The most surprising part of climbing trees at Silver Falls State Park was the speed at which we found ourselves exploring the canopy of an old-growth monster 200 feet into the sky.
Even with a group of kids with little experience climbing or using seat belts, we found ourselves dangling high between tree branches in a couple of hours, waving to the little hikers and horseback riders below.
“Hey, that looks fun!” shouted a hiker who passed by.
He was. At least that was the takeaway from a climb that involved taking 8, 11, and 13-year-olds on a half-day tree climb at Oregon’s largest state park.
“What I liked most was being really high up and having snacks on top of the tree,” said Till DeKoto, 11, of Eugene. “I also loved the wonderful and friendly guide who taught us how to do everything.”
The guide was Leo Rosen Fisher, owner of a tree climbing shop in Silver Falls. It operates under a special permit designed to bring new and different adventures to the Oregon park system.
This definitely qualifies as different. For $149 per person, in a remote area of the park, we guided our inner monkey through four hours of ascending and descending an old-growth tree.
“It’s like exploring an alien world — a way to see this perspective of nature that very few people have ever seen,” Rosen Fisher said. “I think it’s also very clear that we’re climbing some of the largest organisms on Earth. It’s very powerful.”
Explore the Oregon Podcast:How to climb or camp in the 300-foot trees at Silver Falls State Park
Learn to climb
We met Rosen Fisher at the Howard Creek Trailhead, in a quiet part of the park away from the falls that draw most people to Silver Falls.
Just a stone’s throw from the parking lot, a “training tree” has been set up to teach us everything we need to know about climbing.
The first surprise is that you don’t “climb trees” in the sense that you pull on the branches as many did as children. Instead, you use rope climbing equipment that is pre-installed in the trees.
In the past, recreational tree climbers would use slingshots or even a bow and arrow to insert ropes into tree branches. Rosen Fisher said he is currently using a drone.
The equipment we used included a climbing harness, hand-held ‘ascenders’, and foot loops. It basically works like this: You hang on a rope and use your legs in the foot loops to push the handheld riser up the rope. The ascender goes up but won’t come down, allowing you to push yourself up the rope like a village worm.
“You’re basically doing squats to push yourself up the rope,” Rosen Fisher said.
The equipment combines two different worlds of climbing. The straps are the same kind you’d use for rock climbing, while the ascent loops and toe loops are designed to rescue crevasses on alpine climbs.
For tree climbing, the secret sauce is the simplicity of the gear—even kids pick up on it pretty quickly. Our 8 year old enjoyed playing on the training tree that even turned upside down.
“The reason we use this gear system is because it’s very intuitive and easy to pick up in a short amount of time,” said Rosen Fisher. “It surprises people with how fast they can climb, but it’s all by design because we only have four hours and we want people to spend a lot of time in the big trees.”
He said the oldest person to ever climb unaided was 89 years old. People can also use a battery-powered boarding device that allows physically challenged people to board. He said that his oldest person ever lived was 99 years old.
“We can get anyone up,” he said, “even Grandma and the Gramps.”
“Branching Tree” or “River Tree?”
Once Rosen-Fischer decided our group was ready for the big time, he asked if we wanted to head up the River Tree or the Sub Tree.
One has a view of a stream, as well as different layers of canopy, while the other has plenty of branches to play around the lower parts of the tree.
We went to River Tree, and after a short hike, came to the base of a really huge Douglas fir with ropes hanging down. Rosen-Fischer took a moment, during the setup, to explain the benefits of old-growth forest.
Trees used for climbing are regularly inspected by park experts. The garden requires Rosen-Fischer to use non-invasive equipment that does not dig into a tree. All mounting systems use a strap tied around the torso. Trees are carefully monitored.
“Every year, our natural resources team comes and evaluates the trees,” said Chris Gilliand, director of Silver Falls. “They’re our biologists, our forester, and we see if there’s any damage, or if there’s a couple of birds that have moved out or something.”
Gilliand said if any threatened species are identified near a climbing area, climbing should stop immediately.
Finally, it’s time to head out.
We packed our lunch and snacks into a sack and Rosen Fisher lifted up to the canopy, quickly climbing in front of us. We split up and soon behind, slowly making our way up the rope as the ground fell more and more.
One hurdle is learning to trust the equipment. It takes a while for you to feel comfortable floating in the tree, suspended in the air, without worry.
Lev Dekoto, 13, of Eugene, launched the fastest tree in our group. He said it was easy to push himself up the rope. As he advanced, he noticed how we climbed over a lower tier of young trees.
“It is really wonderful to be above all the other trees and to look down upon their canopy,” said he. “All those big trees look like little bushes from here!”
The two older boys each made their way to the top, and spent some time perching on tree branches over 100 feet off the ground. At the top, about 200 feet from the forest floor, they stopped in search of sandwiches and food.
“I never thought I’d be eating lunch at the top of a tree,” said Teal.
Around us, we can see across the tops of the trees and into the far parts of the park.
Our 8 year old daughter also enjoyed the climb but made it to just over half way before deciding she had reached her summit for the day. She said she felt a little tired and seemed to have some nerves about being high off the ground.
Rosen Fisher said this sometimes happens with younger children. Seven is the youngest age at which children can climb.
“If they’ve just gotten to where they’re just beginning to understand heights and danger and fear, sometimes they decide not to get to the top,” he said. “Every year we have a kids’ camp and sometimes the kids take a while to get through it. But at the end of the class they almost always climb our tallest tree. It can be a good way to learn to push fear and gain confidence.”
more:Have you ever wanted to camp high up in an old-growth tree? At Silver Falls State Park, you can
The flight was probably my favorite part. Rosen-Fischer places a “scion” on your belt that allows the rope to be dropped. It allows to go as slow or fast as you like, although if you try to go too fast it has an auto stop to keep you from crashing out of the tree.
Rosen-Fischer encouraged sticking our legs out as we descended, pushing us off the trunk, creating the sensation of walking backwards down the tree.
Soon we hit the bottom, feeling that familiar weight of the solid ground under our feet. We’ve done a lot – learned to use new equipment, climbed to the top and returned to familiar territory.
And all this in just four hours.
Details: Tree climbing in Silver Falls
Something small: Anyone 7 years old or older can climb old-growth trees on a rope and harness at Silver Falls State Park.
it costs: $145 per person for a half-day trip, additional cost for “sunset climbs” or overnight camping experiences.
more information: treeclimbingatsilverfalls.com/
Zach Urness has been a foreign correspondent in Oregon for 15 years and is host of the Explore Oregon Podcast. Urness is the author of Best Hikes with Kids: Oregon and Hiking Southern Oregon. He can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or 503-399-6801. You can find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.