The Opal Creek Wilderness and Scenic Recreation Area in the Willamette National Forest,
encompassing miles of unspoiled waters and the largest stand of old growth forest in the western Cascades, is a true gem in the Pacific Northwest. Standing beneath 800 year-old trees, strolling through a 1930s mining camp, followed by a dip in a crystal clear swimming hole makes an epic trip for the whole family and is a great dose of natural and cultural history.
Approximate travel time: The main parking lot and trailhead to explore Opal Creek is about 1 hour 45 minutes from Portland at the end of road 2209.
What to do: Hike, bike, or roll with the kids the 3 miles from the Forest Service Gate towards Jawbone Flats, home of Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center. The gravel and dirt trail is wide and gains a mere 200 feet in elevation, making off-road strollers, bike trailers or backpacks a good option for exploring with the toddler or preschooler set. Your kiddos will awe at the ancient Douglas Firs and Western Red Cedars towering 200 feet overhead along the way.
The trail climbs gradually above and along the Little North Santiam River through moss-covered trees and ferns, crossing creeks and abandoned mines. Create an easy scavenger hunt and look for things like huckleberries or fairy bells for some extra fun and a miniecology lesson along the way.
About 2 miles in, you’ll see what’s left of Merten Mill. An old shed and some rusting equipment are the remains of the 1943 sawmill. The mill logged only 5 acres before ending operations after two logging trucks fell off the road. There is a short trail next to the shed that leads to La Cascada de los Niños or Waterfall of the Children.
Back on the main trail, a little further up, you’ll come to a bridge and a sign for the Opal Creek Trail. There’s a pretty little swimming hole below the bridge with a small rocky beach. The glassy water is perfect for skipping stones and dipping toes.
If you’re looking for a little more action and space to swim, continue on the main trail a short distance further before taking a dip. The river opens up and you’ll see a small waterfall that flows into a large pool with a big rock in the center. There’s a smooth groove down the rock that serves as a natural waterslide.
Just a few more minutes up the trail you’ll see a sign nailed to a tree “Jawbone Flats, Population 12” welcoming you to Jawbone Flats. The kids will love exploring this 1930s mining camp; it’s like a step back in time as you make your way through camp. A handful of old wood buildings, mostly renovated but with the original aesthetic, comprise the camp today. The buildings currently serve as accommodations and classrooms for the many educational programs and workshops hosted by the non-profit, Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center. You’ll see remnants of the camp’s history, such as rusty old pickup trucks, old-fashioned stoves and mining equipment throughout town that provide a taste of the past and interest for the kids. There’s also a “throne” carved out of an old log perched atop a rocky outcrop in the middle of town that is sure to spark some excitement.
At the end of town is Battle Axe Bridge. There’s a wide trail to the right that takes you along Battle Axe Creek to a rocky beach where Battle Axe Creek meets Opal Creek. This is a peaceful place to relax for lunch or a snack.
Across the bridge, just past the town’s hydropower generator, you’ll see a sign pointing to the direction of Opal Pool, a main attraction for many visitors. It’s an easy ½ mile walk to the pool, and a must see. A few minutes up the rocky trail, veer to the right down a trail to a bridge. Cross the bridge and follow the path to your right for a view of the magnificent transparent green pool. Although not named after the gemstone, the brilliant waters are as stunning as an opal.
If you stay: It’s possible to visit on a day trip from Portland, but overnight stays are an option as well. Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center provides accommodations in Jawbone Flats. Be sure to book early. There are also primitive campsites surrounding Jawbone Flats as well as established campgrounds outside the Opal Creek Wilderness Area.
How to dress: Seasonally and activity appropriate.
Need to know: Bring exact change for the parking permits, which can be purchased at the trail entrance for $5 day. There are pit toilets at the trail entrance and a composting toilet in Jawbone Flats. Bring food and plenty of water, as there’s no drinking water available. There is no cell phone access in the area. If you plan to swim, keep in mind the water is very very cold.
Bonus: If you plan to stay overnight, there were plenty of prime, but primitive camping spots still open outside Jawbone Flats on a sunny weekend afternoon. Spots are first come first serve.
Cost of trip: Inexpensive.
Where does your family go for outdoor excursions? Share your favorite getaway spot in a comment below.
— Ali Livolsi