This 0.8-mile gorge hike through pristine old-growth forest right alongside Highway 2 leads to up-close waterfall views at various spots along the Tye River. The way the landscape looks and works around Deception Falls is equal parts geology, volcanism and ecology—the perfect Cascades hollow if there ever was one. Throw in plenty of “negative ions”—these free-floating oxygen atoms abundant around waterfalls are thought to contribute to good health and good mood—and you have a recipe for a great short hike, either on its own or as a leg stretch during a Highway 2 road trip.
The trail is well-maintained and well-loved, but it still has plenty of obstacles and roots so leave the flip-flops at home. Most people have no problem making it around the fairly level terrain, although there are some instances of stair-steps built into the trail. Keep small kids at hand and pets on a leash as it’s a long way down into that waterfall gorge.
From Seattle and other points west, drive east along US 2 from Monroe to Milepost 56 (about 10 miles east of the town of Skykomish) to the signed Deception Falls Picnic Area. The parking lot can accommodate about 20 cars. If the gate is locked during the off-season (October-May), there is room for 8-10 cars in the pull-out off US 2 right outside the gate. Parking is free (no pass required).
The Deception Falls Nature Trail starts innocently enough as a paved trail before quickly suggesting a left hand turn for the “loop” that hijacks the hikers into a series of rooted rough trail switchbacks down and to the left. After a couple of more switchbacks, you’re at the riverside, and the sounds of rushing water finally start to drown out the traffic on the Highway 2 bridge so close above. Epiphytes drip off Vine maple boughs and big Douglas firs tower above it all. This is quintessential old-growth forest, with lots of huge trees, snags, nurse logs and a peaty mossy carpet of green everywhere but the center of the trail.
Rocks and (fallen) logs can be slippery, so hiker beware. The stream is rocky up above but meanders down to a more sandy-edged vibe visible 1/10-mile downstream if you care to explore off-piste, but the trail continues on in the other direction. Devil’s club and Western trillium are omnipresent on the way down.
A grove of huge Red alders (Alnus rubra), some still thriving in place but others fallen and sideways, is hosting a colony of Beard moss (Usnea longissima) that’s as temperate rainforest as it gets.
A short side trail bottoms out into a veritable rock grotto. It looks like the Tye River here has had its course altered a time or two as a result of violent weather felling trees and loosening boulders. (You would hate to be here during one of those winter storms.)
Cupping some water down at the river’s edge, it’s hard not to be taken aback by how clean and clear it runs. Of course, most of it started as snow not too far above here, but also gravity has something to do with it. As the water hurtles down there is nary any time for it to “gather moss.” But there is more to the story indeed. For starters, the granite rocks below are high in silica, a hard mineral that doesn’t leach much in terms of minerals into the water. This lack of nutrients combined with relatively little sunlight means algae has little if anything to feed on, so it keeps its distance from running mountain rivers and streams.
Just because it looks cleans and seems safe doesn’t mean you should drink straight from the river — or any natural body of water — given the risks of giardia or other water-borne illnesses you would be much better off without. … [ discuss giardia etc. in terms of ecology ]
Back on the main loop, look for a short spur 0.5 miles in leading to a viewing platform above Lower Deception Falls, where the Tye River falls over a ledge and takes a 90 degree turn immediately at the bottom. No one knows for sure how this waterfall got such an odd shape, but remnants of an old streambed hint that it once ran straight through this spot. One theory goes that a massive pile of logs leftover from a massive flood forced the river to turn. Another holds that
the Tye is following a layer of soft rock that runs at right angles to the stream’s original course. And yet another is that the river turns right to flow along a fault line — rocks along faults erode first given they are typically damaged when the earth moved in the first place.
Take in this unusual sight and continue hiking back upstream, stopping at two more wooden viewing platforms at different scenic spots along the Tye’s rocky course.
After completing the loop, take the other route to the “Upper Falls View” which leads to a bridge over the river and a staircase that leads up and underneath Highway 2 to a small overlook of stately Upper Deception Falls.