22 Sep Hike with the Old Folks
For some, the holy grail of hiking is old-growth forests. The physical size of ancient trees is part of the appeal, but there’s more to it than that. In an old-growth forest, natural cycles have been hard at work for hundreds or even thousands of years. Left undisturbed, these cycles become ecosystems completed. The air and water here are cleaner, understories and canopies lusher, colors more vibrant, and wildlife more present.
When you are in an old-growth forest, you know you are someplace special. And rare. Fortunately, in Oregon, you can still find hiking paths that deliver you deep into undisturbed, ancient groves. Here are some of the best old-growth hikes in and around our region.
Oregon Badlands Wilderness
The Oregon Badlands Wilderness exemplifies a high desert harshness that yields a special kind of beauty. Washed in a palette of warm earth tones, the Badlands is home to some of the oldest junipers in the state. Over hundreds of years, these Western juniper trees have turned scoffing at the parched landscape into a living art. The ropes of bark that surround these specimens spiral skyward, providing a home for flowing, neon green lichen. See these trees on the Ancient Juniper Trail. Fall—between the unforgiving summer sun and the frigid winter chill—is a prime time to hike here. The desert dust will find its way into your boots regardless of the season, but the cool, clean, sagebrush-scented air makes it all worthwhile.
From Bend, take Highway 20 east for 16 miles to the Flatiron/Ancient Juniper Trailhead on the left side of the highway. Take the Ancient Juniper Trail from the parking area and come back on the Flatiron for a tidy 3-mile loop.
Located in a region of Oregon known as the Old Cascades, Echo Basin is a wildflower-studded, glacier-carved bowl of beauty. Just before entering the basin, and just after the trail splits and crosses Echo Creek on a footbridge, something magical appears: an ancient grove of Alaska yellow-cedars. The pockets of Alaska yellow-cedars that populate Echo Basin are believed to be the oldest in the state. The haunting, pale tree looks like the ghost of its more locally common cousin the western redcedar. Adorned with flowing lichens, the shaggy-barked specters form an ethereal forest rarely seen this far south.
From Sisters, take Highway 20 west to the junction with Highway 126. Continue west on Highway 20 for just over 8 miles and turn right onto FR Road 55. Follow this gravel road for 2 miles to where it ends at the trailhead for the 2.2-mile lollipop loop.
Ochoco National Forest
The Ochoco National Forest is a semi-arid oasis east of Prineville. The Lookout Mountain trail system visits some old mining areas and even older trees. The smell of warm pine needles comes and goes as you stroll through venerable old-growth stands of subalpine fir and ponderosa pine. The path periodically escapes into wide-open, rainbow-hued meadows of wildflowers and sagebrush. Views of many snow-capped Cascade peaks wait at the summit, while the cool air of the forest cathedral remains below to usher you back to the trailhead.
From Prineville, drive 15 miles east on Highway 26 and fork right onto Ochoco Creek Road. Continue 8 miles, passing the Ochoco Ranger Station and arriving at a junction with FS Road 42. Turn right here and drive 6.5 miles to a junction with FS Road 4205. Make a right and drive past a pair of trailheads for 1 mile to the road’s end at the Mother Lode Mine trailhead. There are a handful of trails radiating from this trailhead, and a number of loop options, so a good map is recommended. One potential outing takes the Lookout Mountain Trail #804 to #807A to the Independent Mine Trail #808 back to the trailhead, completing a 7-mile loop.
Willamette National Forest
Black Creek is lined by some of the most imposing Mountain hemlock and Douglas-fir you’ll ever lay eyes on. During this hike, the pristine creek is a constant, loudly echoing companion hidden from view by giant trees, which also dominate the ridges towering overhead. The path leaves the creek after Lillian Falls, and the forest environment shifts into an autumnal paradise of huckleberry and Douglas maple, which light the trail on fire with color in early fall.
From Oakridge, turn north off of Highway 58 at a traffic light onto Crestview Road. Drive 0.2 miles and make a right onto First Street. Drive through town and continue onto Salmon Creek Road/FS Road 24. After 11.2 miles stay right at a fork to continue onto FS Road 24. After 2.8 miles, stay left at a fork continuing onto gravel FS Road 2421. Drive another 8.6 very bumpy miles to the end of the road and the trailhead. The trail climbs steadily all the way up to Waldo Lake. Lillian Falls is 1.2 miles from the trailhead, but go as far as you like before heading back.
Bull of the Woods Wilderness
The Opal Creek area is the heavyweight champion of old-growth forests in Oregon. But while swarms of outdoor enthusiasts descend upon the justifiably popular drainage, the neighboring Bull of the Woods Wilderness hides equally impressive groves without the trailhead traffic jam. The hike up Whetstone Mountain explores an old-growth area that, thanks to location and elevation, is home to a wide array of ancient stands. The trail is the conduit to a succession of pristine groves; you’ll see Douglas, silver and noble fir, western and mountain hemlock, and even Alaska yellow-cedar. It is the forest primeval with a penthouse view.
From Estacada, take Highway 224 southeast until it becomes FS Road 46, continuing past the Ripplebrook Ranger Station to a junction with FS Road 63. Bear right onto FS Road 63 and drive to a junction with FS Road 70. Turn right onto FS Road 70 then left onto FS Road 7020 which heads steeply up a rough road. Drive 5.5 miles to the trailhead, passing a junction with FS Road 7030 just before you arrive. The trail descends before rising to a junction. Go right here and eventually reach a junction for the Whetstone Mountain Lookout. Take this trail to the wide-open summit view of Whetstone Mountain and head back the way you came to complete the 4.8-mile hike.
Most avid hikers are quite aware of the Eagle Creek Trail in the Columbia River Gorge. But if you’re in the market for an old-growth forest, the other Eagle Creek Trail, in the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness, is where you want to go. From the ground up, the cool, wet forest has an understory so thick and drippy you could eat it with a spoon. Kept shaded by a canopy of massive western redcedar and deeply rutted Douglas-fir, this trail typifies the old-growth experience on the west side of the Cascade Range.
From Estacada, take Highway 224 north to Wildcat Mountain Drive. Turn right, following signs for Eagle Fern Park. Drive 2 miles and bear right onto Eagle Fern Road. Stay on this road, which becomes SE George Road, for 9 miles. Make a right turn onto SE Harvey Road, which soon turns to gravel. Stay straight, ignoring all junctions before bearing right after 1.9 miles. Drive another 0.5 miles to a three-way junction. Angling down to the right is a pullout blocked off with large root balls. Park here and find the trail on the other side of the root ball barrier. The first mile starts out on an old roadbed before entering the forest and transitioning into a proper trail. Hike out as long as you like before turning back.