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Oregon Wild Hikes: Opal Creek

Old-growth giants and pristine streams in an area saved from logging by Oregon Wild and other conservationists.

Opal Creek Wilderness

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Northwest Oregon, Opal Creek Wilderness Area
Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous
Distance: Many options, recommended day hike is approximately 7 miles round trip
Elevation Gain: Varies
Season: Spring/Summer/Fall
Maps:  US Forest Service, Opal Creek Wilderness.  An online map of hiking trails can be found here.

The Dirt:

Opal CreekJust two hours from Portland, a hike into the old-growth groves of Opal Creek is like a walk back in time to Oregon as it was before logging and development.  Trees up to 250' high and 1000 years old can be found here, as well as a rare wildlife and beautiful waterfalls.  Hiking options abound in this 20,000 acre Wilderness, and in the adjacent Bull-of-the-Woods Wilderness.

This amazing area is home to a tremendous diversity of fish, wildlife, and plants, including elk, black bears, and the endangered northern spotted owl.  In addition to wildlife, hikers exploring Opal Creek can marvel at the sight of dozens of waterfalls, several lakes, and massive cedar and Douglas fir trees that were already ancient when Lewis and Clark first explored Oregon 200 years ago.

Though the rare old-growth forest and pristine waters of Opal Creek are today preserved as Wilderness, in the 1990’s the region was the center of intense controversy over plans by the US Forest Service to allow logging in this unspoiled area.  The efforts of Oregon Wild and other conservation groups helped stop the logging and win Wilderness protection for Opal Creek in 1996.

Getting There:

From I-5 at Salem, take the North Santiam Highway (Oregon Highway 22) approximately 23 miles east to just west of Mehama. Following a sign for the Elkhorn Recreation Area, turn north on Little North Fork Road at a flashing yellow light between the State Forestry Department building on the north side of Oregon Highway 22 and the Swiss Village Restaurant across the road. (This is 0.2 mile before the 23-mile post on the west side of Mehama.) Drive 21 miles up the Little North Fork Santiam River. In 15 miles you'll cross the national forest boundary, and Little North Fork Road becomes FS Road 2207. At the only major fork in the road, bear left (it's almost straight ahead) on FS Road 2209. Road has large potholes. Park at the locked gate at the end of the road. Be prepared to pay a $5 daily fee in the envelope provided by the Forest Service at this gate.

Recommended:

The 7 mile hike to Opal Pool makes a fine day trip.  Begin at the locked gate and hike down the jeep road on foot. Almost immediately you will pass some scattered 800-year-old trees in an area that was selectively logged many decades ago. In 1.5 miles you will enter a beautiful old growth grove above the Little North Fork Santiam River.

Just past the old growth grove are the remains of the Merten logging mill, which provided timbers for the area's mines. Its boiler, salvaged from the battleship Oregon, is still on the site. A trail next to a shed leads to a spectacular waterfall known as Cascada de los Ninos (Waterfall of the Children).  This falls is the end of salmon and steelhead runs in the Little North Fork Santiam River.  This stream is the only river in the Willamette River system that is un-dammed from its source (Opal Lake) to the ocean.

The road forks 0.2 miles ahead giving you two options. You can continue on the road another 1.1 miles to the historic mining town of Jawbone Flats (now managed as an environmental education center by Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center).  A short distance from camp is beautiful Opal Pool, which is nestled in a  scenic gorge.  To get there, continue through camp across Battle Axe Creek Bridge and make a right turn past a building humming with a water-powered generator. Continue down the road to a sign indicating a short trail to Opal Pool.

For those with more energy looking to exlore more of Opal Creek, make a right turn across a log bridge, and turn left following the Opal Creek Trail. This trail winds its way for approximately one mile before reaching an overlook (Opal Pool can be seen below). The trail then ascends Opal Creek for another 3 miles passing many waterfalls before reaching Cedar Flats, a trio of 1000 year old Western Red Cedars.

For the adventurous, options for longer trips abound, including multi-day backpacking trips into Bull of the Woods Wilderness.

For more information, contact the US Forest Service's Detroit Ranger District, HC73 Box 320 , Mill City, OR, 97360, Phone: 503-854-3366, Fax: 503-854-8439
You can also learn more by visiting the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center web site at: http://www.opalcreek.org/index.html


 

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