Once upon a time, Oregon had a booming mining industry. In learning about Oregon’s history, you read about towns and settlements that were once bustling centers of activity, that no longer exist. Usually when you visit these old mining towns, you are treated to an odd collection of scrap metal and collapsed buildings. Rare gems like Bohemia Saddle offer only a slight glimpse of the daily life of the people who lived in these rugged mountains. I frequently set off to explore any old mining town, as soon as I find out about them. Something about these ‘ghost towns’ appeals to my inner geek. But, like most things in life, my greatest discovery was accidental.
One of my ‘hobbies’ is waterfall hunting. I spend a lot of time looking online for waterfalls in particular areas, so I can see several in one day. While I don’t consider myself a hiker, I find myself walking a dozen miles in an afternoon just to see a new waterfall. This is what I had in mind when I set out to explore the Opal Creek Wilderness. The Opal Creek Wilderness lies east of Salem, at the base of the Cascade Mountain Range. As one drives along Highway 22, a legion of signs for recreational areas, campgrounds, and lakes dot the roadsides. Even once you leave the highway and drive up towards Opal Creek, more signs for recreational areas, camping, and new exciting roads dominate the roadside. On this day, I had set out to find Opal Pool and Opal Falls. The pictures I had seen were stunning, instantly making me want to make the 2-1/2 hour drive.
Finding my way to the trailhead was easy enough, as signs are clearly visible and Google Maps has this route down. Most of the road was paved, with the gravel sections being nicely graded and somewhat maintained. HOWEVER, I must warn everyone: the last several miles of road…Afghanistan has better roads…this is the mother-lode of potholes…drive slow and be gentle to your vehicle. Conveniently, the road ends at the trailhead. There is a vaulted toilet and an informational kiosk. A wilderness pass or a $5.00 fee are required for trail use. In researching about how to get to the waterfall, I kept reading how I could choose to pass by a place called Jawbone Flats. I had heard the name before, but nothing stood out about it. Since I am not a fan of walking back on a path I had just travelled, I chose to hike a path that would take me in a loop, passing through Jawbone Flats on my way in.
The trail to Jawbone Flats isn’t so much a trail, as it is a closed-off road. The map at the trailhead shows a 3-mile hike lies ahead. The road is level and makes hiking easy. You are treated to the forest on your left and glimpses of the Little North Santiam River on the right. This section of the forest has old growth Douglas Firs, Maple trees, and an abundance of moss. After the first mile, the left side of the trail graduates into a rocky walled cliff face. The changing scenery keeps the hike from getting boring. Soon, you are walking over the ‘half bridges:’ three sections of road widened by wood planks. It is after the half bridges where you start to discover Oregon’s forgotten past.
After crossing over the three half bridges, you will come across an old mine shaft. The entrance has a lumber beam structure and allows you to walk into it a few feet. The mine is barricaded, making exploration impossible, but a flashlight will give explorers an idea of the creepy and cramped quarters in which miners endured. After this point, if you pay attention, you will start to find mines, evidence of collapsed mines, and pieces of old machinery. After 1-1/2 miles you come across the first treasure: an old boiler, complete with a masonry foundation. Exploring the immediate area, one can find mine cart tracks, parts of mine carts and engines, and various parts to the steam boiler. Random parts and pieces of forged iron are strewn about the area, encouraging hikers to slow down and explore the rubble. This has been one of my more fascinating finds. Your next landmark will be the ruins of the Merten Mill, a collapsed wooden building.
Following the many trails from the mill to the creek (the sound of the waterfall will draw you in), you will find Sawmill Falls. The jagged rocks, back-dropped by towering firs, only seem to magnify the pristine beauty of the Little North Santiam River, the river that the many creeks feed into. Because the trail hugs a valley wall and you are surrounded by massive old growth trees, the open view at the waterfall is much welcomed. After 2 miles, you will come to an intersection with a footbridge crossing the river. A sign informs you this is the Kopetski Trail. This is a forest hiking trail that leads directly to Opal Falls. I chose Kopetski as my return route, so I continued down the road to Jawbone Flats. The last mile is the least exciting, due to the lack of industrial debris, but the river offers pleasant distractions.
As you near Jawbone Flats, you are greeted by an old rusty mining cart, resting under a sign that welcomes you to the Opal Creek Preserve, Ancient Forest Scientific and Educational Facility. It is then that the forest opens up and you see the living remains of Jawbone Flats. Your first glimpse of the town is a variety of simple cabins, lining both sides of the road. Informational literature and signage informs you that Jawbone Flats is a privately owned 1930’s mining town. Today, the town is used as a classroom, a living museum, and tourist lodging. What is meant by a ‘living’ museum, or ‘living remains,’ are the buildings on site are restored or rebuilt using original materials from the ruins of Jawbone Flats. Old photographs were used as a reference. The effect is convincing, as seeing the small town nestled between two mountains gives one the impression of going back in time. Unlike other kinds of museums, all the buildings are in use; none are standing as a stage prop. Today it operates totally off-grid and experiments with new techniques that attempt to overcome the challenges of living off-grid. Some of the cabins are rentals for the general public, while others are the residences of the full-time staff.
The river cuts through the middle of town, so Battle Axe Bridge spans the chasm. The small waterfall and the vertical rock walls are certainly mesmerizing. The other side of the bridge contains more buildings, dorms, and The Pelton Shed: Jawbone Flats’ main generator of electricity. The Pelton Shed is an educational piece of history, as it shows how old ways of using the river to generate power are still effective today. The rusted hulks of old vehicles can be seen when one takes the trail to Opal Pool and Opal Falls. The Battle Axe trail, at the end of town, will take a different route to Opal Pool, meeting up with the Kopetski trail. Another boiler can be found not far down that trail.
Since I was waterfall hunting, I was headed to Opal Falls, a 1/4 mile away. Opal Pool is the pool of water right after the waterfall. The color of the water, with the surrounding landscape make this spot popular with photographers. The chute between the falls and the pool offers one a show of how powerful water can be, due to the wide creek being narrowed by the chute. A good sized boulder wedged between the chute walls is testament to that power. The Kopetski trail parallels the road to Jawbone Flats, just on the other side of the river. Unlike the road to Jawbone Flats, the Kopetski Trail is narrow and has varied terrain. This trail will expose hikers to the rugged beauty of the mountains. The brigde that connects back to the road is a welcome sight, and lets you know you are only 2 miles away from your vehicle.
Having twice been to Jawbone Flats, I’ve come to discover a lot of what the town has to offer and the secrets waiting to be discovered in the mountains. I’ve also learned of some classes that I would be interested in taking. (The class about fungus identification sounds amazing!) It is a place that requires many visits to fully experience, but is worth the effort. Jawbone Flats is truly of one the most unique places I’ve visited and, suprisingly, not as well-known as it should be. I will always celebrate my decision to satisfy my curiosity about the dot on the map that said Jawbone Flats.
To learn more, visit www.opalcreek.org