Distance: 9.0 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 900 feet
Season: all year except in winter storms
Best: all year
Pass: NW Forest Pass
Map: Opal Creek Wilderness Area (USFS)
Directions: From Salem, drive OR 22 east for 23 miles to the second flashing light in Mehama. At a sign for the Little North Fork Recreation Area (and directly across from the Swiss Village restaurant), turn left. Follow the paved two-lane road up the Little North Fork for 14.5 miles to a junction with Elkhorn Drive SE in the small community of Elkhorn. Drive across the bridge over the river and continue for 0.4 miles to the well-signed trailhead on your left.
Hike: The Little North Santiam River Trail gets no respect. It has the same emerald pools, roaring waterfalls, magnificent old-growth as Opal Creek, just three miles upstream, with just a fraction of the crowds. Nobody comes here except on summer weekends, and the area’s low elevation makes this a year-round hike destination. In many respects, this hike is even better on a rainy winter day. In fact, some people even prefer this hike to Opal Creek; it’s just a shame the two hikes cannot be joined.
The trail begins at the edge of the small community of Elkhorn. You will skirt through a recovering forest with houses in sight for the first 0.2 mile before crossing a small side stream and descending into glorious woods beside the even more glorious Little North Fork. Everything is green, moist and radiant! At 0.6 mile follow a short side trail to a bench beside a roaring cascade in the river. This is a great place to relax but don’t turn back yet as the best is yet to come. The next mile is a joy as you wind through deep forest just above the Little North Fork, crossing roaring side creeks on scenic wooden bridges beneath towering Douglas firs. Notice how the river seems to be an electric shade of green; this is not the water but the green rock below magnified by the incredible clarity of the water. This feature is common throughout the Little North Fork drainage and is found on all of the creeks upstream.
The incomparable Little North Santiam River.
Soon the canyon begins to contract and the trail climbs to avoid a very narrow gorge. Along the way up, listen for the roar of Triple Falls on Henline Creek, tumbling directly into the river just across the gorge. The falls is visible but tree branches make it difficult to get an unobstructed view of the falls. Once past the falls, the trail continues its climb up the canyon wall, topping out at a rocky bluff high above the river with a few across to Henline Mountain’s cliffs. Note the madrone tree on this bluff, a rarity in the Cascades. This makes a nice spot to stop and catch your breath and if it’s clear, the views of the Little North Fork canyon will be outstanding. The trail stays high above the river for a bit before dropping swiftly back to river level at 3.0 miles.
Three Pools from the Little North Fork Trail.
At 3.3 miles, look across the river to Three Pools, a popular day-use site. Here the Little North Fork roars through a series of narrow rock channels, creating three deep, swimmable pools. A single rock pillar stands sentinel above the scene. Downstream the river flows gently through a placid stretch of water that is almost too green to be believed. Three Pools is extremely popular on summer weekends…and is almost deserted in other seasons. Sadly, you cannot cross the river here (consider stopping by after the hike) so continue hiking upstream. Along the way you’ll cross Little Cedar Creek on another scenic wooden bridge before reaching the upper trailhead, at a scenic wooden road bridge over the Little North Fork River 4.5 miles from your car. Across the river is lovely Shady Cove Campground. You could shuttle this hike but then, you won’t have the pleasure of hiking it again, now will you?