Just 35 miles east of Oregon’s capital city of Salem, the Little North Santiam River Trail gives visitors a hint of the unparalleled beauty that lies upstream in the Opal Creek Wilderness. The Little North Santiam River is a 27-mile long tributary of the North Santiam River, which, along with the South and Middle Santiam Rivers, flows into the Willamette.
The North Santiam has been impounded to form Detroit Lake and the South Santiam has been impounded to form Foster Lake, changing the flow of both over the years. This isn’t the only thing that has changed the watershed. During the late 1800’s gold mining and timber companies began extracting resources, decreasing the diversity of vegetation and wildlife in the watershed.
Fortunately, the BLM and USFS have put into place management strategies to protect the water resources and listed species in the area. It is home to bald eagles, spotted owls, rainbow and cutthroat trout, and Chinook salmon. The Little North Santiam (LNS) is now a designated State Scenic River, and no wonder…it is quite beautiful.
We began our hike at the LNS Trailhead off of Elkhorn Drive SE near Mehama. It was an early spring weekday, and only one other car was parked at the trailhead. We would have the trail to ourselves! Yay! The trail was soggy and soft amid the birches, but turned rocky as soon as we reached the hemlocks and firs closer to the river.
One thing about this trail…most of the time you are either going uphill or down, there’s not a lot of flat. That made it a good workout day for us, especially with our already sore quads and glutes from the new 7-minute total body workouts we’d been doing at home.
As soon as we saw the river, we were entranced. Crystal clear water, blues and greens in the deeper pools, rapids, rocks, and waterfalls made it hard to both watch where we were walking and look at the river. It meant we stopped a lot along the way just to take it all in.
When we weren’t gazing at the emerald waters, we were fascinated with the plump, soft, green mosses and lichens that covered every inch of rock and tree along the trail. Numerous waterfalls/rapids in the river and on the opposite side of the river gorge provided plenty of “stop-in-your-tracks” moments. It was definitely a sensuous feast.
A few wooden bridges helped us cross several creeks, except at one place where the water was cascading swiftly down toward the river. There we rock-hopped using the trusty walking stick.
The trail climbed to a viewpoint high above the river with great views of the gorge, Henline Mountain, and cliffs formed by the volcanic and glacier activity from 17 billion years ago. It then descended rapidly back down to river level. Lots of downed trees gave us ample opportunities to practice both our way-finding skills and our tree-hopping or tree-ducking skills.
The rugged, curvy nature of the Little North Santiam River, with its steep cliffs, waterfalls, and deep, blue pools made this hike an extraordinary adventure and well worth the drive. We will be back.