The aptly-named Elk Lake Creek drains Elk Lake at the southern border of the rugged and wild Bull of the Woods Wilderness. The creek runs east/northeast and is joined by several other creeks as it divides steep and forested mountains. Eventually this creek feeds the Collawash River, which feeds the Clackamas River. This remote trailhead accesses Elk Lake Creek at its end, the confluence with the Collawash. This route serves as an excellent introduction and access point to many other trails of this wilderness area. The clarity and vibrancy of the waters here are almost unreal. The highlight of this trail, Emerald Pool, is where Elk Lake Creek slows and fills a deep canyon. The massive Douglas firs that surround the pool enforces the dreamlike state you may feel here. Be prepared to be immersed in water, at least somewhat, as there are no footbridges over the seven creek crossings on this trail.
After taking a short walk through the second-growth forest, the trail opens up to reveal scorched forest, leftovers from the Mother Lode Wildfire of 2011. This burned area allows views of the upcoming canyon and surrounding forested slopes. The underbrush has been replaced by tall wildflowers in the right season. Views of the Elk Lake Creek, far below to the south (hiker's left), are frequent. Be sure to spot the beautiful unnamed waterfall at approximately a half-mile into your hike. The trail then meanders in and out of a couple of gullies, requiring mild stream crossings (depending on the season), followed by a plunge into thick, old-growth forest of large, round Douglas firs. After 1.5 miles you'll notice a couple of ideal looking creek side campsites, if that suits your efforts for the day.
Continue on, crossing Knob Rock Creek and Welcome Creek in quick succession. Note the beautiful unnamed, multi-tiered waterfall just above the Welcome Creek crossing with a nearby campsite. Immediately following these crossings you'll come to the first of two crossings through Elk Lake Creek. The depth of the cold, clear water can be deceptively difficult to determine and will vary significantly depending on the season.
Now trudge through moss-covered forest on the south bank of the creek at the base of a northerly slope. But don't plan to be dry for long because Emerald Pool is the next stop. The trail opens up on a cliff top overlooking this deep abyss. Perfectly named, the green waters of Elk Lake Creek slow enough to allow clear views to the bottom far below the surface, and the saturation of the color just seems to intensify. A steep access trail allows hikers to intimately experience this awesome place, which is comparable to Opal Pool. The creek bed levels out on rocky platforms alongside the pool allowing the intrepid hikers an easy plunge into the frigid water. You may find it surprising that Opal Pool lies a mere 8 miles west as the crow flies from here.
From here it's another short walk to the second crossing through Elk Lake Creek. If you're up for visiting another scenic swimming hole, wade upstream approximately 150 yards to a series of small cascades paralleled by a rocky bar. Otherwise, continue on, now back on the northwest bank of Elk Lake Creek. The trail again meanders in and out of burnt and lush forests, shortly diverted over a recent landslide causing a bit of exposure on somewhat unstable terrain. The trail then levels out as the forest underbrush begins to clear somewhat just before reaching the confluence and final creek crossing of Battle Creek and Elk Lake Creek. After this crossing you'll arrive in a major trail junction area where a stone shelter once stood, complete with several well-developed backcountry campsites and the end of this section of trail.
Adventurers may choose to complete this as a long day-hike, but neglecting to stop and enjoy Emerald Pool would be a shame. Others may find this campground at the end of the trail an ideal base camp to explore several other trails that can be accessed from here. Whatever your intent, be sure to be kind to the forest. Adhere to the Leave No Trace principles and advisories, such as burn bans, that are in place to protect our wild places. And this, most assuredly, remains a wild place of the great Pacific Northwest.