North Santiam River Country overflows with outdoor adventure
Oregon’s North Santiam River Country, located an hour east of Salem, abounds with recreational opportunities. Situated in the foothills of the Cascade mountains, the area offers endless opportunities for hiking, biking, camping, fishing, nature viewing and boating.
1. Opal Creek Scenic Recreation Area
Take a trip through history on a hike to Jawbone Flats. First inhabited by Native Americans, Jawbone Flats is believed to have been a summer camp for the Santiam Molalla Indians. In 1930, the town was transformed into a mining camp, where they processed lead, zinc, copper and silver.
Today, visitors can trek 6.25 miles on a round-trip adventure to Jawbone Flats and Opal Pool. With wide trails and little elevation gain, this is a great day-hike for families.
Starting at the gate to Jawbone Flats, you’ll pass some of the oldest tress in the Opal Creek Wilderness. Before reaching the town, remnants of the historic Merten Mill, including a steam engine repurposed from the U.S.S. Battleship Oregon, can be spotted. Behind the mill, hikers can take a short trail to the gorgeous Cascada de los Niños. Also known as Sawmill Falls, the 30-foot waterfall is a must-see.
Travelers will then enter the town of Jawbone Flats, where many of the original buildings from the 1930s still stand. Continue through the town and cross Battle Ax Bridge to reach Opal Pool. The scenic gorge provides beautiful views of emerald pools and is popular among swimmers in the summer.
2. Elkhorn Valley Area
Located just outside of the Opal Creek Scenic Recreation Area is Salmon Falls Park, where the Little North Fork of the Santiam River drops nearly 30 feet to a pool below. The scenic area is forested and is ideal for summer picnicking, fishing and water activities.
Just a five-minute drive from the park is the trailhead to Henline Falls. The less than two-mile trail takes hikers to the gorgeous 125-foot waterfall and a crystal-clear plunge pool. To the right of the falls is the old Silver King Mine, which is now covered by a bat gate.
3. Mt. Jefferson Wilderness
Mt. Jefferson Wilderness covers more than 100,000 acres of the Cascades and more than 163 miles of trail. From day hikes to backpacking trips, there are miles of wilderness to explore.
The Whitewater Trailhead, which is suitable for horseback riding, provides access to six trails, including the Pacific Crest Trail. The 11-mile round-trip trail (#3429) leads hikers into the Jefferson Park Area, which is filled with alpine lakes, wildflowers and hiking trails. The trail also provides dramatic views of Mt. Jefferson. (Note: The Whitewater Trailhead is temporarily closed due to impacts from a wildfire)
Branch off the Whitewater Trail onto Triangulation Trail (#3373). The trail winds through Douglas fir and western hemlock before intersecting with the Triangulation Peak Trail (#3374) near the edge of Mt. Jefferson Wilderness. Follow this trail up to the summit for panoramic views of Mt. Jefferson and the Cascades. This hike can also be started at the Triangulation Trailhead.
On your way back down, experienced hikers may choose to take the trail to Boca Cave. This steep and unmaintained trail will take you into the mouth of the cave, which offers breathtaking views of Mt. Jefferson.
4. Detroit Lake
Known as the “most visited lake in Oregon,” Detroit Lake is a popular location for boating, fishing, biking, swimming and camping.
The nine-mile lake is stocked annually with 125,000 rainbow trout. Fishermen can also find kokanee, Chinook salmon, brown bullhead, largemouth bass and pumpkinseed in the reservoir.
Head to Mongold Day Use area for an afternoon of swimming. The area includes a swimming area, grass beach, boat ramp and several picnic areas. Explore more of the lake on a boat, kayak or paddleboard, which can be rented from local shops.
The Cascading Rivers Scenic Bikeway stretches from Detroit to Estacada, with forests, rivers and campsites along the way. The 70-mile route offers unforgettable views of Mt. Hood, Mt. Jefferson, lakes and rapids. This ride is recommended only for experienced riders looking for a challenge.
With miles of wilderness and recreational opportunities, Detroit Lake is the perfect spot to set up camp. Detroit Lake State Recreation Area houses nearly 300 sites on the shore of the reservoir and offers views of Mt. Jefferson. Other nearby campgrounds include Kane’s Marina RV Park, Piety Island Campground and Cove Creek Campground. If camping isn’t for you, book a stay at The Lodge at Detroit Lake or Rushing River Retreat.
5. Mill City
Located off Highway 22 on your way to Detroit Lake is the small town of Mill City. The town of just under 2,000 people sits on the North Santiam River.
Enjoy a downriver raft or kayak trip out of Mill City with eNRG Kayaking. Founded by extreme kayak champion Sam Drevo, eNRG is one of the top paddling schools in the Northwest. The company offers both scenic floats and more intense whitewater trips.
On your way through the area, make a stop at Giovanni’s Mountain Pizza, Rosie’s Mountain Coffee House or Poppa Al’s Famous Hamburgers – all local favorites.
6. Breitenbush Area
The Breitenbush River is a tributary of the North Santiam River. Along the river’s path, you’ll find ancient forest trails, relaxing hot springs and numerous campgrounds.
Breitenbush Hot Springs Retreat and Conference Center offers an escape from everyday life. Located in a rugged and beautiful mountain setting, Breitenbush is home to several hot springs. The clothing-optional pools are only open to guests of the resort. Day passes are available, but reservations are required.
The resort is also surrounded by miles of ancient forest trails. These trails cross paths with the South Breitenbush Gorge National Recreation Trail (#3366), where the sights and sounds of the river accompany hikers. The trail weaves through Douglas fir, western hemlock, Pacific yew and western red cedar trees before reaching a spectacular gorge.
Nearby, the Breitenbush Campground offers 26 campsites with sweeping views of the river. The campgrounds have easy access to the river, where trout are a common catch.
Know before you go:
- Check the weather and road conditions before you go: Parts of the North Santiam River Country can get snowed in during the winter months. Snow can linger through June in some areas.
- Parking at some of the trailheads can get crowded in the summer months, carpooling is recommended. You may need a U.S. Forest Service parking permit.
- A wilderness self-issue permit is required for some areas of Mt. Jefferson Wilderness. Permits are free and available at all wilderness trailheads.
- Cell phone and internet service is limited in the area.
- Leave No Trace techniques are encouraged in wilderness areas.