Opal Creek Wilderness is around 90 minutes’ drive east of Oregon’s state capital, Salem. It stretches nearly 21,000 acres (8,500 hectares), and neighbors other parks and wild spaces, creating a huge area of protected woodland. There are 50 waterfalls and five lakes, plus the largest uncut forest watershed in the state. This is one of the last remaining low-elevation old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest, and many trees are centuries old. Species here include Douglas fir, Pacific silver fir and western hemlock, as well as maple, alder and vine maple.
These great swathes of greenery remain relatively untouched. The area was mined in the 20th century, with lead, nickel, zinc, copper and silver extracted, but large-scale operations never took place. The logging industry repeatedly attempted to harvest trees, going as far as to lay out boundary markers for operations in the 1980s, but local campaigners and environmental groups resisted the calls and Opal Creek was protected as a Wilderness in 1996 – leaving its trees, trails and cascades open for visitors who want a taste of the great American outdoors.
The forest is accessed via Highway 22 and is within a couple of hours drive of Salem and Portland. There’s a designated parking area, which you’ll need a pass for. From here, you’ll be hiking along an old road for a little over two miles. The Oval Loop Trail route runs over a bridge above Gold Creek (with great views down the 60-foot (18-meter) drop) and passes cliffs, lovely forest groves and rusting mining machinery before reaching Slide Falls.
The falls are a popular spot and can get busy on summer weekends. The slide runs for 20ft (6m), winding its way around a couple of graceful curves before dipping into the plunge pool. It’s gentle enough for older kids to shoot down as well as adults. The water, fed by the Sampian River, is wonderfully clear, and if you come on a sunny day, the tall firs stand out against the bright blue sky and it feels a truly beautiful place.
You might be happy spending hours dipping in and out of the pools here, but there’s more to see. A mile further on is Jawbone Flats, a historic mining village that still has a few residents. Most buildings are empty, ageing and deeply atmospheric. Events and courses, which focus on general backcountry skills and the Opal Creek ecosystem, are run by the forest center, and there’s a shop in summer and cabins to rent.
The old mines themselves aren’t accessible, but trails connect swimming holes, cascades, canyons, creeks, backcountry campsites, waterfalls and clearings. Some routes are rough – come prepared for a proper hike – but there are enough trails that it’s easy to build your own itinerary, at a length that suits you. Some of the trees here are 1,000 years old, and they stand like grand sentinels in the forest, while gaps in the foliage offer views of the great green wilderness around.