Address: 7575 McKenzie Highway
Topographical Map: Thurston Hills Natural Area
Thurston Hills Natural Area provides 665 acres of land dedicated to recreation and habitat restoration in east Springfield. This area opened to the public in 2017, providing a growing trail system for hikers, mountain bikers, and nature lovers. Hiking and mountain bike trails are open for 2021.
Willamalane Park and Recreation District received a Tom Petri Recreational Trails Program Annual Achievement Award, recognizing outstanding use of recreational Trails Program funds nationwide.
The Coalition for Recreational Trails presented the award at a virtual ceremony on Thursday, Oct. 22 with participation by award recipients and key trails champions, including members of Congress. Thurston Hills Natural Area was recognized, receiving the Public-Private Partnerships and Access to/Use of Public Lands award for its community partnerships while developing multi-use recreational trails.
What's next for Thurston Hills Natural Area?
Willamalane secured a $238,954 grant to expand trail systems in at this property. The grant is sponsored by Oregon Parks and Recreation Department as part of its Recreational Trails Program. Preliminary plans for this second phase of development include an additional five miles of trail that will have segments for beginner, intermediate, and advanced mountain biking, as well as shared-use hiking trails that provide convenient, non-motorized access for the community. Willamalane is also asking for input from all community members about this (and other projects) at Willamalane.org/ideas.
There are currently over 6 miles of trails in Thurston Hills Natural Area. Two of these trails provide separate, dedicated mountain bike access for downhill use only. These are the first natural-surface mountain bike trails in the region, providing both beginner and intermediate mountain bike experiences. Trails are accessible from the North Trailhead (7575 McKenzie Hwy), just south of McKenzie Hwy on the eastern edge of Springfield. The trailhead provides restrooms, an information kiosk, picnic table, water, and a bike cleaning and repair station.
Please note that we do not allow E-Bikes at Thurston Hills Natural Area. The grant we received to build the trails was specifically for non-motorized recreation, and as e-bikes are considered motorized, they are not permitted.
Download a high-resolution pdf of this map
Natural Habitats and Restoration at Thurston Hills
This unique site is home to a variety of habitats including conifer and mixed forest, oak woodlands, grasslands (oak savannas and prairie habitats), and cliffs, rocky outcrops, and talus. The habitats are home to a multitude of plant and animal species including nine species that are listed in the Oregon Conservation Strategy as species of particular interest and priority for conservation. Western bluebird and Lewis’ woodpecker are two species listed in the Oregon Conservation Strategy that are found at the site and are most dependent on the oak prairie and oak woodland habitats. Historically the woodlands found at Thurston Hills Natural Area would have been much more open in their understory allowing the Lewis’ woodpecker to easily forage for acorns on the ground.
Over the past century, fire exclusion has allowed native and non-native vegetation including conifers to encroach into oak woodland and prairies. Over time conifers, in particular, are able to grow in the shade of the oak until they overtop the oak and outcompete them for sunlight and other important resources reducing key habitat for species like the acorn woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatch, and western grey squirrel. Currently, less than 5% of the historic acreage of oak woodland and 1% of prairie habitats remain in the Willamette Valley (Oregon Conservation Strategy, 2016).
To address this degraded habitat condition Willamalane Park and Recreation District and the Middle Fork Willamette Watershed Council will be releasing oak trees by thinning out the majority of undesirable trees. The result will be a much more open woodland that will allow the Oregon white oak to receive sufficient sunlight to mature with full open-grown canopies. In the prairie, we will be removing invasive species and encroaching woody vegetation to retain an open prairie condition dominated by grasses and forbs.
In addition, Willamalane will be undertaking a fuels reduction project that aims to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire on the site. Look for crews who will be removing overgrown native and non-native vegetation in the understory in addition to dense shrubs and some trees along the main access road into the site.
This work will help reduce fire risk and will create a significant fire break along the access road and across the property in addition to improving access to the site for emergency responders. This work will be implemented across 490 acres in small phases over the next five years.
These projects may impact trails and road usage while heavy equipment and crews are working on the site. Please stay tuned to the kiosks and the website for any trail closures and keep your eyes open for related trail signage. Enjoy this wonderful natural area!
Thurston Hills and the Gray Family Legacy
Long before it was a natural area enjoyed by community hikers and mountain bikers, the Thurston Hills area was a pioneer homestead. Passed down through generations, the property tells a story of the entrepreneurial spirit and community values of the Gray family.
Siblings Hugh Gray and Connie Jaqua, who sold the property to Willamalane in 2012, hoped that the sale would preserve the property as a recreational area rather than being transformed by development. In what follows, they recount stories of their family’s history on this land.
Frederick Lutanner Gray was the pioneer who originally settled the Thurston Hills. Frederick L. was born in 1831 to Alexander and Lydia Gray. His early life was spent in Pennsylvania and his teen years in Indiana. In 1849, when Frederick L. was 18, the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in California sparked a gold rush. The lure of the West called Frederick L. to be a wagon
train scout, which occupied his time for several years.
Frederick L. liked the Thurston area, and he decided in 1853 to stake a claim in what is now Thurston Hills Natural Area. The property spanned about 1,000 acres and stretched from the hills down to what is now Thurston Road. The deed was signed by none other than Abraham Lincoln. Hugh Gray and Connie Jaqua said they saw the signature in person, but the deed was lost when the property transferred ownership in the 1970s.
Frederick L. married Olive Davis, and together they had eight children. The family’s first house burned down in the early 1860s. Their second house, which still stands today, was built in 1865 using timber that came from the hills. That house is now known as the Heritage House.
The Grays were considered a successful family. They grew grain on the property’s flat ground that was fertilized by intermittent flooding. They also raised cattle and pigs. “They always had bacon curing,” said Hugh Gray. “They did all the homesteading things that those early pioneers and ranchers did.”
Frederick L. Gray died in July of 1915 at the age of 84. He and his family members are buried at Mount Vernon Pioneer Cemetery. Much of the land went to his son, Frederick James Gray.
The Gray Family
Frederick J. took on the homestead, where he lived with his wife Sarah Maude Hastings and their five children: Veda, Hubert, Frederick J. Jr., Elva, and Lloyd. “Like so many families at that time, the property was split among the children when Frederick J. died,” said Connie Jaqua.
Veda, born in 1899, was a school teacher. She was among the first teachers of the Davis School, which became part of the Thurston School District in 1927. She lived at the Heritage House for most of her life.
Hubert, born in 1901, contributed to a number of local history and genealogical publications. He married Flossie May Gray and together had three children: Glenda, Hugh, and Connie. The property that passed to Hugh and Connie was eventually sold to Willamalane.
Frederick James Jr., also known as Freddy, was born in 1902. Freddy was murdered in the woods at the age of 42, leaving behind his wife Elsie and their daughter Darlene Larson.
Elva, born in 1905, was a secretary for a lawyer. She lived with her older sister Veda in their father’s Heritage House until Veda’s death. Elva and her niece Darlene were close, and Elva transferred ownership of her property to Darlene at age 98. Elva died in 2010 at age 105.
Lloyd, born in 1912, was Frederick J.’s youngest child. He married Julia May Gray and died in 1991 at age 79.
Hugh Gray and Connie Jaqua were raised on tales passed down from their great-grandfather Frederick L.’s time.
When the siblings were young, they discovered artifacts like arrowheads all around the Thurston Hills property. “There’s a lot of treasure there if you can find it,” said Hugh Gray. They learned that Native Americans had lived in the Thurston Hills when Frederick L. settled there. They had established living spaces in clearings, and they picked blackberries and fished for salmon for sustenance.
Sometimes, land disputes among settlers led to brutal instances of pioneer problem resolution. Hugh and Connie recounted a story from the late 1880s of a property dispute. “A neighbor was setting a fence line that old Frederick didn’t agree with,” Hugh Gray said. “And back then, the only things that mattered were their property and their access to water.”
The disagreement resulted in the neighbor stabbing Frederick L. with a long knife. Thinking that Frederick was mortally wounded, the neighbor journeyed to the sheriff to report that he had killed Frederick in a fair fight. Frederick’s body was laid in front of the grieving family. “Next thing you know, he moves just a little,” said Hugh Gray. The knife was removed from his body, and Frederick started to come around. “These old guys were tough — and lucky,” he said. The neighbor was scared that Frederick seemed to have come back to life and got out
of town just as fast as he could.
Preservation of the Land
Hugh Gray and Connie Jaqua’s father, Hubert, logged the hill — very responsibly, they said. “He still wanted it to look like a forest even though it was thinned,” Hugh said. The forest was thinned five or six times, but when the land was sold to Willamalane, it contained more board feet than it had 20 years prior.
“When you keep thinning the timber, you have a viable stand for generations,” he said. If the family had let nature take its course, the trees might have become overcrowded. Then, the rotting trees would have become a fire hazard for Springfield as it developed toward the east.
Hugh and Connie remember their father as a hard-working, diligent man who “loved the land and respected the land,” Connie said. Environmental responsibility was a strong family value that was passed to Glenda, Hugh, and Connie.
The three siblings grew up playing on the land. Their father built them a little hunting cabin furnished with old, discarded furniture and a nice little cookstove. “Our time at that hunting cabin yielded a lot of venison and good camping trips,” Hugh said.
These memories, and many others, contributed to Hugh and Connie deciding to sell the property to Willamalane rather than to housing developers. Darlene Larson, Hugh, and Connie’s cousin, sold her piece of land, including the Heritage House, to the City of Springfield in 2012 in the hopes that it would become a historic location. Hugh and Connie followed suit by selling their property to Willamalane to be made into the Thurston Hills Natural Area.
“We got to walk past all the places that were important to us, all the landings,” said Hugh Gray. Their sister, Glenda Gray-Cook, died before the transactions were made. “We scattered her ashes on the clearing where the hunting cabin used to stand,” he said.
As Hugh and Connie reflect on the last 150 years of the Thurston Hills land, they also consider its future. In a hundred years, they said, they hope the natural area will remain intact and enjoyed by Springfielders and visitors alike. “Our pioneer great-grandfather started all this, and we’ve hung on to the land for all these years,” Connie Jaqua said. “We hope it will continue to be enjoyed for generations to come.”