Featured Hike: Opal Creek

Opal Creek

We are excited to be kicking off our summer series of featured hikes! We will be featuring hikes in Oregon’s treasured old growth forests in celebration of our forthcoming hiking guide, Oregon’s Ancient Forests, by our very own Chandra LeGue. We hope these posts will inspire your summer adventures and also give you a little taste of what this comprehensive guidebook has to offer.

We’ll start off with one of my favorite places in Oregon: Opal Creek, located east of Salem in the Willamette National Forest. There are various routes through the Opal Creek Wilderness and the adjacent Opal Creek Scenic Recreation Area. One of the most popular routes is to hike to Opal Creek’s scenic gorge, home to the picture-perfect Opal Creek Pools. Here, we offer a nice 7-mile loop for visitors to experience the old growth forest, with trees standing up to 250 feet high and 1,000 years old, and enjoy the waterfalls and natural pools.


Opal Creek - The Hike 
Distance: 7 mile loop to Opal Pool
Difficulty: Moderate 

First, Some History: Exploring the forests of Opal Creek is like a walk back in time, to a time before logging and development. The area is home to incredible trees and diverse wildlife, including the endangered northern spotted owl. But, not too long ago it was all at stake, and Opal Creek became a symbol of the conservation community’s long standing fight to protect Oregon’s ancient forests from the timber industry. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s this area was the center of intense controversy over plans by the U.S. Forest Service to allow logging in this unspoiled area. Fortunately, as a result of efforts of Oregon Wild and other conservation groups, in 1996 the logging was stopped and the forests were protected with the designation of Opal Creek Wilderness and Opal Creek Scenic Recreation Area. This designation protected thirty-four thousand acres, safeguarding these treasured ancient forests that we can all enjoy today. 

How to Get There: From Salem, drive east on North Santiam Highway 22 for 23 miles to Mehama’s second flashing yellow light. Turn left on Little North Fork Road for 15 paved miles and 1.3 gravel miles. Go left at the fork onto Road 2209 and continue 4.2 miles to a locked gate and park. Parking is limited, so arrive early and make sure to carpool, or better yet, visit on a weekday when it will be much less crowded.

Hike Description: From the trailhead, begin hiking on the gravel road along the Little North Santiam River. Less than a half mile in, you will cross Gold Creek on a 60-foot-high bridge. The trail continues along the road, gradually gaining elevation. About 2 miles in you will reach Mertern Mill, where you'll find leftover machinery from the 1940's during the area’s shortlived mining days. A quarter mile past the mill, turn right at the trail junction to cross the river on a log bridge, and then keep left for the Opal Creek Trail. After about 1 mile there will be a sign pointing to Opal Pool’s scenic gorge and you will reach Opal Pool on your left. Here, we encourage you to take a nice rest, enjoy a snack break, and have a swim in the pristine waters. Heading back, you will turn left from Opal Pool on the Battle Ax Trail. This trail will take you to Jawbone Flats, an old mining town, now home to Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center. Continue through Jawbone Flats and hike the 3 miles on the gravel road back to the trailhead. 


Check out our forthcoming book, Oregon’s Ancient Forests: A Hiking Guide, to discover 91 awe-inspiring hikes like this one - available July 1st, or you can preorder one today! The book also explains what makes ancient forests so unique, what types exist in Oregon, where they are, who manages them, why so few still survive, and what threats they continue to face.

Follow along for book updates and events on Facebook at Oregon’s Ancient Forests, and Instagram @oregon_ancient_forests. And in return, we’d love to follow along on your ancient forest adventures! So be sure to tag your photos with #OregonOldGrowth and #ORAncientForests. 

For more hikes and outdoor adventures, check out our suggested outings page.

Photo Credits
Matthew King