- Associated Press - Saturday, October 25, 2014

SWEET HOME, Ore. (AP) — The Middle Santiam Wilderness is one of those places you always plan to visit, but that always seems to slip through the cracks.

Whether it’s the remote location or lack of alpine scenery, this 8,900-acre patch of forest and streams gets fewer visitors than just about any other wilderness area in Oregon’s Cascade Range.

But the lack of fame and visitors isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For those seeking a place of deep solitude and surprising beauty, the trails penetrating this low-elevation forest of massive Douglas firs, red cedars and hemlocks are tough to match.

Four paths trace the border and head into the official wilderness. The best is Chimney Peak Trail No. 3382, which features a spectacular swimming hole and old shelter, old-growth forest, remote creeks, a forested lake and the wilderness’ tallest peak.

A day-hike can include easy, moderate or challenging options, and there’s plenty of room for a backpacking trip.

The drive from the Willamette Valley is quite long and requires a long stretch on bumpy Forest Service roads that can be confusing for those without experience. Also, while the trails are mostly in lower elevations, the drive goes over a 3,400-foot pass, meaning snow can block access by late autumn (in a normal year, that would mean late November at the earliest, but always check conditions in advance) and into early spring.

If you can beat the onset of snow, however, autumn is a glorious time for a trip. Bursts of red, gold and orange highlight streamside beaches along the Middle Santiam River and Pyramid Creek. (Since no bridges cross these streams, the low water of autumn is also helpful.)

The Middle Santiam might not be well-known, but if you value solitude, swimming holes and massive trees, it’s a place worth exploring.

LOGGING AND MASSIVE TREES

Part of what makes the Middle Santiam Wilderness unique is the way it stands out like an island of old-growth in a region that has been heavily logged.

Private timberland buffers the western border of the wilderness and a drive up Forest Service Road 2041 - which leads to the Chimney Peak Trailhead - will bring you past active logging sites a stone’s throw from the wilderness boundary.

In the fight to save the Opal Creek area in the 1980s and early 1990s, environmental activists used the Middle Santiam watershed as a cautionary tale.

“We used to take politicians and the media in airplanes over the Middle Santiam, just to show the devastation of the clear-cutting,” said Michael Donnelly, co-found of the Friends of Opal Creek. “It was highly effective because at that height, you couldn’t miss it. The contrast between the devastation on the private timberland and the wilderness sticking out like a sore thumb was pretty incredible.”

The wilderness was established in 1984 and a trip there today gives you a pretty good sense of why logging was so predominant in the area. The Douglas firs, western red cedars and western hemlocks are absolutely massive, six feet in diameter and more 200 feet tall in some cases.

As I hiked Chimney Peak Trail, I got the sense that you could build an entire suburb with just a few of the trees that shade this dense, cool forest.

ON THE TRAIL

Before setting off on the long drive to Chimney Peak Trailhead (see directions below), it makes sense to pick you adventure in advance.

There are four hiking options, including an easy, moderate, challenging and backpacking option. Anyone planning to tackle the longer hikes should bring sandals suitable for crossing moving water - no bridges cross the Middle Santiam or Pyramid Creek - and a Detroit Ranger District map is recommended.

From the trailhead the path drops downhill, shortly arriving at the most scenic part of the entire day: Shedd Camp Shelter and the Middle Santiam River. The wood shelter is open on one side and makes a nice place to spend the night. Just below, a small waterfall drops into a sapphire pool for chilly swimming. This makes a great family-friendly hike at just 1.4 miles round-trip.

Oddly, this is the only place a trail hits the Middle Santiam River. After crossing the river upstream of the waterfall, the trail continues into the shade of the cool forest.

The next major landmark is Pyramid Creek, a beautiful stream bright with autumn colors, which requires a long and slippery crossing of about 15 to 20 yards. If you turn around here, it’s a 6.1-mile hike.

Beyond, the trail climbs uphill, crosses a closed Forest Service Road and enters the wilderness. Although the trail features old-growth before this point, it’s not until mile 3.7 that you cross the official boundary.

Not much changes inside the wilderness. A pair of rustic walking bridges cross swampy areas and there are large cedars.

At mile 6.6, the trail reaches Donaca Lake, a pretty forested lake teeming with wildlife. It doesn’t compare with the famed alpine lakes of the Cascades for dramatic beauty, but the solitude and sounds of birds, fish and insects make it a peaceful spot.

For day-hikers, it’s also the turn-around point for a 13.2-mile trek.

Backpackers can continue as far as they please down Chimney Peak Trail, which runs another six miles to the base of its namesake, a 4,965-foot lava plug in the northwestern portion of the wilderness. You can scramble up the peak to the site of a former fire lookout.

Other trails

Three other trails access the wilderness, mostly from the north and west.

The most commonly used include McQuade Creek Trail No. 3397 (5.2 miles one-way) and Swamp Peak Trail No. 3401 (6.1 miles). Both are accessed via Forest Road 11, southwest of Marion Forks off Highway 22.

McQuade Creek Trail makes for a shorter trip to climb Chimney Peak while Swamp Peak Trail leads hikers up Knob Rock.

See the Forest Service website for directions.

If you go …

MIDDLE SANTIAM WILDERNESS

General location: Northeast or Sweet Home and southwest of Marion Forks in Willamette National Forest

Size: 8,900 acres

Established: 1984

Main activities: Hiking and backpacking

Trails: McQuade Creek (5.2 miles); Chimney Peak (12.7 miles), Gordan Peak (6.1 miles), Swamp Peak (6.1 miles)

Forest: Douglas fir, western red cedar and western hemlock

CHIMNEY PEAK TRAIL NO. 3382

Length: 12.6 miles one-way

Day-hike options

Easy: 1.4 miles round-trip to Shedd Camp Shelter and Middle Santiam River (359 feet of climb)

Moderate: 6.1 miles round-trip to Pyramid Creek (709 feet of climb)

Challenging: 13.2 miles round-trip to Donaca Lake (1,941 feet of climb)

Directions: (About 2 hours and 30 minutes from Salem): From Salem, follow I-5 south to exits for Lebanon and follow Highway 20 to Sweet Home. From Sweet Home, follow Highway 20 east for 25 miles, just past milepost 52, and turn left onto gravel Soda Fork Road / Forest Service Road 2041. Carefully follow FSR 2041 for 7.8 miles to a major junction at Cool Camp. Continue straight through the junction to stay on FSR 2041 for another 4.4 miles to a second major junction. Go straight on to FSR 646, marked by a small sign that says “Chimney Peak Trail 1/2,” and follow it 0.6 miles to its end at the parking lot and trailhead.

Note: Many roads branch off FSR 2041, so be sure to stay on the main route, which as of October 2014 was marked by pink mile markers. There are multiple active logging sites along FSR 2041 so be wary of logging trucks coming down the road.

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The original story can be found on the Statesman Journal’s website: http://stjr.nl/1CMDknA

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Information from: Statesman Journal, http://www.statesmanjournal.com

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