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Deschutes Falls Park Opening Unleashes A Flood Of Memories In Rural Thurston County

Will James
Officials with Thurston County, Washington State, and the Squaxin Island Tribe officially open Deschutes Falls Park to the public on Sept. 1, 2017

Plenty of folks around Yelm remember of this patch of land near the Deschutes River.

Few have longer memories than 94-year-old Earl Herness. 

“I got pictures here of camping here in 1924," he said. "And then when we were kids we used to come through here and hike the upper Deschutes.”

Herness was one of a few dozen Thurston County residents present for the opening of what is now called Deschutes Falls Park.

For many, the day unleashed a flood of childhood memories. 

The land was run as a privately-owned park as far back as the 1920s, county officials said. For many years, visitors could pay a dollar per car to picnic on the riverbanks or take a dip in the Deschutes, within view of tumbling waterfalls. 

But a generation has passed since residents could legally explore the site. Thurston County officials bought the 155 acres in 1992, but kept the land gated off in part because of safety and liability concerns.

It takes just a few minutes to follow a path down to the rocky edge of 90-foot-deep gorge. Today, the county has safety measures in place: A new chain link fence and signs warn people away from the edge.

"We really feel like this is a reopening," said Thurston County Parks Manager Kerry Hibdon. "We're reintroducing this site to the public." 

Many of the people who came to opening day found themselves reliving the past. Among them was Ted Mezen, who stepped into this stretch of the Deschutes for the first time in more than 30 years. 

"I've been waiting ever since this park closed to get back in again," he said, before wading and then diving into the ice-cold water. 

Herness has waited for this day, too. The 94-year-old rode a golf cart for most of the trail, but walked the steep final descent to the gorge, digging his cane into the ground. 

"All us old-timers think, 'They finally did it,'" he said. "We always wanted a park out of it, you know. God, something like this, people should be able to see it."

Credit Will James / KNKX
Thurston County officials opened Deschutes Falls Park to the public on Sept. 1, 2017

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.