Opal Creek is one of Oregon's most recently protected national treasures. After decades of controversy regarding the logging and mining possibilities of the area, local and national efforts to defend Opal Creek led to the successful passage of legislation led by Mark Hatfield in 1996.
Now, the Opal Creek Wilderness is approximately 20,000 acres within the Willamette National Forest. Located just one hour east of Salem and bordering the Bull of the Woods Wilderness and Mount Hood National Forest to the north, the Opal Creek Wilderness offers visitors easy opportunities for hiking, backpacking, camping and swimming. The old-growth forest of Doug fir, western red cedar, and western hemlock is among the most remarkable in the state. There are some trees that are close to 1000 years old!
With virgin old-growth comes healthy water, and the crystal clear waters of Battle Axe Creek and Opal Creek are another key draw to the area. These creeks contain dozens of waterfalls and swimming holes, some more accessible and popular than others. The Three Pools Day Use Area, for instance, bustles with activity on hot summer days, while a hike to Henline Falls would likely be more mellow and include both a waterfall and interesting artifacts from decades of mining endeavors. If hiking is a priority, you have 36 miles of hiking trails to choose from. In particular, the Opal Creek Trail highlights several falls and swimming holes along the creek.
Unfortunately, the Opal Creek Wilderness has limited overnight camping options. Shady Cove Campground only provides 12 sites that are all managed on a first-come, first-served basis, and there are roughly 14 walk-in campsites along Cedar creek and NF-2207 just beyond Shady Cove. You will also find numerous campsites accessible by four-wheel drive that are just downstream of Three Pools, but they are very popular and difficult to claim.
Finally, if you are interested in learning more about the area or becoming involved in its preservation, consider getting in touch with the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center. The Center maintains and stewards Jawbone Flats, a rejuvenated historic mining town in the heart of the ancient forest watershed of the Opal Creek Wilderness and Scenic Recreation Area.
Note: Significant crowding, vandalism, and disruptive behavior have resulted in several new regulations. The implementation of these regulations follows an extensive public comment period. Effective May 26, 2017: