hike: Opal Creek to Jawbone Flats
Distance: 7.5 miles
Elevation gain: hiking books say 300 ft. gain, my GPS said 800 ft. gain
I’ve never hiked at Opal Creek at this time of year when the water levels are much lower, and it makes it look quite a bit different.
This is a hike with a lot of Oregon history. The trail begins on a gated gravel road to Jawbone Flats, a former mining town with buildings dating from the late 1920s. The area was originally a summer camp for the native Santiam tribe, where for hundreds of years, they met to trade items from the Pacific Northwest. In the 1850s, gold was discovered, and mining for lead, zinc, copper and silver continued until the 1980s. There was also an operating sawmill, Merten Mill, until the 1940s when it burned down. In the 1980s, there was much controversy over logging the area, and after twenty year legal battle, it was designated as a protected scenic wilderness area. Old mining and sawmill machinery relics and vehicles are scattered throughout the wooded areas alongside the trail and in the tiny town.
The trail traverses the forest next to the Little North Santiam River, with waterfalls and deep pools of emerald green water along stretches of this crystal clear river. The first 2 miles are on the gravel road that residents of Jawbone Flats can drive on, but all hikers park behind the gate at the trailhead. Along this first section of trail, there is an old mining shaft located on the left side of the trail, and several side trails on the right side that lead to viewpoints. About 2 miles in, a side trail leads to an area filled with old mining and sawmill machinery. Look for an old building that is barely still standing, and the trail beside it that goes towards the river. This leads to impressive Sawmill Falls, the end of the line for the winter run of steelhead coming up this river. Back on the trail, in another .2 miles is a bridge going over the river to the Opal Creek trail. Both the road and this loop trail lead to Jawbone Flats, so turning right to cross the bridge is a nice alternative to the road trail. The trail traverses the hillside next to the river, and crosses several smaller tributaries on rustic bridges before reaching Opal Pool, a deep pool of water with high walls of rock surrounding it. Just above the pool, the water chutes through a narrow gorge, and a bridge above that leads back to the road and Jawbone Flats. From here, take the road all the way back to the trailhead.