Opal Creek is one of the classic kayaking runs in the Oregon. In the early season, it is not uncommon to see several other groups at the put-in. The run features numerous Class III and Class IV rapids in an unspoiled canyon with crystal clear water that runs through a protected wilderness area. Historically this river was known for small mining operations, and you can see relics of that history at the put-in. Today the river is protected as the Opal Creek Wilderness and Scenic Recreation Area.
Boaters normally refer to this upper reach of the Little North Fork Santiam as Opal Creek: While the run is referred to as Opal Creek, the standard run from the mine put-in down to Three Pools, is actually on the upper Little North Santiam River. Boaters rarely venture into Upper Opal, or “Opal Proper,” which is above this stretch.
Upper Opal shares almost the same flow range, has some high quality drops, is of similar character, and feels a bit more committing than the classic section. It should be noted that there is one must-run rapid, and although it is a very manageable to run, it is tricky to scout; run right all the way through this one. Near the end is a small but tricky rapid that is commonly portaged, and it can sneak up on paddlers. Fortunately the lead-in can be recognized by a rockslide along the right bank and road abutments visible high up on the same side. The upper run adds about 2.5 miles to the hike in, but if you are looking for more adventure, it is worth the investment.
The put-in for either the Upper Opal or Classic Opal runs involves driving a mildly maintained gravel forest road then hiking in from the parking lot via a dirt road. This hike is a half mile for Classic Opal or 3 miles for the Upper Opal section. The hike is required because the road is gated off to Jawbone Flats, an abandoned mining town and headquarters of the Friends of Opal Creek conservation group (which is the put-in for the Upper stretch). It should be noted that you must take a side trail down from the dirt road to reach the put-in. This can be easily missed, but essentially it is the first doubletrack trail to the right soon after crossing Gold Creek, the first bridge on the dirt road. If this is your first time to Opal Creek, make sure to check out the old mine that marks the put-in.
The first in a series of read-and-run rapids you will reach is a ledge with a boof along the right wall. A short stretch of calm floating is below here before things really kick off. A Class III lead-in ends in two short ledges: The first is boofed on the far left side of the right channel, the second off an obvious knuckle in the left side of the right channel. At lower flows there is a sliding ledge that can be run on the right. The stream continues along below here with a series of pool-drop Class III to Class IV rapids. In the middle of all this is a beautiful ledge following a calm pool that is commonly run left of center. Keep your nose up as you pass through a significant hydraulic. At high flows an easier boof opens up on the right.
After this ledge, more enjoyable read-and-run rapids exist before reaching Big Ugly. The standard line is to catch an eddy on the right and follow the tongue toward the slot against the left wall. The line varies with flow, so take a moment to scout if you are uncertain. There is an easy portage on the right for those not feeling up to it.
The next sizeable rapid is Big Fluffy, a 15-foot waterfall with a tricky lead-in. The difficulty of the drop varies with flow as the lead-in becomes pushier and the hole gets proportionately more sticky as levels rise above 1,000 cfs. At high flows, this rapid reaches Class V in difficulty. Scout, set safety, and portage on the right when the walls rise up and the river drops away through some large boulders about a half mile below Big Ugly. If you are portaging, there is a shelf next to the falls for seal launching (it is helpful to have someone hold boats for those not confident in their seal launching ability). Be sure to aim for the center of the river and don’t slide off next to the wall where it is shallow.
It is work taking a break to enjoy the gorge below Big Fluffy. It features vertical cliff walls and crystal clear water with springs coming in from the right side of the canyon wall. After the canyon things ease off to fun Class III boulder rapids, but be on the look out for a rapid with a deceptive sieve at the confluence with Stack Creek. This is not visible if you are not looking for it, and it is marked by some large boulders that have created wood obstructions in the past. Be sure to tread carefully here and finish this Class III rapid far left. More fun read-and-run water sits about a half mile below a bridge next to Cedar Creek, and there is an innocuous rapid with a pile of nasty boulders in the center. Boof hard right or left away from this pile.
After a short stretch of yet more splashy read-and-run rapids you will reach Thor's Playroom, the grand finale for this stretch. The entrance of the playroom offers the option of four lines, each having their own character. "Door number two" is the most commonly run line: it is a narrow alleyway that pushes you through a double ledge. The holes are not too sticky, but they can flip a boater who is not on guard. The current then turns around a sharp left corner and over a small slide. The trickiest part of this Class IV series is the next drop, which is a steep ramp with offset holes and eddy lines. Catch an eddy on the right above the final horizon line. The exit drop from the playroom is a steep slide that falls off a ledge on the left, and it goes through a dynamic hydraulic on the right. The easiest and most commonly run line is to follow the tongue to the left and boof off the ledge at the bottom. A more exciting option is to follow the tongue right and aim for the seam at the bottom. This route tends to dish out some wild rides and stern squirts. There is a large pool at the bottom of the drop, making it a safe place to end the trip and maybe choose the more exciting line.
The pool also marks the take-out for the standard run. The take-out is just a quick walk up some stairs to the parking lot. From this point there is also the option to continue downstream through Opal Gorge, a more difficult and committing section of the creek.
Note that obstructions created by downed trees and branches change each year, so be sure to scout thoroughly in the early season. Also, there are some gauge irregularities to consider regarding this run. Little North Santiam @ Mehama gauge is far downstream of the run. While it is a useful gauge, there have recently been discrepancies between the gauge readings and the actual flow. For example, it was recently reading 680 cfs and dropping in the morning (the low water cut off is generally considered to be 700 cfs). That same day, however, the flows were at a medium level, one generally associated with 900-1,000 cfs on the gauge. The Elkhorn LNF Gauge Facebook page is frequently updated with flow information for the time being.
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: