On a blistering summer day, all it takes is a simple leap of faith to find a cool moment in the gorgeous and refreshing pools of Opal Creek.
The thirty foot drop from the high rocky bluff into chilly Opal Creek is a draw for thrill seekers to be sure, but it’s also a fine place that is shrouded and shaded by towering, ancient Doug fir trees.
When you walk among the giant trees you’d swear someone left a freezer door open – it’s that cool - for the visitors who journey the less traveled trails into Oregon’s Opal Creek Wilderness.
Refreshing and delightful – even bone chilling at a reliable 42 degrees - but the creek is one of many small treasures you’ll discover across the huge 35,000 acre Opal Creek Wilderness and National Scenic Recreation Area.
Opal Creek, in the Willamette National Forest, is more than 100 miles from Portland. It is a watershed that was once center stage for one of our country’s most publicized old growth timber battles of the past century.
Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield capped his career by getting Congress to protect Opal Creek as a scenic recreation area and wilderness in 1996.That action ended the debate over the watershed’s ancient trees that date to the middle ages.
“Everywhere you look you have 450 year old trees, but many are a thousand years old, plus the many pristine streams,” noted George Atiyeh, a longtime forest activist.
Back in the 1970’s and 80‘s, Atiyeh was a miner who worked a decades-old mining claim “not for gold, but lead, zinc and copper.”
He grew up near Opal Creek so the watershed was like his backyard and he grew to love and admire the place. Atiyeh became a supporter and central figure in promoting and publicizing the features and benefits of protecting and preserving Oregon’s fast-disappearing ancient trees.
So, it is no surprise that today he works with the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center at a small wooden village called “Jawbone Flats” in the Opal Creek Scenic Recreation Area.
The collection of cabins and classrooms is where education and tourism collaborate in a unique partnership that draw the curious and the dedicated alike who wish to learn more about the values of an ancient forest setting.
“This forest was what the whole west side of Oregon looked like all the way down to California,” noted Katie Ryan, the Center’s Executive Director. “There’s very little of it left but here you get a chance to immerse yourself in it.”
Oh – and in case you’re wondering – Atiyeh added, the name “Opal” was not out of special recognition for the creek’s color, but rather a woman’s beauty:
“An early US Forest Service Ranger (Elliot) saw Opal Creek and said it was almost as beautiful as his wife. So, he named it Opal Creek (it had been called “Boulder Creek”) for his wife.”
Today, the popular trail requires a three mile hike to reach “Jawbone Flats.” You may also choose to link with many other trails that reach across Opal Creek Wilderness or the adjoining Bull of the Woods Wilderness.
The hike into Jawbone is “fairly mellow with only 200 feet of elevation gain in that whole distance” added Ryan.
When you arrive, you will discover rustic rental cabins that are available for an overnight stay (reservation only,) an education center, a general store and even a restaurant.
“It’s a great place for families to bring little kids because we have all the amenities of home but you feel you’re in wilderness, said Ryan. “Many people stay here for a night, go out on a backpack trip and come back and stay for another night.”
The Opal Creek Ancient Forest Education Center offers a varied curriculum suitable for adults and children about the values and the science of the land and water found in an old growth forest.
Visitor Zoe Edelen Hare has returned each summer ever since she was a college student in the early 90’s. She said the hands on learning experiences bring the kid out in everyone:
“It’s serene and quiet – and completely off the grid so no one is looking at their cell phones, looking for text messages. It’s nice to slow down, plus our children know that we’re focused with them and not trying to do our own work. There’s something about this place – it’s magical and we like to come back here.”
Katie Ryan agreed about the magic of the moments at Opal Creek. While it may take a bit more effort to reach, it is worth each step of the journey.
“The reason our water is so clear is because the trees are still on the banks holding the landscape in place and all of this functions the way a forest is supposed to; it’s not managed and that’s becoming harder and harder to find.”