written by Kelly Bauer

For many, Oregon summers are synonymous with day trips to Opal Creek. What better way to spend a blistering, hot day than by jumping into crystal clear, icy water. Less than an hour and a half away, The Opal Creek trailhead is a perfect way to spend a day that requires little planning and removes you from the hustle and bustle of city life. Many of us take this area for granted as just one more beautiful area that Oregon has to offer. However, Opal Creek is one of the most recently protected areas in Oregon.

What many see as a popular swimming hole was once center stage for a fierce and highly publicized timber battle in the last century. What is now 35,000 acres of protected wilderness land, was once a bustling logging area. The old-growth forest of Douglas Fir, Western Red Cedar, and Western Hemlock have trees that date back almost a thousand years. In addition to timber, mining interests threatened the remaining years of these friendly giants and the land they tower over.

Miners arrived in the valley and discovered gold in 1859. Lead, zinc, copper and silver were all mined from the Jawbone flats mining area. Opal, coincidentally, is not found in the Opal Creek Wilderness Area. The original name, “Boulder Creek” was changed by a forest ranger who thought the water was as beautiful as a woman so he re-named it after his wife. Mining continued until 1992 when the Shiny Rock Mining Company gifted their 151 acres, including Jawbone Flats, to Friends of Opal Creek. Pressure to preserve the area threatened the controversial Forest Service logging proposals for the area and in 1996 Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield convinced Congress to protect Opal Creek as a designated wilderness area.

Today, Jawbone Flats is a tiny community based around the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center. Visitors can camp, attend summer outdoor schools and various other workshops. Jawbone flats can only be accessed by a 3.1 mile hike along an old forest road scattered with abandoned mining and logging machinery left over the last century.

The next time you’re thinking about a nice day trip or even a close over-nighter, consider checking out Opal Creek and when you’re there be grateful for those who have fought to protect this still wild land.