The “Lower” Salmonberry trail runs west from where both Belding, and Beaver Slide Roads intersect this wild river. It is an overnight walk to reach the confluence of the Salmonberry and the Lower Nehalem. This is one of the most impressive hikes I’ve taken in the last years. The valley is ruggedly beautiful, and to witness what havoc the force of the river wreaked upon the Tillamook railroad is breathtaking, and even a bit scary! This passage through the Coast Range is part of what I have designated the “Southern Route”.
I think that the Salmonberry is one of Oregon’s most beautiful rivers! It is remote and buried at the bottom of a deep canyon that is a challenge even to the hardiest hikers. It’s innumerable stretches of deep blue-green pools interspersed by tumbling cataracts are literally stunning. But even as we drink in its pastoral grace amid the soft summer breezes, the brutal power of this stream is unmistakable in the raw channel it has carved athwart this wild landscape. I’ll let Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, Kubla Khan tell the Salmonberry’s story better than I can:
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced;
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Distance: 15.35 miles; 1.75 miles descent into the valley and 13.6 miles along the river.
Walk duration: 10 – 12 hours walking
Travel time to trail head: These direction assume that you will leave a car at the junction of the Salmonberry River and the Nehalem River, and will use a second car to access the top of Beaver Slide Road from whence the hike will commence. once you’ve walked the length of Beaver Slide Road you will appreciate why we will travel in this direction and not the reverse.
From the Sylvan exit on US 26 (Exit 71) at the top of the West Hills travel 51.5 miles on the Sunset Highway (US 26) to the Lower Nehalem Road and turn left (south). Travel on this road until you get to the washed out bridge over the Salmonberry (due to be repaired in 2012) – 13 miles. The last 2.2 miles are in Tillamook County, and significantly more potholed – starting at the bridge crossing Cronin Creek.
At this point it is also appropriate to discuss the direction and timing if you plan to leave a car at each end of the hike (highly recommended). To travel from the washed out bridge over the Salmonberry to Beaver Slide Road, the “mid-point” access road is a 33.4 mile journey requiring about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Retrace your journey up the 13 mile Lower Nehalem River Road to US 26. Turn right heading back towards Portland and travel 10.8 miles until you reach the “Section 10 Road” (aka Wheeler Road). Take a sharp right on this dirt road and proceed up into the wooded heights. After 1.6 miles you will encounter two dirt roads that split off to the left. The second of these leads to the Salmonberry Road which debouches out onto US 26 some miles to the east of where you turned on to Wheeler Road. Drive past these left hand alternatives and continue to travel generally uphill on what is Wheeler Road, but following signs that say Salmonberry Road. Yes, it’s confusing, but I can only surmise they’re indicating that the road will lead you to the Salmonberry Road – which it does eventually…
Another .7 miles onwards you will pass Lousignant Road (coming up from the Timber area) on your left – continue onwards following the Wheeler Road. A half mile further another road ascends on your left. This is actually the east end of Wheeler Road which originates near Reeher’s Camp which is situated south of the hamlet of Timber. But on this urgent mission we will not diverge from our southerly direction and we pass the Wheeler Road turn-off and proceed straight into what is called the Wheeler Cut-off Road. This road carries you sloping downhill another 1.6 miles southwards, and passing Shields Road on your right about half way down. At the end of the 1.6 miles on Wheeler Cut-off road you will encounter an intersection at the bottom of a steep grade. The right hand option leads you on to the Salmonberry Road. Turn left and a few yards onwards this intersection splits into a three way choice. The extreme right hand option is actually only a minor logging track – ignore it. The other two tracks are both segments of the Wheeler Pond Road (getting tired of too many “Wheelers”, yet?) which originate near the Cochran Pond, the origin of the Salmonberry River system. At this juncture you will want to take the right hand choice (or middle choice if you include the minor logging road) and follow the southwestern stretch of the Wheeler Pond Road for 4.6 miles rumbling in and out of the ravines that lie above the upper stretches of the Salmonberry river. The river actually runs at the base of the valley you are following. This road has some spectacular spots where it emerges from the woods and traverses large open slopes that provide impressive views of the upper Salmonberry valley. This road always seems longer than it’s actual 4.6 miles. Eventually, end you will emerge on a flat clearing that affords views both east towards the Salmonberry River Valley and west towards the deep valley formed by the North Fork of the Salmonberry. On maps this open plateau is marked as the location of Camp Nine – however there is little to suggest any major camp.
At this junction four roads join. You entered the intersection from the northeast on the Wheeler Pond Road. To your right the Salmonberry Road enters from the northwest and continues across the intersection descending towards the southwest on the far side of the clearing. But we will cross the clearing and veer to the left (southeast) entering a road that has the least traffic of all the choices presented. This is the infamous Beaver slide Road. Carefully follow this road for another .7 miles driving slowly since the road is a bit rough and potholed. After the .7 miles the road reaches a shoulder where the track splits. The least used choice leads straight back into the copse of trees straddling the ridge top and stops. The middle choice dips sharply downhill, and the last choice curves around the end of the ridge to the right. Unless you have a very versatile and powerful four wheel drive “rig” I would suggest parking at this point. Since we will have already left one car at the Nehalem River junction, we are now ready to commence the hike by descending the middle fork of these three choices – which is Beaver Slide Road.
Elevation change: The biggest elevation change occurs on Beaver Slide Road where we lose 1600 ft over 1.75 miles! The grade at times exceeds -30% so that it’s a struggle to keep from overbalancing downwards and slipping on the rough gravel surface. No wonder it’s called the Beaver Slide Road – it’s no exaggeration. The rest of the hike only loses about 500 feet in elevation over the remaining 13.6 miles along the Salmonberry River.
Brief summary: This has got to be one of the most impressive hikes in the north Coast Range, or even across all of Oregon. In my opinion the Salmonberry is one of the most beautiful and awesome rivers in the state. It is said to be among the best fishing streams in the region, though we only saw fingerlings on our way through. The hiking is strenuous and requires strong ankles as you will be bushwhacking steep detours and walking across many patches with large rocks. The walking along the railroad tracks can also be tiring as the sleepers are arranged to produce the maximum discomfort to pedestrians… But you will come away from this trip with a new found respect for the unbelievable power of an untrammeled mountain river.
For purposes of better organizing the trail description, I have segmented the hike into six segments:
- Beaver Slide Road descent to the Salmonberry River.
- From the base of Beaver Slide Road west to Tunnel 29.
- From Tunnel 29 to Tunnel 31.
- Enright segment, including Tunnel 32
- Belfort segment.
- Nehalem confluence.
1. Beaver Slide Road descent to the Salmonberry River.
Right from the beginning, where the road tips off the end of the ridge at about 2400 ft in elevation it’s a steep descent. The first third of the descent winds about in a generally southeasterly direction passing through a mixed alder and hemlock forest. After about .4 miles the trail turns in a southwesterly direction and traverses down the steep incline heading towards the west. This traverse gets progressively steeper with the grade in the -25% to 29% range and at places approaching a 48% grade!
At the corner a huge rock marks the switchback and spray paint commentators have been kind enough to express their true feelings about the Beaver Slide Road. Beyond the rock a steep chute channels a water fall down a virtual cliff face. Just stop to listen; you’ll hear it. I wouldn’t venture too far out from the bend, lest you lose your footing and life…
Below the rock we’re traveling in a southeasterly direction along the flank of the mountain, but it soon switches back to a westerly descent. At this point we reach the only relatively level area in the climb as we cross a small stream that feeds a small Skunk weed bog. But as we turn the corner the road drops precipitously again and begins a straight line slide along a ridge. On either side the hill drops down steeply. On the right side you can glimpse the RR tracks amongst the trees, and on the left hand side you can hear the river lashing its way down the steep trench at the bottom. The tracks actually tunnel (Tunnel #27) under Beaver Slide Road. If you were to arrive here in mid-winter in the midst of a storm you would be walking into what amounts to a 21 mile washing machine churning boulders, tree trunks and huge maelstroms between the steep embankments – bending and crushing everything in its way!
But during more clement weather this hard to reach river bottom is a place of solitary beauty, resplendent in the verdant shade of the overhanging fir trees. At the base of this road you will find a track leading down to one of the best swimming holes on the river. Take some time to rest here and if the weather permits dip your skinny butt in the blue-green waters of the Salmonberry!
2. From the bottom of Beaver Slide Road (west) to Tunnel 29.
It always seems like there’s just not enough time to sit quietly by this river to appreciate the untouched world that thrives in this green chasm. I sometimes feel as if I could almost merge with nature’s rhythms – if only I might be allowed to sit and contemplate the river flowing by for just little longer…
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
And these next miles are the toughest on this hike.
Returning back to the railroad tracks we now head west (not through the Tunnel 27 over which we descended). Almost immediately the route is blocked by mangled tracks and a river ruined railroad grade. On the left side of the track you will see a sign board (devoid of any postings) . Immediately behind it a rough track descends down to the riverbed. Follow that if the water is not too high. At the farther end of the washout you will find a ladder that takes you back up to the remaining tracks. If you’re accompanied by a four footed creature, continue on and eventually beyond the end of the washout you will find a switch-back trail that ascends to the train tracks. I found it easier to walk down the river for parts of this trek…
Going through the woods above the track is as near to impenetrable as it gets in the Coast range! On the steep slope above the track we encountered a virtual log jam of trees, trunks, rocks, gullies, branches and moss covered everything. It was often hard to determine where the ground is located as we clambered from one rotten tree trunk to a boulder and through the vine maple to another slanting log. Like caterpillars we tried to navigate through this decaying shoal of forest debris piled deep into the steep slope. Immediately our sight lines are reduced to yards and our navigation is tested at the end of every limb we straddle. The detour is probably no longer than a couple of hundred feet, dropping back down to the rail road bed just beyond the ruined embankment. But this tangled detour could take up to 30 minutes to cross.
Immediately after this initial scramble the tracks cross the Salmonberry and pass through the first tunnel (Tunnel 28) west of Beaver Slide Road. Beyond the tunnel the tracks cross the river twice spanning a loop in the river course – ending up following the south shore of the river. Two creeks flow into the Salmonberry along this relatively straight stretch and as a consequence it is clogged with damaged track and grades requiring frequent detours through the tumbled landscape and forest detritus.
The first of these creeks is Belding Creek. Belding Road, a rough access road descends 11.5 miles from just below Roger’s peak (elev. 3706 ft.) and leads nearly down to the RR grade. The top end of this road can be accessed from Lee’s Camp and the roads that encircle Roger’s peak – about a 3 mile hike to the top of Belding Road! The Belding Road dead-ends opposite the bottom of Beaver Slide Road at the washed out bridgehead.
Both at Belding Creek and Jones Creek (a quarter mile west of Belding Creek) you will encounter severe washouts requiring scrambles to circumvent the carnage. For the next mile the route bends northwards and traverses several more washouts. It is mostly impossible to gauge where the trail goes beyond the next few yards, as washouts occur in almost every bend along the river. At this point it would be useful to note that some kind soul has marked the best route with a blue arrow – we found these indicators to be pretty reliable – at least until the next flood rearranges the boulders…
Almost a mile beyond Belding Creek the river turns and resumes a north-westerly course – albeit constantly swerving back and forth across the narrow canyon that contains the torrent. There are two more significant washouts in this section as you approach the second tunnel (Tunnel 29). It is important to note that this tunnel cuts through a ridge at the end of which is the confluence of the North Fork of the Salmonberry River. If you follow the rail spur around the bend (avoiding the tunnel) you can climb down to the riverside at the point where the spur line bends around the end of the ridge. Until 1967 there used to be a big log bridge that spanned the Salmonberry at this point, but the railroad dynamited it to prevent vehicular access to the rails. Until that time the North Salmonberry road actually descended all the way to the main stem of the Salmonberry River; today the access road ends about a mile up the North Fork of the Salmonberry. A rough track used primarily by elk and the occasional hunter or fisherman descends above the North Fork down to the confluence with the main stem of the Salmonberry River. A lovely little meadow at the end of this elk trail overlooks the confluence.
4. From Tunnel 29 to Tunnel 32.
Passing through Tunnel 29 we emerge into a continuation of the narrow valley down which the Salmonberry flows. About 1/3 of a mile from the tunnel you will encounter a major logjam that has eroded the southern embankment. At 3/4 of a mile you will enter Tunnel 30. About a half mile from the tunnel exit you will cross Bathtub creek which has formed a kind of rock strewn delta populated with waist high alders. Needless to say the railroad was swept into the river at this point. Blue arrows help guide you through the rocky foliage.
Just past Bathtub creek the narrow defile turns in a north-westerly direction. At this point you will encounter yet another massive detour. This requires a substantial scramble up the hillside and a tricky traverse about 30 feet above the prior embankment. At one point a rope dangles from a log presumably to help hikers descend. We heeded the “blue arrow” and continued to ascend and surmounted the blockage by climbing over it.
A quarter mile further is the mouth of Ripple Creek which is a major tributary flowing in from the south. The next mile between Ripple Creek and Tunnel 31 proved to be full of detours, bushwhacks and strenuous hiking.
5. Enright Segment, including Tunnel 32.
And on the far side of Tunnel 31 the terrain continued to be broken and requiring at least one significant detour. Thereafter the river seemed to have depleted its ferocious violence and the railroad embankment had survived mostly intact. The occasional stream or creek entering the river was likely to wash away the rail infrastructure, but at least the detours were no longer 50 foot scrambles up the steep embankments. From Tunnel 31 to Tunnel 32 was a distance of about 1 mile.
As we approached Tunnel 32, across from Tunnel Creek, the boulder strewn waterway widened and even developed sandy stretches of riverside beaches. To get to this point count on at least four hours of hiking, which means you will need to depart the top of Beaver Slide road no later than 4 Pm. That means dropping the down-stream car no later than 2:30, and departing Portland no later than 1 PM.
Alternatively, you can go through Tunnel 32 and on the far side it is possible to double back towards the point of the ridge where there is a nice flat plateau overlooking the river. It overlooks a beautiful set of rapids with small pools interspersed (see picture above) .
Night can fall quickly in these narrow valleys, so don’t tarry too long or the light will fade to leave you cooking in the dark. Be careful with your food stuffs. Remember that you’re deep in the Coast Range which is also home to a considerable population of black bears who might be tempted to feast on your provisions if left casually strewn about.
During the storm of 2007, Tunnel Creek which enters the Salmonberry at the end of this ridge flooded and its debris blocked the main stem of the Salmonberry with an enormous log jam. This obstruction caused the river to back up forcing it to flow through Tunnel 32. As the force of the river struggled to surge through the tunnel the water rose to a height of 25 feet above the mouth of the tunnel. It scoured the rock face of all vegetation as it pushing boulders the size of Volkswagens through the tunnel! Once the logjam burst, the river redistributed the accumulated sand and material all along the straight stretch of river downstream – raising the bed of the river by almost 3 feet.
Tunnel 32 proved to be the turning point after which the hike became more predictable and the detours less strenuous.
The valley seemed to open up a bit on the western side of Tunnel 32, and the route straightened in a more or less northwesterly direction. Not long after emerging from the tunnel ( about .1 mile) we suddenly came upon small cabins nestled into the hillside above the rail road tracks. The first of these cabins belongs to Don Hennig, whose father acquired it in 1965. Probably built in the 1930′s during the heyday of the logging activity in this area, it served as a bunkhouse for the loggers and railroad hands that operated out of the isolated hamlet of Enright. Today the community is comprised of a handful of of remote cabins, but prior to the Tillamook Fire burned off most the timber, Enright had a population of nearly 400 people.
It was during this phase of the hike that we began to notice that a band of taggers had preceded us over the years. “Ogre” had signed his name all the way up the Salmonberry to Cochran Pond in 2008 as part of a 42 mile hike (presumably 21 miles up the river and back). Evidently he returned the following year with his associates: Gime, Bumjug, Ex2R, Why, Crook and Depths. Gime, I am told is well known as a Portland grafitti artist… Needless to say we found the spray paint commentary both artistically pleasing and the nonsensical commentary amusing.
The water tower at Enright sported one of the best signature pieces by Gime. In 1915 there were seven such water tanks along the way, to provide ample water for the engines to exert sufficient power to navigate the 3% grade that began just beyond Enright.
6. Belfort segment.
From the water tank in Enright it’s about 2 miles to Belfort and most of the way is pretty open and requiring only a few detours. One mile beyond the water tank the railroad crosses the river and begins to follow the north bank. That bridge appears to have been the log book for our traveling taggers chronicling the signatures.
About a half mile beyond the bridge we encounter our last major detour as a fast flowing tributary has swept away part of the roadway. But beyond that the roadway continues relentlessly onwards towards the Nehalem River. It all looks so peaceful in the afternoon summer sun, but I can only image the ferocity of the water and the elements as they tore this iron and steel railway to pieces in 2007.
As the route progresses we see tall pinnacle peaks, and bare cliffs looming above the valley. But the river at this stage is becoming wider and is a long series of tree shaded pools inviting the tired hiker to shed his or her clothes and jump in…
7. Nehalem Confluence.
The final stage of the hike takes us from Belfort all the way to the confluence of the Salmonberry and the Nehalem River. Leaving the curve in the river that once marked the location of Belfort on the north side of the Salmonberry, we reach the quarry (about 1 mile from Belfort) that was used to procure all the rock fill that supported the railroad embankment until the river decided to reclaim its rocks. About a half mile further we cross the river once again and begin to track along the south side of the river.
As we proceed through ever widening embankments, keep a sharp eye open for a steel cable strung between two trees – about a quarter of a mile beyond the bridge. When you spot it look carefully amongst the trees that line the opposite shore for a partially concealed home patched together with found materials. I would not recommend making a visit since the last time I was there I noticed a rifle leaning ominously against the front door. Perhaps it would be wise to honor their desire for privacy…
And anyway just around the corner is one of the best swimming holes on the river – and close enough to the terminus of the trail to provide a lasting refreshment for the drive out. As you turn the corner (track bends to the left) follow the tracks along until you nearly reach the narrow portion that bends to the right again. Just prior to that you will come across a small ravine that drops down the embankment towards the river. This is probably the best way to reach the shore. Once you’ve reached the river level follow the shore a bit upstream to where you can see some nice pools interspersed by large rocks. A large boulder on the shore sits over a small patch of sand and offers a handy wind break if the afternoon breezes are too cool for your liking. Now shed clothes and enter the water either very quickly or very slowly – your choice. But once immersed this pool is next to heaven, in my humble estimation!
Returning to the railroads tracks, keep traveling west. About 2/3 of a mile onwards you cross the last bridge (note the “VRS” tag along the base of the bridge). Also notice the huge tree wedged underneath the bridge – look at it carefully and imagine what force it took to wedge it into that position. Just past the bridge you’ll come across two homes set along the north bank of the river. Shortly after that there is a track that angles away from the tracks on the right side. Take this route it will get you to the road quickly.
Be sure to look at the bridge over the Salmonberry that was also washed away by the 2007 flood. When I was out in August of 2010, I spoke to two engineers that told me the bridge would be rebuilt and opened in 2012. This hike ends at the Lower Nehalem/Foss Road junction. As seen in the nearby picture, the railroad extends over the Nehalem river and eventually reaches the coast at Wheeler – about 17 miles as the train rolls. This southern passage to the coast ends here, as all further travel is really part of the coastal plain.
To paraphrase Coleridge, seventeen miles “meandering with a mazy motion through wood and dale the sacred river ran …then reached the ocean measureless to man“.