- Location: Willamette National Forest
- Start: Opal Creek Trailhead
- Distance: 10.5 miles
- Elevation gain: 1240 feet
- Type: Balloon
- Time: 2 hours 25 minutes (breaks not included)
- References: 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Portland by Paul Gerald; Oregon Hikers
Over the past two years, Mack and I have become pretty ecstatic about trail running. What started out as a way to deviate from our usual street runs slowly turned into a necessary part of our daily lives. Seriously though. Going a few days without hitting the single-track trails of Forest Park for some long, often muddy, miles leaves me feeling empty and lethargic. That constant desire to be out running through the woods has also led us to trail races and, most recently, ultramarathons. After running the 30.2 mile Wildwood Trail on a whim, we’ve become more and more fascinated by the idea of exploring new routes via running rather than hiking. Not only could we fit in more miles in less time, but we’d also be training for any upcoming races! Opal Creek was the first of these exploratory trail running adventures.
We arrived at the trailhead just before 11 am. I’d usually consider this a late start, but we were running instead of hiking. (Sleeping in, another perk of swapping hikes with runs) The drive up on FR 2209 was winding and rough, so we couldn’t wait to get moving. There were only a few other cars there in contrast to the usual congestion, so we could look forward to a relatively peaceful run and Cassie could be off-leash for most of it. The first couple of miles are on a gravel road that runs through the forest along the Little North Santiam River. It’s no soft-surface trail, but it was still pretty easy to run on, especially since the incline was very gradual. Mack was still in recovery mode from his 50k race a couple weeks back, so we kept a pretty leisurely pace. Sawmill Falls was our first scenic reward of the day, and we’d only been running for 20 minutes! The viewpoint is kind of hidden behind the abandoned Merten Mill, about two miles into the route. After taking in our first expansive view of the Little North Santiam, we returned to the road, continued up another quarter mile or so, and crossed the footbridge leading to the Kopetski Trail. Finally some single-track to really sink our feet into!
I wasn’t kidding about the “sink our feet into” aspect. The tread was fantastic for the most part, but some portions were incredibly boggy. We were only on the trail for about a mile and half when we arrived at the highlight of the route: Opal Pool. The water here is some of the most pristine in all of Oregon. During the summer months, it gets ridiculously crowded because it’s a popular swimming hole. We were fortunate enough to have it all to ourselves on this chilly November day. The emerald water had us spellbound for quite some time. Looking south, we could see the footbridge leading to the east bank (where we’d be heading next), as well as Opal Pool Falls cascading down and feeding into the pool. Once we felt like we’d taken in it all in, we scrambled back up to the trail and crossed the bridge, getting one last glimpse of the enchanted pool and the roaring falls.
A short ways up from the bridge, we reached the gravel road again. Turning left here takes you through Jawbone Flats, then back to the parking area. We decided to go right to add in one final destination before heading back. At a curve in the road, there’s a side trail leading up into the forest. This is the new alignment of the Kopetski Trail; the trail used to continue on the west bank but was rerouted onto the east bank after the footbridge further up the creek collapsed. We took this trail up, running for part of it, but also scrambling over rocks, massive tree roots, and deadfall. We also ended up submerging our feet in water while making our way across two small creeks.
After about a mile and a half of all this technical terrain, the trail dropped down into Cedar Flats, aptly named for the handful of towering old growth trees, the oldest ones being 1000 years old! Standing among these giants felt like going back in time. 1000 years old. I could barely wrap my head around the concept. Even now as I write this I keep mouthing that number. Just. Wow. Anyways, it’s possible to cross Beachie Creek at this point and continue another half mile to the Franklin Grove, another collection of ancient cedars. The water was pretty high though, and all of our breaks were starting to add up, so we decided to turn around to make sure we could get back to the car before dark. We made our way back down to the road and headed toward Jawbone Flats.
The road enters an open meadow shortly after you pass the junction leading to Opal Pool. A small picnic shelters welcomes you to Jawbone Flats. Continuing down the road, we passed by rusting cars and machinery, remnants of the old mining town that used to be here. After crossing Battle Axe Creek Bridge, we passed through “downtown” Jawbone Flats, lined with beautiful rustic cabins (that you can rent!) and an information/educational center. All of this is owned and operated by the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center.
We snapped a few photos and continued on down the road another 3 miles or so to the parking area. It had just started to rain in the last half mile, so I’d say we timed our finish pretty well.
Mack and I have only scratched the surface of all this area has to offer, including Whetstone Mountain, Battle Axe Mountain, and, of course, Franklin Grove. We can’t wait to return for another adventure!