A Morning Hike Through Mount Hood’s Salmon River Gorge

Upper Salmon River–Mount Hood National Forest

To me, nature is sacred; trees are my temples and forests are my cathedrals.

         —Mikhail Gorbachev

          🌿  🌿  🌿  🌿

A stone’s throw from home, the Salmon River moves swiftly by.  For fourteen years, I have hiked its gentle trails, have fished its crystalline waters, and have crossed its bridges.  I have seen its floodwaters and snow blankets, and have seen it in times of drought.  I have seen its trees felled by wind.  I have come to know many of the plants and animals that live in and near its waters, have studied its ancient past, and have learned some of its secrets.  All of this and more is what keeps me coming back.           

While hiking alone has its rewards, when possible, I like to hike with others for safety reasons.  Therefore, when I learned about an upcoming guided hike presented by the US Forest Service at one of my favorite places, the Salmon River Gorge—I was on it!  Because the hike was on a weekday, my husband had to work, so I invited my dad and 13-year-old grandson from Portland to join me, and they were looking forward to it.

We had to be at the Salmon River Bridge Trailhead by 10:00 A.M., and we arrived with a few minutes to spare.  Weather conditions were ideal beneath an azure sky, and a morning chill that would warm into the low seventies by noon.  While we waited for the Forest Service Guides to arrive, we killed time on the bridge watching a fly-fisher downriver make sweeping casts into a deep green pool above a set of rapids.  The river moved clear and bright, but without a fish in sight.  Not many years ago, my husband and I were hanging out on a gravel beach just upriver from here when a school of steelhead surprised us as they frolicked in a deep eddy like playful porpoise.  For several minutes, they surfaced and dived before disappearing upriver.  It was a thrilling sight, and one we haven’t seen since.      

At 10:00 sharp, two US Forest Service Volunteers arrived and greeted us.  They introduced themselves as Chris and Alaina from North Carolina, who didn’t look a day over 21.  This was their first season working in the Mount Hood National Forest.  Three other people, a man and woman (from North Carolina), and another woman from Boston, brought the number in our party to eight.  After introductions were made, Alaina explained the hike would take us a mile and a half upriver (three miles round-trip), and would take about two hours to complete.  With that said, everyone was eager to begin.  With our guides leading the way, we started single file up the trail.

Salmon River Trailhead

The trail climbed sharply before moderating to gradual bends, dips, and rises.  As we neared the top of the gorge, about sixty feet above the river, we stepped aside to let a lone hiker pass.  Here, Alaina told us how Native Americans traveled this centuries-old trail en route to their sacred hunting, fishing, and plant harvesting grounds.  Downriver, Indians made their camps.  In what is today, the Village of Welches, they fished and gathered tree bark, plants, roots, and berries.  Downriver from Welches, in Wildwood, they also hunted, and gathered wild plants and berries.  (Following the arrival of white settlers, Wildwood became a lumber camp, and the area was heavily logged from 1926 to 1944.  Today, the area is known as “Wildwood Recreation Site”—a protected day use area owned and maintained by the Bureau of Land Management.  Here one can hike the trails and stroll the boardwalk through temperate rain forest, and experience various habitats and wildlife.  One can also view remnants of the Old Mill.  Throughout, big trees (those that avoided the cross-saw), stand among the less fortunate whose giant stumps still bear the scars of springboard notches.)  A few miles downriver from Wildwood, at its confluence with the Sandy River near the Village of Brightwood, is “Brightwood Beach,” an ancient fishing ground that is popular today among local salmon and steelhead anglers.

Alaina talked about the forest.  “This is a deciduous-conifer forest,” she said, “whose dominant trees are Douglas-fir, western hemlock, mountain hemlock, western redcedar, red alder, bigleaf maple, and vine maple.”  As Alaina began to explain various leaf and seed cone patterns, the ground beneath her suddenly gave way, and she went down!  Everyone gasped!  Clutching loose rock and soil that miraculously held her like Velcro to the side of the cliff, Chris reached down and pulled her safely to the trail.  I think everyone’s heart skipped a beat on that one; I know mine did.

Salmon River

Alaina brushed off the dirt, and we continued along the trail that wound gradually, leading us deeper into the forest.  Someone asked if we might see wild animals, but given the size of our group, and the occasional noise level, animal sightings were unlikely.  The only wildlife we saw this day were bumblebees, a green banana slug (that I moved from the trail so it wouldn’t be stepped on), and an inquisitive Steller’s jay that eyed us from a cedar branch.  Several places along the trail forced us to cross small slide-prone areas that had left the ground wet and muddy.  While there was no real danger this day, during a heavy rain, it might be a different story.  Among this damp and heavily shaded place, baneberry (Actaea rubra), and devil’s club (Oplopanax horridus) flashed their bright red forbidden fruit.  Alaina warned of the thorny spines that cover 90 percent of the devil’s club.  My dad, who apparently wasn’t listening, reached for one of the leaves, and I stopped him before he stuck himself.        

Baneberry (Actaea rubra)

Rounding a bend in the trail, the forest went from dark to light.  Here, Alaina stopped and pointed out a large cushion of moss as thick as a goose down comforter that blanketed a slab of basalt.  “My favorite things,” she said, “are mosses and lichens.”  She identified it as feather moss, more specifically, stair-step or step moss (Hylocomium splendens)—the only moss with a step-like arrangement that can be counted to determine the plants age.  She demonstrated by lifting and counting the layers—“One, two, three, four, five, six”; she stopped after the seventh step and noted that this particular moss was of considerable age.  Alaina then collected some lichen that was flat with curled edges.  “This,” she said, “is frog skin or frog pelt lichen, Peltigera neopolydactyla.”  She passed it around.  About the size of a fifty-cent piece, it was grayish-green with a smooth texture that felt like soft skin.  I put the lichen in my pocket to add to my lichen collection at home.

Devil’s Club (Oplopanax horridus)

With the song of the river filling our ears, the trail led us to a cathedral-like setting where we took our first look at some old growth Douglas-fir, redcedar, and hemlock trees believed to be 300 to 1,000-years-old.  I could only imagine how magnificent this place must have looked 150 years ago.  Sadly, only a small percentage of the big trees remain.  One Douglas-fir, a true matriarch, held my attention.  Its limbs, as big as trees themselves, reached for the heavens.  As I gazed skyward, I admired not only its beauty, but also its strength for having survived volcanic eruptions, violent storms, insect pests, and the logging boom of the early 1900s.  

Alaina pointed to spongy clumps of diaper moss (possibly Shaggy Sphagnum, Sphagnum squarrosum), clinging to the tree branches.  She told of how Native Americans dried the moss and used it to diaper their babies.  (Sphagnum was also used for bedding, personal hygiene, dressing wounds, and rubbing fish before smoking.)  Today, sphagnum is used for crafts and floral arrangements.  Alaina told of how Indians also used moss to track animals.  My grandson was really into this, and asked more questions than there were answers.  Alaina asked everyone to gather alongside of a large moss-covered nurse log.  She then asked us to kneel and smell the moss, which had a very clean, woodsy odor.  Next, she told us to press our hands on the moss for a few seconds.  “Now,” she said, “smell the moss again.”  Sure enough, the scent had changed.  It was amazing!

Stair-step Lichen (Hylocomium splendens)
Old-growth Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)

Time flew, and before we knew it, it was time to start back.  Knowing what lay ahead, I wanted to keep going.  When I asked Chris and Alaina if they knew how far it was to the first waterfall (Final Falls), neither seemed to know anything about it.  This was not surprising, for the waterfalls are so remote, few have ever seen them, let alone, know of their existence.   

On the return, we stopped at a small opening in the woods where Oregon stonecrop (Sedum oreganum) bloomed and thrived on a slab of basalt.  In a shaded spot, there bloomed a single red columbine flower (Aquilegia formosa) and nearby, thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus) and Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis).  While we were too late to enjoy the raspberry-like sweetness of thimbleberries, the salmonberry, that resembles a yellow-orange blackberry, provided everyone with a small sample.


Fir Snag

We didn’t stop again until we reached the last clearing before the trailhead parking lot.  Here was a spacious basalt shelf worn smooth that slanted gently towards the river.  At its edge, between a set of small rapids, a large pool reflected lovely shades of green, blue, and gold.  A rocky islet divided the main stem from a synthetic side channel.  “The side channel was created to improve fish habitat, and encourage new spawning areas known as “redds,” Chris said, “and the log debris you’re seeing, was deliberately placed to provide more cover.”  My dad needed to rest, so I told Chris and Alaina to go on ahead, and that we would catch up.  As we sat on the sun-warmed rock, a pair of snorkelers, donned in bright blue dry-suits, swam slowly past.  One of the snorkelers approached the shore, removed his mask, and looked surprised to see us.  When I asked what they were doing, he said, “Counting fish.  So far, I’ve counted 150 Chinook, and my partner over there has counted 13-steelhead.  They’re small though, only about this big,” as he held up thumb and index finger to show three to four-inch lengths.  I told him that it will be good to see fish in these waters again, and thanked him for cluing us in. 

Chris was waiting around the next bend.  As we finished out the hike, he talked about the weather, and that he liked the low humidity.  He also thought it amazing to be able to ski and snowboard in late August.  He asked about thunderstorms, “When is the best time of year for them?”  I told him late August and early September big ones usually develop over the Cascades, and that the sound is incredible when it echoes off the mountains.  At the trailhead parking lot, Alaina sat on a boulder rubbing her feet.  She asked if we enjoyed the hike, and we assured her that we did.

Counting Fish
Oregon Stonecrop (Sedum oreganum)
Red Columbine (Aquilegia formosa)
Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis)


The Salmon River is 33.9 miles, and a tributary of the Sandy River.  It is the only river in the United States designated a National Wild and Scenic river for its entire length.  Its headwaters begin at timberline, at the foot of the Palmer Glacier on the south side of Mount Hood at 5,980 feet above sea level.  Along its upper reach, the Salmon River crosses several alpine meadows, Redtop Meadow and Salmon River Meadow. Both meadows formed on top of volcanic debris that buried the upper Salmon River Gorge hundreds of feet deep.  The meadows work as natural filters removing glacial flour (gritty silt particles caused by glacier erosion), which accounts for the rivers clarity—a unique feature for a glacier-fed river.  As the Salmon River leaves the meadows, it pours into a gorge in the Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness.  Along this reach are six, large, remote waterfalls.  Seldom seen by human eyes are Stein Falls, Split Falls, Little Niagara, Vanishing Falls, Frustration Falls, and Final Falls.  (There is also the Potholes located along the main stem, and Hideaway Falls along Iron Creek; a tributary that lies between Little Niagara and Split Falls.)  Below Final Falls, the Salmon River enters Green Canyon—a side canyon that lies between Hunchback Mountain and Salmon Mountain.  As the Salmon River leaves Green Canyon, it also leaves the wilderness area and continues past the villages of Welches, Wemme, and Wildwood.  The river crosses beneath Highway 26 to its confluence with the Sandy River in the Village of Brightwood (elevation 1,148 feet above sea level).  Inside the Brightwood Post Office, among historical photographs, hangs a picture of former President George H.W. Bush fly-fishing the Salmon River.

▸Update:  The upper Salmon River (synthetic) Side Channel was completed in 2011, and welcomed its first run of some 40 spawning Coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch)also called silvers or silver salmon, in December 2011, and January 2012.  


Copyright 2011.  All Rights Reserved


🌿For information about guided hikes visit:  http://www.fs.fed.us/r6/mthood/       

🌿To learn more about the Salmon River Gorge visit:  http://tinyurl.com/ccmosd2

🌿BLM Salmon Restoration Project:  http://tinyurl.com/ckmcd9t

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