto the Prospect State Park access road, then, left onto Mill Creek Drive. Distance from OR-62 to the Mill and Barr Creek Falls Trailhead is 1.5 miles; continue along the road another half-mile. As soon as you cross the river, the Pearsony Falls parking lot is on the right. Parking is free at both trailheads and the park is open dawn to dusk. The gate for the Pearsony Falls parking lot is locked at night.  

Refresh & Refuel

If you want to stay in Prospect, Historic Prospect Hotel is a good choice; Common Block Brewing Company in Downtown Medford has a hip vibe, outside seating and cornhole toss that adds some fun and competition to the afternoon. The brewery is in the historic (1947) Monarch Building. Giant roll-up garage-style doors open up its restaurant for great views of Pear Blossom Park. Check the park’s schedule for info on free concerts that you can enjoy right from your table.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.