Butterflies and bumblebees flit among wildflowers set in a landscape of lush green and gold meadow grasses.
Towering Western Red Cedars rise next to giant moss-covered rocks that were created by an ancient mudflow.
And the star of this place, the mighty Deschutes River, swirls in small pools that are inviting visitors to climb in on a hot summer day. A few hundred feet down stream, the often fickle river becomes wild, crashing over rocks and slamming into a 90-foot gorge.
The result? A spectacular set of take-your-breath-away waterfalls.
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The 155-acre site at 25005 Bald Hill Road, more than 15 miles southeast of Yelm, has been closed to the public since it was purchased by Thurston County about 25 years ago. But in about six weeks, it will reopen as the area’s newest recreational treasure: Deschutes Falls Park.
“It’s an amazing place,” said Thurston County parks manager Kerry Hibdon who led The Olympian on a tour of the park on Thursday. “Really, we just have an environment out there that’s been sitting for 25 years, pretty much undisturbed. … I think we can consider this a hidden gem again.”
County officials plan to hold a “soft opening” of the park on or around Sept. 1, Hibdon said. Until then, the park is considered an active construction site and remains closed to the public.
There’s still much to do, including moving a manufactured home onto the property for the park’s caretaker, constructing parking lots, and installing safety fences and signage, Hibdon said.
On Tuesday, the Board of County Commissioners voted 2-0 to grant a $54,396 bid to CMH Homes Inc. of Lacey for the manufactured home. Commissioner Bud Blake was absent from the meeting.
Hibdon said the county has budgeted $150,000 for the phase one upgrades needed to open the park.
“I can’t wait to see Deschutes (Falls) Park open,” commissioner John Hutchings said Tuesday. “I can’t wait. That’s been a long time coming.”
Commissioner Gary Edwards said he was pleased the bid was going to a local company.
The county doesn’t have much information on the early history of the park, Hibdon said. An older mobile home was moved off the property, and two large barns collapsed out of disrepair, he said.
County officials are interested in preserving a small cabin on the property. It was once a home, but later used as a chicken coop, Hibdon said.
“It’s built like a really, really old pioneer home,” he said. “We’ve been searching around for anyone who might have some history on this. We’d love to hear from them.”
The park was run as a private campground from the 1940s to the 1980s, Hibdon said. The county bought it in the early 1990s with money from the state’s Recreation and Conservation Office, he said.
“Funding is definitely an issue with the site,” he said.
The county can use capital funds for the improvements, but it’s lacked the needed maintenance and operations funding to operate the park, Hibdon said.
“When we open a property, we have to be able to take care of it,” he said.
Providing public access was a requirement of the grant money that purchased the property, Hibdon said.
The county has a collection of properties that were purchased to serve as future parks, he said.
“The reason we do that is to make sure we have property for the future to serve the community for many years,” he said. “…We have a total of 33 properties in the county parks system and six developed parks.”
County officials don’t have solid numbers on how much it will cost to operate the park, Hibdon said. They’ll have a better idea after it’s been opened for a few months, he said.
Because Deschutes Falls Park is in such a remote location, the county might have crews drive out for maintenance work, such as emptying trash cans, every other day to save costs, he said.
The property had an existing well and septic system for the caretaker residence. And, yes, it underwent a review to see if Mazama pocket gophers were present on the property.
“We follow the same rules the public follows, and then some,” Hibdon said.
The county found no evidence of the species, which is listed as threatened in the Endangered Species Act, so development can proceed, he added.
But other wildlife is abundant on the property, Hibdon said. Red-tailed hawks, bald eagles and butterflies are commonly seen in the skies. There’s also been evidence of black bear.
“It’s very rare to come out here and not see a deer almost every time,” Hibdon said.
The property features several Pacific Yew trees.
“They grow amazingly slowly, and we have some big ones out here,” Hibdon said. “They could easily be a couple hundred years old.”
Near the river, a large Garry Oak tree is swathed in fringes of lime-green lichen. There are several old-growth Douglas fir trees in the park, too.
“We’re surrounded by mostly Weyerhaeuser and Thompson Timber property,” Hibdon said.
The first phase of the improvements are geared toward making the property safe. Crews took down some hazardous trees and built a road so emergency vehicles can get to the river, if needed.
When it opens, it will be available for use only during the day, and closed at dusk, Hibdon said. The rocks and trail to get near the waterfalls can get slippery, so a sign will go up telling visitors to use the area at their own risk, he said. The park will be walk-in only and no overnight camping or fires will be allowed, Hibdon said.
In a couple of years, the county might create some picnic areas.
Picnic shelters that were built by Civilian Conservation Corps crews had been vandalized and were too dangerous to keep.
“We have a lot of really good pictures of them and a lot of the details, and we would sure like to come back and mimic those things and rebuild them, and make them look like they did in the ‘40s,” Hibdon said.
But until then, most of the property will remain primitive, and a place where people can simply view the waterfalls, dip their toes in the river’s pools, and enjoy nature trails.
“It’s just wonderful,” Hibdon said.
Want to live in paradise?
Thurston County plans to hire a caretaker to live at its new Deschutes Falls Park, which is set to open on or around Sept. 1, at 25005 Bald Hill Road.
The caretaker will be responsible for unlocking and locking gates, answering questions and light security at the 155-acre property, said parks manager Kerry Hibdon.
“What makes a good caretaker is typically someone who is here,” he said during a tour of the park on Thursday. “We do need a set of eyes and ears, somebody to close the park consistently, because we can’t leave the park open overnight, things like that.”
The caretaker will be charged full market rate for the rental of the manufactured home that will be placed on the site, and will be paid an hourly rate to open and close the gates.
“At the end of the process, what they get is a reduced rate,” Hibdon said. “They get cheap rent.”
Anyone who is interested in applying to be the caretaker can contact Hibon at 360-867-2181 or email@example.com.