Your North Fork getaway

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Opal Creek, Oregon. Courtesy of Thomas Shahan through Creative Commons

Originally from Salem, I moved to Portland so that I could attend Portland State. Living in the Great Northwest my entire life, I’ve developed a strong passion for outdoor fun. Whether it be hiking, swimming, camping, cliff-diving or fishing, I usually find myself doing something under the evasive Northwest sun when it decides to poke its head out.

Thinking Portland is all city was one of the biggest misconceptions I’ve had. Since moving here, I’ve realized there’s actually a wide array of outdoor activities within a 30-minute drive in either direction. From Sauvie Island to the Clackamas High Rocks, there’s no shortage of waterholes for people to cool off in. Is hiking more your thing? Try the 70 miles of trails at Forest Park or hike up to view the majestic Multnomah Falls.

The problem with these places, however, is that people from Portland or anyone who has lived here long enough is tired of the same old sights and views they offer. For anyone who feels that way, I have just the thing for you—a magical place referred to by many names, but mostly known as North Fork.

Located about 45 minutes east of Salem, or an hour and a half from PSU’s campus, North Fork is very simple to get to. Head south on I-5, head east on Highway 22 in Salem and then turn left on North Fork Road.

There are plenty of things to keep you busy once you arrive.

North Fork Road basically follows the Little North Fork of the Santiam River 20 miles upstream to Opal Creek. This road is filled with turn-offs, campgrounds, day-use areas, trail heads and a golf course that are sure to entertain anyone. Because there is so much to do and so much to take in, I am going to include just the three must-see places on North Fork Road.

Three pools

Forged by thousands of years of water erosion, Three Pools is a swimmer’s/day user’s paradise full of places to climb, relax, swim and even cliff dive if you are up to it. A series of small waterfalls careen into deep blue and green colorful pools of icy water. However, this beauty comes at a cost—well, two costs. The first is that its beauty often attracts drunk daredevils from all over who bake in the sun (both literally and figuratively).

Don’t be surprised if you find yourself watching a person who can barely stand perform a backflip off of a 30-foot cliff. Just know that most of these people are from the area and have spent almost every summer here since they were children.

This leads me to cost number two: be careful. Similar to Clackamas High Rocks, people die here. Strong currents, ice cold water and a series of rapids and waterfalls—combined with alcohol and/or inexperience—are a recipe for serious injury or even death. So, please, use caution and common sense when doing something so potentially dangerous and fun, and don’t just leap when the drunks chant “Jump! Jump! Jump!” at you.

Little North Fork hike

Immersing yourself in ice-cold water while surrounded by drunks not your thing? You can still take in the scenery from afar by hiking the Little North Fork hike. Starting the Little North Fork Trailhead and ending four-and-a-half miles later at Shady Cove Campground, this hike takes you along many of the major sights to see along the river from the other side.

From vantage points of about 20–30 feet up, you can see gorgeous waterfalls surrounded by cliffs and everything else the Willamette Forest has to offer. But remember, unless you have a car waiting at the end, you have to hike back, so plan accordingly.

Opal Creek

The gem of the area is located at the end of North Fork Road. To get there, you’ll navigate sharp turns on gravel roads with 100-foot ravines, so, again, please be safe. Though there are a variety of trails to choose from, the most popular hike is the Gate to Jawbone Flats, which is just over six miles. Some of the sights you’ll see along this hike include crossing a 60-foot-high foot bridge and a decomissioned 1940s steam-powered saw mill. The views on this hike are unrivaled. However, as this is a remote location, make sure to prepare accordingly with plenty of water and food.

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