In the wake of the 2017 Norse Peak Fire, the Union Creek area is charred and stark, and yet strangely beautiful at the same time. Walking through the destruction, the signs of life and renewal are plainly seen. But trail washouts restrict passage, and demand caution.
Before the fire, this trail offered easy access to three noteworthy waterfalls, all within two and a quarter miles of the trailhead. The late Karen Sykes, Seattle hiking journalist, once offered this praise: “Such impressive waterfalls are not often seen so close to a trailhead”.
Begin at the trailhead signboard labeled Union Creek Trail 956. (Pleasant Valley Loop Trail 999 passes by this parking lot; hence the signs at either end.) Obtain the required but free Wilderness Permit from the wooden box.
Set out on level trail, walking in open canopy forest. A mere 250 feet from the parking lot, a blackened tree trunk provides the first evidence of the fire, which scorched nearly 40,000 acres. Cross Union Creek on a stout foot log at 0.2 mile, then start up the opposing bank to an unmarked junction. Go left, switchbacking uphill. (To the right leads to some cabins owned by the Forest Service.)
At 0.25 mile are, in quick succession, two side trails leading down and left to waterfall viewpoints. The first is easier, but both have dangers. Do not let unsupervised children take these side trails. Be sure to stay on the main path, as some side paths are downright dangerous. The first viewpoint reveals just the top of Union Creek Falls. The second viewpoint enables you to see all of its 50-foot drop and plunge pool. In late morning, the falls can be in full sunlight.
CAUTION: Between 1.3 miles and 1.6 miles are gullies that resulted in significant washouts after the fire. The trail may be impassible. Until vegetation has once again stabilized the soil above, flash floods are possible during periods of heavy or sustained rainfall.
If you choose to go on, the main trail continues steeply upwards. Blackened tree trunks become more prevalent. At 0.6 mile, traverse a scree sidehill, admiring the steep walls of the canyon on either side of Union Creek. Another quarter mile ahead is sandy soil and easier walking.
At 1.0 mile, reach 4000 feet, and begin a series of minor ups and downs, staying near this elevation from here forward.
Between 1.3 and 1.6 miles are the washouts. Be safe and stay within your abilities.
At 2.1 miles, you’ll hear North Union Falls before you see it. Water cascades down a rocky slope then plunges into a pool 100 feet below you. The trail leads you to the top of the cascade, where the fire destroyed a bridge over North Fork Union Creek. Gaze out over the tumbling water, past trees both living and dead.
If you can, safely cross to the opposite side of the creek, then go right on a side trail. (You might have to wade.) In less than 200 feet upstream the trail dead-ends in a secluded grotto. Another tier of North Union Falls splashes 35 feet down a rough rocky face, into a crystal clear shallow pool. Get as close as you desire.
This is the turn-around spot for day hikers. If there were places to sit, this would be a perfect lunch spot. Many will choose to make do, regardless, before returning to civilization.
Note: Mileages and elevation gain/loss include both of the Union Creek Falls viewpoint trails, but no washout detours.
Extending your trip
Across North Union Creek and to the left, the trail continues following Union Creek upstream, through a severely burnt section of forest. It climbs gradually at first then steeply up to connect with the Basin Trail at 6.3 miles, gaining 500 feet in the last third of a mile. From there it heads south to meet the Pacific Crest Trail, elevation 6200 feet, at just over 7 miles.