Falls at Opal Creek east of Salem and the Willamette Valley.
Photo by William Sullivan
to Opal Creek
where gigantic old-growth trees tower along a wilderness river
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.
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.
Open all year, but the route may be snowy or icy after mid-winter
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Jawbones Flats is a Depression-era mining camp that now greets
by William Sullivan
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.
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.
Miners at Jawbone Flats did not find commercial quantities of gold,
and so they concentrated on nickel and other minerals instead.