Whether lounging on the rocks at Three Pools or exploring the offerings of Jawbone Flats, Opal Creek is a treasure trove of leisurely fun.
“Opal Creek is a wonderful destination for older individuals who perhaps don’t have the work/family freedom or physical stamina to embark on more intensive adventures,” says Gabrielle Haber, development and communications manager for the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center. “Only a couple of hours from all of Oregon’s biggest cities, it’s accessible enough to visit in a long day or a quick overnight, but also remote and wild enough to give you a serious dose of nature.”
Opal Creek Wilderness and Scenic Recreation Area, located on the west slope of the Cascade Mountains, is about 25 miles east of Salem, and, Haber says, has something for everybody.
According to Haber, the most popular in-and-out hike to Jawbone Flats and Opal Pool is an easy 6.5-mile round trip that includes some of the best of the area: ancient old-growth trees, crystal clear waters, and relics of Oregon’s mining history.
Visitors to the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center website will learn that, first inhabited by Native Americans, the Opal Creek Wilderness and neighboring Bull of the Woods Wilderness is the largest contiguous area of low-elevation old growth left in Oregon.
Once believed to have been a summer camp for the Santiam Molalla Indians, Jawbone Flats became a mining camp in 1930, started by “Grandpa” James P. Hewitt, who mined lead, zinc, copper and silver. Some of the mining roads and the Gold Creek Bridge were constructed in 1939 under President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Mining ceased in 1992 when the Shiny Rock Mining Company donated a land gift valued at $12.6 million to Friends of Opal Creek, a group established in 1989 to protect the wilderness area.
Four years later, the Opal Creek Act required privately owned lands, except for Jawbone Flats, to be returned to public ownership. The area was divided into the 20,827-acre Opal Creek Wilderness, 13,538-acre Opal Creek Scenic Recreation Area, and a 3,066-acre Wild and Scenic River designation for Elkhorn Creek. The federal government protects the area, which draws about 20,000 visitors annually.
“I have hiked Opal Creek from Opal Lake to where it empties into the Little North Fork,” says Mike Bauer, an avid runner and hiker from Stayton. “It is a beautiful hike through a pristine forest with lots of waterfalls.
When Keizer resident Janet Avery hiked into the area with her husband, John, she was dazzled by the “huge tall trees, centuries old, cool, shady with wisps of mist hanging in the tops.”
“The first place we saw was an old mine,” Avery says. “Wooden doors hung from hinges rusted with time, revealing a dark musty interior. Machinery still lay partially buried in the undergrowth.”
Avery found Jawbone Flats fascinating, she says.
“A wonderful old general store surrounded by sunflowers stood in the dusty clearing, and although it was closed that day, I could still imagine the interesting and one-of-a-kind treasures sitting on the shelves along with cans of food,” she says. “Wooden shelters and cabins surrounded the store. What a perfect place to come and learn about the history of this area.”
Opal Creek, she adds, felt like a place out of time, “remote, untouched, peaceful and tranquil.”
“On that day, no one else was around,” Avery says. “We sat and watched the water tumble into the pool, listened to the sounds of the birds and the breeze in the trees, sun on our faces. Suddenly, a beautiful blue butterfly landed on my hand and opened its wings. That was the perfect expression to me of Opal Creek, a place where there are no boundaries, a place of perfect peace and harmony for all who take the time to enter its timeless beauty.”
Jodi Kerr, a former Salem resident who now lives in Gilchrist, called Opal Creek, and especially Jawbone Flats, “an escape from the ordinary. Its dense old-growth forest and mysterious ambiance makes for a fun hike, a trek for the imagination.”
Because Opal Creek is off the grid, Haber says visitors are forced to unplug and relax during their time there.
“For people who are still shy of retirement, a private cabin might be just the thing,” she says. “Guests with disabilities should look into staying in cabins 4 or 5, which are the largest and most comfortable cabins and are equipped with ramps up to the front door and safety bars in the downstairs bathrooms.”
Day visitors who have trouble walking may be able to hitch a ride to Jawbone Flats via one of the shuttles that ferry guests and luggage twice a day.
“However, guests should keep in mind that we are sometimes carrying bags and food for upwards of 60 people, and there isn’t always room for a passenger,” Haber says.
Once groups have reached Jawbone Flats, activities include both indoor and outdoor settings, but nothing more strenuous than the initial three-mile walk to the historic mining town, she says.
“Folks who are really interested in continuing their education in a hands-on way should look at our workshop programming,” Haber says. “All of the workshops begin with an interpretive hike into Jawbone Flats, so the pace is slower than average and certainly appropriate for folks who want to take their time walking in.”
For those who want to get even more involved, volunteer weekends are held in April and November to help maintain Jawbone Flats.
“While not strenuous, these are certainly among the more active weekends up there, so people should be prepared to do some manual labor,” Haber says.
Maintaining the area is vital for the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center to meet its goal of “promoting conservation through educational experiences in wilderness.”
“We all have a duty to protect our wild places, which will continually come under threat as our need for more resources grow,” says Katie Ryan, executive director, who has been at Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center since 2005. “Opal Creek serves as such an incredible back drop for the inspiring science education programs we conduct. The work we do at Opal Creek distills down to a very simple point: we provide the opportunity to develop and grow a deeper relationship with wilderness.”
For more information, visit. opalcreek.org.