Here’s where gigantic old-growth trees tower along a wilderness river.
About the Hike: Less than two hours’ drive from Portland, this easy riverside walk tours a spectacular, towering forest of 500-year-old trees that were endangered by logging proposals until a long-fought Wilderness bill protected the area in 1998.
Difficulty: An easy 4-mile hike traverses the old-growth forest to 30-foot Sawmill Falls. A longer, 7.1-mile loop extends upriver to Opal Pool and Jawbone Flats, a Depression-era mining camp.
Season: Open all year, but the route may be snowy or icy after mid-winter storms.
Getting There: From Interstate 5 exit 253 in Salem, drive on East Santiam Highway 22 for 23 miles to Mehama’s second flashing yellow light. Opposite the Swiss Village Restaurant, turn left on Little North Fork Road for 15 paved miles and an additional 1.3 miles of gravel. At a fork, veer left on Road 2209. Then drive 4.2 miles to the locked gate. Residents of Jawbone Flats are allowed to drive the dirt road ahead; others must park and walk
Fees: A Northwest Forest Pass is required to park here. The pass costs $5 per day or $30 per season. It can be purchased at a ranger station, an outdoor store or at the trailhead fee box.
Hiking Tips: From the trailhead gate, the pleasantly primitive road crosses Gold Creek on a 60-foot-high bridge, skirts dramatic cliffs above the Little North Santiam River, and winds through an old-growth grove as impressive as any found farther upstream.
At the 2-mile mark, stop to inspect the rusting machinery of Merten Mill on the right. The mill operated briefly during the Depression, using winches from the battleship USS Oregon, but folded after two of the mill’s lumber trucks fell off the narrow canyon road. Now a camping area for backpackers, the mill site has one small empty building that can serve as emergency shelter. A short side trail behind the building leads to Sawmill Falls, a 30-foot cascade pouring into a deep green pool ideal for a chilly swim.
The route forks 0.2 mile beyond Merten Mill. Turn right across the river on a 100-foot bridge above a lovely gravel beach. The hike then follows the somewhat rough Opal Creek Trail left along the Little North Santiam River through woods where twinflower blooms and huckleberries ripen in July. After a mile, a sign points left 50 feet to Opal Pool’s scenic gorge.
To return on a loop, turn left, cross a footbridge at the head of Opal Pool, climb to an old mining road and keep left through Jawbone Flats, a well-preserved collection of 27 buildings dating from 1929-1932. Jawbone Flats has been donated to the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center as an old-growth study center.
Respect the residents’ privacy by staying on the road. Dogs must be leashed here. On summer weekends, a tiny store in the settlement sells snacks, drinks and T-shirts. The center also includes several rentable cabins for $100-$300 that sleep 2-16 (for information call 503-897-2921 or check www.opalcreek.org).
An optional side trip for those who would to see more of Opal Creek begins at Opal Pool. When you reach the trail junction beside Opal Pool continue upstream 0.6 mile to a single-log footbridge. Along the way you’ll pass several small waterfalls. If you like, continue 0.9 mile upstream on a rougher trail to Cedar Flat’s trio of ancient red cedars, 500-1,000 years old. Near here, the Beachie Creek crossing, on a mossy log, is a good place to turn around. The trail peters out beyond this point.
History: Opal Creek’s ancient forest was thrust to fame in the 1980s by controversy over Forest Service logging proposals. National television crews and thousands of visitors hiked to Jawbone Flats’ rustic mining camp and scrambled over a rugged “bear trail” to view the endangered old-growth groves towering above this creek’s green pools. By the time Opal Creek finally won Wilderness protection in 1998 an improved path had been built to make the area more hiker-friendly. The new trail shortcuts from the Little North Santiam River to Opal Creek, making possible a loop trip to Opal Pool’s gorge and Jawbone Flats.