Opal Creek Wilderness
The Opal Creek Wilderness is a lush hiker's paradise with blue-green pools and old-growth forest. (Photo credit: Nickie Bournias)
Opal Creek Wilderness
Opal Creek Wilderness is about 90 minutes east of Silver Falls, deep in the Willamette National Forest. (Photo credit: Nickie Bournias)
Opal Creek Wilderness
The 35,000-acre recreation area is some of the last low-elevation old-growth forest that remains pristine. (Photo credit: Nickie Bournias)

Many have played for hours in the sun at Three Pools, the popular swimming hole in the Opal Creek Wilderness.

But there’s plenty more in this 35,000-acre recreation area to discover. Definitely off the beaten path, this lush hiker’s paradise is about 90 minutes east of Silver Falls, deep in the Willamette National Forest off Highway 22 near Detroit.

The site is special because it’s some of the last low-elevation old-growth forest that remains pristine. For that we can thank former Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield, who led Congress to protect Opal Creek as a Scenic Recreation Area and Wilderness back in 1996.

Depending on which trail you take — there are at least a half dozen of varying distances, elevation gains and difficulties to choose from — you can traverse old foot bridges, stumble onto a collection of rusting machinery, or soak up the beauty of the 30-foot Sawmill Falls or the smaller Slide Falls and Gold Creek Falls.

All of the trails lead through groves of ancient Douglas fir trees, some as old as 700 years, which give a real feel of being back in time. Don’t leave without spending time at Opal Pool, the emerald green oasis about a 3.5-mile hike away from the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center.

Located at Jawbone Flats, this Depression-era mining camp is the nerve center of the wilderness area, with rustic rental cabins and a general store that sells snacks, drinks and T-shirts.

April through November, the center offers a variety of outdoor school workshops for kids, adults and families on topics ranging from watershed adventures and photography to yoga and ancient forest mixology. Sign up early for a spot at any of the center’s programs, which include meals and overnight lodging.

Camping isn’t allowed at Jawbone Flats, but you can pitch a tent at Elkhorn Valley Campground or Shady Cove Campground, both on federal Forest Service land.

This being Oregon’s backcountry, there is no cell reception, GPS access or WiFi, so visitors should always carry a detailed map and essential gear and have permits in hand.

about author Jen Anderson

Jen Anderson writes and edits Travel Oregon's e-newsletters and other online content. She loves finding the latest places to eat, drink and play around the state with her husband and two young boys. Brewpubs, beaches and bike trails top the list.

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These maps and directions are for planning purposes only. You may find that construction projects, traffic, or other events may cause road conditions to differ from the map results. For travel options, weather and road conditions, visit tripcheck.com, call 511 (in Oregon only), 800.977.6368 or 503.588.2941.

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  1. Ken Wade says…

    Fantastic! I grew up in Salem, and Dad and I often drove up Little North Fork to where the road ended near Opal Lake in the 60s. I winter-camped there with a friend once when in college and we had the place all to ourselves and had a blast sliding down hills in the snow. Glad to know it’s been reserved as a Recreation Area and Wilderness! Hope to visit again soon.

    Written on April 6th, 2016 / Flag this Comment
  2. Norene says…

    When my husband and I first moved to Oregon in 1988, Opal Creek was in the news a lot. There was an individual, whose name escapes me now, but he was very effective in getting this area protected. I’ve only been there once. I’m so looking forward to going again…soon.

    Written on April 9th, 2016 / Flag this Comment
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