Opal Creek Oregon: Hiking through an Old-Growth Wilderness
August 19, 2007

by Papa Bear

(Photo of Old Growth Cedar)
Old Growth Western Red Cedar
The Opal Creek Wilderness
(Click on this or any picture for a larger image)

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Hiking through Oregon's Opal Creek Wilderness

M

My wife and I spent a log weekend in mid-August in Portland Oregon. The occasion was my daughter's graduation from Portland State University with a masters degree. But this is not about graduation day.

Any trip to Oregon is an opportunity to do some hiking, west-coast style. This is always a great treat for an east coaster like myself. My daughter and I always try to set aside a day or two from whatever other activities we are planning to go hiking. The plan as of early July was to do a 2 day hike of Mount Adams in Washington State. We had made an attempt a couple of years ago but had to turn back before reaching the summit, but this time (we hoped) we would make it to the top.

By late July this plan seemed out of reach. Both of us admitted we were just too out of shape for such a rigorous undertaking, so I said let's scale things back and do a couple of day hikes, maybe in the Three Sisters area.

By the time the weekend arrived, the weather was not looking great, so we chose instead a non-peak hike closer to Portland. She had done a trail called the Opal Creek Trail a few years before and she said this is in a heavily forested area and would be a perfect rainy day hike. The area has had a colorful history. In the early 20th century it was a center of mining and logging activity and remnants of old mills and a mining ghost town
(Photo of Trail)
Along the Trail through
Old Growth Douglas Fir
(Click on this or any picture for a larger image)
remain in the area. Starting in 1980 there was a prolonged effort to preserve the remaining old-growth forest in the area which finally resulted (in 1998) in the designation of much of the area as a wilderness area and the already developed portions was transferred from a timber company to a non-profit group, the "Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center" which maintains a learning center in the old ghost town of Jawbone Flats (yes, that really is it's name).

We dropped my wife off with friends she was spending the day with, and drove down on I-5 to Salem and then east on Route 22 to the area. Detailed directions can be found in the link above. We got to the parking at about 10:00 AM, about 2 hours out of Portland.

The trail is rather easy. The first half is on an old logging road, and the second portion is along Opal Creek on a well maintained trail. The total distance is about 10.5 miles out and back. The first half, along the logging road to Jawbone Flats (6.5 miles out and back) would be suitable for children and perhaps even strollers. Directions to the trailhead parking are given in the above link. Here's another link that gives more of a trail description: Oregon.Com. If you Google "Opal Creek Wilderness" and "Opal Creek Trail" you'll get lots of interesting links for the area. In addition, we used William Sullivan's "One Hundred Hikes in the Central Oregon Cascades" for details. This is part of a wonderful series of volumes that covers all of Oregon (and elsewhere) and if you are in the area for an extended period of time, it would be worth while picking one or more of of these volumes: 100 Hikes in Oregon series, by William Sullivan.

It's hard to describe what it's like to be in old-growth forest and even harder to get good pictures. First we went through an area that had been logged perhaps 75 years before with lots of old, huge stumps and a forest of mature, but still young trees, with an occasional really big, moss-covered giant that we guessed was one of the original ones that the loggers left behind for reasons unknown. This forest is primarily Douglas Fir with an occasional Red Cedar in lowland areas. There is also a mixture of hardwoods and undergrowth. The creek valleys are very steep sided and this fact
(Photo of Sawmill Falls)
Sawmill Falls
(Click on this or any picture for a larger image)
probably kept the loggers of the early 20th century from harvesting everything in sight.

As we hiked in along the old road, we passed for about a mile through a logged area with occasional giants. At a certain point, there were no more stumps and practically all the trees were very big and obviously very old. The forest itself was a mixture of all ages of trees including a fair number of standing dead wood. It was awesome. The first picture shows some of this areas, but to use a cliché, you really had to be there to appreciate it.

After about 2 miles we noticed some odd pieces of old iron equipment at the side of the road. This is the site of the old Merten Mill, a logging operation that went bankrupt in the depression after a couple of their trucks fell off the steep side of the road. That "act of God" may well have saved a good bit of this forest from the axe! Apparently this mill provided timbers for the active mining that was done in the area in the early 20th century. We walked through the area and found a waterfall below, which is well worth the side trip if you ever do this trip. The next photo
(Photo of Log Bridge)
The Bridge above Opal Pool
Made from a single Douglas Fir trunk
(Click on this or any picture for a larger image)
shows the falls, alternatively know as "Sawmill Falls" or "Cascada de los Ninos".

I've read that this falls is the upper limit of the salmon run on the river and that "this stream is the only river in the Willamette River system that is un-dammed from its source (Opal Lake) to the ocean" (Oregon Wild).

In about another half mile, we reached a bridge over the stream to the right of the road. This was the start of the trail portion of the route. We crossed over and, leaving the road behind, were soon quite far from civilization. The stream system consists of several drainages. the lower stream is the Little North Fork Santiam River, the creek we would now follow is Opal Creek, and the stream heading up to Jawbone Flats is Battle Ax Creek (love those names!)

In a little over a half mile, we reached the spectacular Opal Pool, where a bridge crosses the creek and provides a loop to Jawbone Flats.

We passed that by and continued up the trail, passing numerous waterfalls through an ever wilder area until finally arriving at Cedar Flats, where a trio of 1000 year old mammoth Western Red Cedars awaited us. One had but a few living branches left near the top but the other two
(Photo of Cedar Grove)
Papa Bear in a grove of ancient cedars
(Click on this or any picture for a larger image)
appeared quite healthy. The next picture is the best I could do. I apologize for running out of adjectives to describe these giants. Awe-inspiring, Mammoth, Unbelievable, Majestic all fail to do justice to these specimens. Just sitting here under them was reason enough to be here.

But we couldn't stay. The trail ended a few hundred yards further on and so we turned back. This time we crossed the bridge at Opal Pool and soon arrived at Jawbone Flats. This was another unique place but hardly awe-inspiring or majestic. Like most ghost towns, it was one part history and two parts junk yard! I especially liked the row of abandoned pickup trucks which looked to be from the 1930s or 1940s. It would have been nice if the non-profit group was around since I would have liked to hear more about the history of the area. They had renovated a number of the buildings and there is space for overnight groups to visit the place.

We continued back and rejoined the logging road we had taken in the morning, and were again inspired by the old-growth groves the road passes through. We seemed to notice them more on the way out than when we went in. As the book says, the road "winds through an old-growth grove as impressive as any found farther upstream".

We reached the car a little before 5:00 PM and agreed that this easy unhurried day was as impressive as any view we might have had from South Sister (especially in the rain ).

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