Have you ever gotten a sore neck looking at a tree? Try looking at the top of an old growth Douglas Fir on the Opal Creek trail, it’s a good way to get a crick in the neck. Just guessing, they had to be at least 200 feet tall. And that’s not even what we came to see.
The Opal Creek wilderness area sits about an hours drive east of Salem, Oregon on the west slope of the Cascade mountain range. The trailhead is off the beaten track, plan on a car wash after you return as the last mile and a half or so of the drive is dirt road. The trail itself is really just a continuation of the dirt road, although it’s gated off.
Although it’s called the Opal Creek trail, it actually parallels the Little North Santiam River for most of its run before getting to its namesake creek near trails end. Both the river and the creek provide a similar experience. Crystal clear water shows the stream beds with an aquamarine tint. As they meander through the mountains both width and depth vary, punctuated by pools and cascades. These picturesque punctuation marks were the real reason we came.
We did our hike on a hot summer day. Many of those we shared the trail with, especially the younger crowd, opted to take advantage of the pools for a swim. I can’t say I blame them, if I had swim togs along I’d have joined the fun. One of the pools, near the remains of an old saw mill a couple of miles in even has a natural water slide. When the water levels are higher the pool sits at the bottom of a 30 foot falls, but when we were there much of the falls structure was dry.
Although I did a bit of research on the trail before we went, it has evolved a bit over the years and I didn’t really know the layout until we did it. This caused a bit of head scratching at a nice little bridge across the river next to the main trail, helpful signs omitted. Later I discovered it led to a trail on the other side, which would have allowed for a loop instead of a there and back.
Although you can just head up the trail to the saw mill (not much left there but the remnants of an old stream engine and a big shack about to topple over) and take in the pool there, if you head another mile and a half up the trail you get to Jawbone Flats. This was an old mining town back in the 30’s. It’s being restored and maintained by the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center, a group that also works on environmental protection and education for the watershed. This area was somewhat controversial in the 80’s and 90’s, as the forest service was proposing logging in the area and the environmentalist thought maybe it’d be nice to keep those 500 year old, 200-300 foot trees that can trigger sore necks. The area achieved protected status in 1998. As for the mining, they tried for copper, silver, and gold but never extracted enough to make it pay off. It did add interest to the trail though, as you periodically see old mining equipment and even a shaft along the trail. Jawbone Flats is ground central for old rusty vehicles, obscure machinery, and miscellaneous junk. The old buildings have been retrofitted for education or to rent as cabins. Just beyond the Flats a short trail leads to Opal Pool, our destination.
The full hike was about 7 miles, through shaded forests of enormous trees, mossy floors, and riverside views. In the heat of the day it was a long warm walk, but the beauty of the forest and the pools, and the historical artifacts made it unique.