Bull of the Woods/Opal Creek Hiking Old Cascades Oregon Trip report

Opal Pool – 7/24/19

As luck would have it one of our weeks of vacation coincided with a visit from my brother and his family from Missouri. We offered to take them on a hike and they accepted so we tried to come up with a worthy “Oregon” hike. We decided on the hike to Jawbone Flats and the Opal Pool. We had been to Jawbone Flats three other times, twice on the Whetstone Mountain Loop (post) and in 2012 (prior to starting this blog) using the route we planned on taking this time.

We picked them up at my parents house and headed for the Opal Creek Trailhead. My parents were also going to do at least part of the hike at their own pace so they drove separately.

We hiked the gated road to Jawbone Flats for a little over two miles to the site of the former Merten Mill. Equipment from the 1943 lumber mill can still be seen including the old boiler but the mill itself is now gone. Along the way we passed over Gold Creek at the .4 mile mark, crossed over wooden half-bridges along cliffs, and entered the areas famous Douglas fir forest.
IMG_4192Gold Creek

IMG_4201Fireweed along one of the half-bridges.

20190724_090256Beetle on a half-bridge.

IMG_4209Creek in the forest.

IMG_4211Boiler at the Merten Mill site.

Old building along the trailMerten Mill in 2012

A day-use trail leads down to Sawmill Falls from the old mill site.

Being a weekday and still relatively early (we left at 7am instead of our usual 5am because I’m a nice big brother ;)) there was no one else at the falls. We spent some time watching fish swim in the pools and admiring the clear water of the Little North Santiam River. At one point an ouzel stopped by to take a dip.
IMG_4213Fish in the pool below the falls.

IMG_4215Little North Santiam River

IMG_4220Sawmill Falls


After carefully exploring the rocks around the falls we returned to the trail and continued nearly a quarter mile to a signed fork. Here we turned right on the Opal Creek/Kopetski Trail and crossed the river on a footbridge.



Having left the road we were now on an actual trail which made a series of ups and downs along the hillside. When the trail was close to the river we took the opportunity to visit the water where after a little searching we found a couple of rough skinned newts.


IMG_4240Ridiculously clear water.

IMG_4245Newt floating in a small pool.

IMG_4249Cascade along the river.


When the trail was away from the water there was a lot of berry picking going on. We had managed to find a few ripe thimble and salmon berries along with a variety of huckleberries while hiking the road but it was all huckleberries along the Opal Creek Trail.

IMG_4266Red huckleberries

After 1.3 miles on the Opal Creek Trail we arrived at Opal Pool. There were a few other people here including to our surprise my parents who had apparently passed us at some point while we were down along the river.




IMG_4286Bridge over the river above Opal Pool

IMG_4293Little North Santiam River below Opal Pool

IMG_4297Opal Pool Falls

My parents had missed Sawmill Falls so we let them know where to turn off on their way back. We stayed at the pool for awhile watching some cliff jumpers before crossing the footbridge and heading for Jawbone Flats.
IMG_4302Cliff jumpers sitting down by the pool.

IMG_4305Opal Pool Falls from the bridge.

Approximately a quarter mile from the Opal Pool we arrived at Jawbone Flats, a 1930s mining town that is now a non-profit educational center.





IMG_4323Pelton Shed provides power to Jawbone Flats.

Battle Ax Creek flows through town.


From Jawbone Flats it was a 1.2 mile road walk back to the junction with the Opal Creek/Kopetski Trail and then the 2.1 miles back to the trailhead. Many more berries were consumed along the way. Our niece, Rebekkah, spotted two garter snakes on the hike out.
IMG_4349One of the garter snakes.

IMG_4352A millipede

We were fortunate to have had a lot of trail and river time to ourselves as a steady stream of people were headed in as we exited. My brother said he could see why we go as early as we do.

With the combination of old growth forest, crystal clear water, a couple of waterfalls, and lots of ripe berries it had been a good choice for a hike. Without any wandering around it would be a 7.1 mile hike, but with several explorations along the river my GPS had me at 9.1 miles. Everyone survived though and seemed to have a good time and my parents did make it to Sawmill Falls before heading home themselves. It was a lot of fun to be able share this hike with Jason and his family and we are already preparing for a “next time”. Happy Trails!

Flickr: Opal Creek

Bull of the Woods/Opal Creek Hiking Old Cascades Oregon Trip report

Twin Lakes & Battle Ax Mountain – Bull of the Woods Wilderness

As we transition into Fall our hiking destinations begin to shift away from alpine views and wildflowers in favor of lower elevation viewpoints and lakes. It is a great time for these hikes since the mosquitoes that plague many of the lakes have thinned out and the vine maple and huckleberry leaves have begun to change color. Our most recent hike combined both of these features.

We made our first trip to the Bull of the Woods Wilderness for a 15.4 mile hike visiting Twin Lakes and the summit of Battle Ax Mountain. Before we could set off on the hike though we had to make the drive to Elk Lake which meant enduring five and a half miles of awful gravel roads. We parked at the Elk Lake Campground and once I managed to pry my hands from the steering wheel we made a quick trip down to the lake to have a look.

From the campground we had to walk back up the entrance road .4 miles and then continue another .4 miles on road 4697 to the start of the Bagby Trail #544.

The Bagby Trail wound beneath Battle Ax Mountain passing several ponds and crossing a number of rock fields in the first two miles.
Battle Ax Mountain

At the two mile mark the Battle Ax Mountain Trail joined from the left (our return route). Views of Mt. Jefferson, Three Fingered Jack, and the Three Sisters began to materialize as we continued along the Bagby Trail.

We traveled on a ridge for another 1.5 miles to a junction with the Twin Lakes Trail 573. The Bagby Trail was closed here due to a small fire smoldering in the wilderness between Bagby Hot Springs and this junction. We were headed toward Twin Lakes though so we turned down trail 573 and began the 1.9 mile section to Upper Twin Lake.

The colors and reflections of Upper Twin Lake were impressive.
Upper Twin Lake

We passed around the lake and headed toward the former trail 573A that used to go to Lower Twin Lake. The trail was overrun by the Mother Lode Fire in 2011 and was subsequently left unmaintained by the Forest Service. We located the old trail and began following it the best we could. As we approached the lake the fireweed was profuse and although most of it was finished blooming it still made for an interesting sight.

Although the side of the lake we were on had burned in the fire the far side had been spared.
Lower Twin Lake

We noticed some flagging tape when we were ready to leave and hoped it would lead us to a better path back to trail 573. Instead we found an old toilet.

We then came to a dry creek bed which the map showed leading back to almost the same point we left trail 573 so we decided to try following it back up to the trail.

As we made our way up the creek bed we began to encounter some water and some of the local residents.

The water increased just as the creek was squeezing between two hillsides which forced us to abandon that route and head cross country up the hill on our left. We managed to relocate the abandoned trail and follow it back to 573. We then headed back the way we’d come until we reached the Battle Ax Mountain Trail. At that point we forked up hill to the right and began the fairly steep climb to the former lookout site.

One of the reasons we saved Battle Ax for the return trip was to allow the Sun to move overhead which would hopefully give us better views of the mountains to our east. That plan paid off and as we climbed we added more and more mountains to the view.
Mt. Jefferson:

Mt. Hood behind the lookout tower on Bull of the Woods:

Mt. Rainier behind Silver King Mountain:

Mt. Adams behind Pansy Mountain and South Dicky Peak:

Eventually we had an unobstructed view of Mt. Hood with the Washington Cascades in the background.
Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams and Mt. Rainier from Battle Ax Mountain

To the SE was Mt. Jefferson and Three Fingered Jack.

The ridge began to flatten out as we neared the summit with views all around. From below it hadn’t looked as long and flat on top.

Working our way south along the ridge Elk Lake became visible far below.
View from Battle Ax Mountain

Finally Mt. Washington, Broken Top and the Three Sisters joined Three Fingered Jack in the view to the South.

We could also see smoke from the 36 Pit fire near Estacada, OR but the wind was blowing it to the East and there hadn’t been much of a plume until a little after 1:00 when it suddenly picked up.

Smoke from the 36 Pit fire prior to 1pm:

Plume around 1:30:
Smoke plume from the 36 Pit fire and Mt. Hood

We learned later that the fire had jumped across the South Fork Clackamas River due to the strong winds.

After a nice rest at the old lookout site we began our descent down the South side of the mountain.

The trail switchbacked down through open, rocky terrain, with plenty of views of Mt.Jefferson.
Mt. Jefferson

After a mile and a half descent we arrived at Beachie Saddle.

From the saddle trails lead to Jawbone Flats in the Opal Creek Wilderness, Mt. Beachie and French Creek Ridge in that same wilderness, and back to Elk Lake on an abandoned road which is the path we took.

Back at the campground it was hard to imagine the long summit ridge looking back up at Battle Ax Mountain.

It was a good early start to our Fall hiking season and it put us over 500 miles for the year. Now we just had to make it back out over the horrible gravel roads. Happy Trails!


Bull of the Woods/Opal Creek Hiking Old Cascades Oregon Trip report

Whetstone Mountain

One of the hikes we wanted to do this year was a repeat of a hike we’d done back in 2010 when we were just getting into hiking. The goal of that hike was Whetstone Mountain. When we were done with that hike we had no idea how far we’d gone, we just knew that it kicked our derrieres. We wanted to revisit this hike to find out just how far it was and to also see how we would fare now being more prepared and experienced.

The previous hike had ended with Heather and I jogging down the closed portion of forest service road 2209. We weren’t jogging for fun, we were jogging because we couldn’t walk any longer and we desperately wanted to be back at our car. We were heading back now armed with 4 years of experience and a Garmin to find out just how difficult this hike really was. The starting point for this loop was the Opal Creek trail head which was already full of cars when we pulled up at 6am. The trail head is the main gateway into the Opal Creek Wilderness and Jawbone Flats a former mining camp turned ancient forest center. A gate at the trail head blocks any unauthorized vehicles from reaching the center.

We set off down road 2209 and followed it across Gold Creek.

Shortly after the bridge a sign and wilderness registration box announced the Whetstone Mountain Trail heading up on our left. We turned up it and quickly entered the Opal Creek Wilderness.

The trail climbed steadily through rhododendrons and beargrass. Neither Heather nor I remembered much about this portion of the hike from our first visit. It may be that we suppressed the memory of this difficult climb :). It wasn’t until we reached a small saddle with an open view of Mt. Hood to the north that anything looked familiar.

Another notable item that we remembered was an anvil shaped rock outcrop that could be seen through the trees as well as view of Mt. Jefferson.

On our first visit we had been disappointed with the mountain views. We had been told to look for a trail that forked off to the left and led to a nice view, but we never found it that first trip. We had our eyes open again this time determined to find this trail to a view, but this time we didn’t need to look very hard. A nice new sign had been put up pointing directly at a well maintained trail. It’s hard to believe either was there on our previous visit. The sign was surely new and we couldn’t believe we would have missed such an obvious trail.

The views kept getting better as we climbed toward the former lookout site. The trail passed a nice meadow below the rocky summit before winding up on top where a 360 degree view awaited.

Olallie Butte, Mt. Jefferson and Battle Ax Mountain

Mt. Hood

Broken Top, Coffin Mountain and the Three Sisters

Three Fingered Jack

Diamond Peak

Mt. Rainier

Mt. Adams

We would have liked to have stayed up on the summit for awhile but it was crowded up there. Mosquitoes were beginning to swarm us and there was no breeze to keep them at bay so we didn’t stick around very long and headed back down to the Whetstone Mountain trail to continue our loop. Not far from the summit we passed another lovely meadow filled with larkspur and paintbrush.

The trail down the east side of Whetstone Mountain had a gentler grade than the side we had come up. We didn’t remember this section either until we reached the bridge less crossing of Battle Ax Creek. On our last visit we removed our shoes and socks and made sure our pant legs would stay dry. Our attitudes about creek crossings have changed since then and this time we just plunged in.

Shortly after crossing the creek we popped back up on the old road 2209 at a trail junction. We turned toward Jawbone Flats and headed down the abandoned mining road. As we were walking I spotted a snake trying to get out of the way. It didn’t seem too concerned with us and posed for several pictures. Nique and I moved on and soon realized we’d lost Heather. When she caught back up she told us that the snake had come over to check her out.

About a mile from Jawbone Flats are the remains of the Ruth Mine. We took a moment this time to check out the old equipment and shafts.

Just before Battle Ax Creek reaches Jawbone Flats there is a nice open rocky area where we could get an up close view of the clear water that the Opal Creek Wilderness is known for.

We had gone straight through Jawbone Flats crossing Battle Ax Creek on a footbridge on our previous visit but we had made other plans this time. The bridge had recently collapsed so there was no direct route through the old camp. Instead we would take the Kopetski Trail which would take us across the Little North Santiam River and by the Opal Pool.

Closed bridge:

Old mining equipment:

Little North Santiam River:

Opal Pool:

Despite the number of cars in the parking lot that morning we had only seen one group of people up until we reached the Opal Pool. From that point on we were passing another group every couple of minutes. Since we had hiked this trail in 2012 and we’d already been hiking for over 6 hours we didn’t bother with exploring all the possible access points to the river. After a mile and a half we recrossed the river on another bridge and were back on road 2209. We had one last stop to make. There was a waterfall that we had yet to find along the trail. We knew it was somewhere behind the old Merten Mill but we had yet to actually see it. Determined to finally see Sawmill Falls we turned off the road at the old mill and followed a path next to the building. This time we found the falls easily and it was worth the side trip.

After a brief rest we returned to the road and began the home stretch. Nique and I began snacking on the Salmonberries that were ripening along the trail (Heather finds them too sour) and we passed a good patch of flowers growing in an exposed rocky section.

We ended up with the Garmin showing a 16.3 mile hike which would explain why it had seemed so hard 4 years ago, it was hard :). We’d probably gone closer to 15 that day since we hadn’t found the summit trail or taken time to explore the Ruth Mine, Opal Pool, or Sawmill Falls but up until then 7.1 had been our longest hike.

It is really a beautiful area with lots of options, but if you don’t like crowds avoid weekends, especially nice ones. When we got back to the parking area the number of cars had more than doubled. If we were to ever do this loop again I’d go the opposite direction to minimize crowds and to take advantage of a more gradual climb. Happy Trails!