Central Oregon Wilderness Offers Ancient Forests and Mountain Views

A dream drive through an under-the-radar Oregon wonderland, from lowland forest to Mount Jefferson
Take time to fully appreciate the splendor of Silver Falls State Park

This article appears in print in the October 2019 issue, as part of the Fall Road Trips cover story. Click here to subscribe.

Long ago, I was a cub reporter at a TV station in Oregon when war broke out in the woods. The battles in the early 1990s were over something one side called “trees” and the other side called “timber,” and the epicenter of the action was the largest area west of Oregon’s Cascade Crest, which still had trees that existed when Christopher Columbus set sail and could be sawed into board feet. Look at an Oregon map east of Salem and you’ll see a piece of lowland national forest land without logging roads. That tells you who won.

We are headed on a meandering road trip to stupendous but lesser-known Oregon treasures. These are the secret magic forests of Oregon’s old families, stretching from waterfalls near Salem to the high-country slopes of Mount Jefferson. Start the adventure in Woodburn, where you can shake off that boring I-5 slog with fresh fish tacos on house-made tortillas at Luis’s Taqueria. From there, take Oregon Route 214 to Silver Falls State Park.

In any other part of the world, these 9,057 acres would be a national park, if only because of the otherworldly sight of lots of waterfalls rushing over basalt cliffs. More reasons to go: The logging scars that prevented national park status in 1926 have healed, and there are pockets of ancient forest and handsome Civilian Conservation Corps–constructed (CCC) log buildings. On the Trail of Ten Falls, hike past—or even under—shimmering 100-foot-tall waterfalls. While those who live nearby enjoy this park as a day trip, travelers from farther afield shouldn’t miss an overnight stay at Silver Falls Lodge and Conference Center.

Activities at Silver Falls Lodge include horseback riding, before retiring for the night in one of these rustic cabins. Photo by Holland Studios & Erica Ann Photography

We like the Middle-earth enclave of older shingled huts, dwarfed by gnarled Douglas firs, in the Upper Smith Creek section of cabins. There are fancier cabins as well, located nearby on Lower Smith Creek in a big grassy meadow; they include ping pong tables, cornhole and a good dining hall in the vicinity. At the South Falls Day-use Area, don’t miss the short film on the history of the park, which stars the photographer who saved this paradise and the kook/daredevil who marketed it by plummeting 177 feet over South Falls in a torpedo-shaped boat. Spoiler alert: He broke a lot of bones, but ended up alive and smiling in the hospital. 

There’s also plenty of dramatic history at the next destination on our road trip, which is Opal Creek. To get started on today’s adventure, backtrack west out of Silver Falls State Park, then south to find Oregon Route 22 east. It takes about an hour and a half to drive the 48 miles to get to the trailhead for Opal Creek via North Fork Road. Time the drive so you can break for a healthy lunch at the delightful Trexler Farm, off Route 22. When you park at the Opal Creek trailhead, be sure to display your Northwest Forest Pass or buy a permit from the self-service pay station at the trailhead.

Silver Falls Lodge offers horseback riding through the state park. 

Opal Creek is the place where a roadblock was put up against the National Forest Service’s wholesale clear-cutting business. In the 1980s and ’90s, protests over the proposed logging of this 20,000-acre forest helped pave the way for the Northwest Forest Plan. As the sun spills through primeval rain forest, hike an easy 3-plus miles to Jawbone Flats, your home in the woods. The Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center has comfortable cabins in an atmospheric old gold-mining village. There’s made-from-scratch vegetarian food in the lodge for overnight guests. The next day, you could take a class, spend all day counting colors in the iridescent waters of Opal Pool, or count lichen or spotted owls. “We have obscene diversity here,” says program director Megan Selvig.

You will be tempted to linger at Opal Creek, and it’s worth staying at least two nights. Then, the high country awaits. It’s only 68 miles from the Opal Creek trailhead to Olallie Lake, but you are climbing to the Cascade Crest at 5,000 feet, and the last 4 miles on gravel Forest Service Road 4220 are slow going as you dodge crater-size potholes. Give yourself about three hours. You’ll know it’s worth every bumpy minute when you see the Brigadoon-like vision of a rustic resort and a separate Forest Service cabin on a dreamy lake.

Dip into Breitenbush Hot Springs. Image credit: Breitenbush Hot Springs

“Let’s close these so the Pacific Crest Trail people won’t feel jealous,” my partner, Kevin, says, drawing the curtains on the multipaned windows of that cabin, the Olallie Lake Guard Station. Don’t worry, you don’t have to guard anything. The cabin is part of the Forest Service’s rental program. What weary hikers could glimpse as they pitch tents nearby is the sight of a cabin built in the 1930s by the CCC: varnished log walls, an adorable white kitchen with gingham curtains—and running water!—all aglow in the light of the blazing stone fireplace.

As an alternative to the Forest Service cabin, you could stay next door at Olallie Lake Resort. With 10 cabins and a general store, it’s impossibly charming though not at all luxurious. (Electricity, running water, private bathrooms? Nope. Don’t be a baby.) Unlike the lush forests we’ve been exploring, the Olallie scenic area is high up and wide open. Wherever you go around in this area, there’s Mount Jefferson—swoop-sided with horns and glaciers—reflected in this basin’s 200 lakes. It’s the kind of place where you hear those long-settled Oregon families on the porch in the evening as they plan the next day’s fishing/hiking/boating and making reservations for 2020. And you, too, will be plotting your return to this under-the-radar corner of Oregon. 

End your trip at Olallie Lake Resort overlooking Mount Jefferson. Photo courtesy of Olallie Lake Resort

This central Oregon region of the Cascade Mountains is about 225 miles south of Seattle. Travel about 200 miles on Interstate 5 and then east and south on Oregon Route 214 to Silver Falls State Park.
Why we like it: It has ancient forests, history, cool pools and hot springs—without a crush of tourists.
Main attraction: It’s a trip back in time, before Portland was hip, before “forest bathing” was a thing and even before logging. Plus, you get to sleep in cute cabins every night.
Don’t miss: A relaxing dip in the hot springs (or a massage) at Breitenbush Hot Springs.

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