Hiker’s Paradise in the Opal Creek Wilderness

March 24, 2016 (Updated April 6, 2016)

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.

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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 The
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.