Salmon River Hike
From Portland Hikers Field Guide
- Start point: Salmon River Trailhead
- End Point: Salmon River Viewpoint
- Trail Log: Trail Log
- Hike Type: Dogbone (Out to a loop and back)
- Distance: 7.8 miles round-trip
- Elevation gain: 950 feet
- High Point: 2,490 feet
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Seasons: Late Spring through late Fall
- Family Friendly: Yes - young kids to Rolling Riffle Camp, older kids beyond
- Backpackable: Yes - camping at Bighorn, Rolling Riffle and Goat Creek camps
- Crowded: Weekends from Spring through early Fall
The first two miles of this popular route is a trail for all seasons, and is usually open all year. This section of the trail rambles along the Salmon through classic old growth rainforest - some of the most accessible in the Portland region. Beyond the riverside segment, the trail climbs to a sweeping viewpoint of the vast Salmon River canyon, with unseen waterfalls roaring in the depths below. It’s hard to imagine that in the 1960s, the Forest Service planned a paved highway up this canyon, connecting to Highway 26 as an alternative route to the current highway. Thankfully the canyon was included in the 1984 legislation that created the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness, and will forever be protected.
From the trailhead, climb steeply at first, then traverse above the river briefly before passing above a huge island along a rocky ledge. The island is a wide peninsula cut off from the shore by a small, meandering fork that splits from the main river. The massive trees on the island are a preview of the old growth ahead along the main trail. Soon you will reach the point where the fork splits from the main river. Notice how easily the river could rearrange a few logs and send the main branch of the river through the smaller fork! This is a fine example of how stream channels can abruptly change over time.
The trail passes a deep eddy along a rock cliff, then plunges into extremely lush old growth forest, briefly pulling away from the river. Many unmarked side trails drop to the right, usually marking favorite fishing spots. In April, this first mile of trail is lined with formal white trillium and showy groups of fawn lily.
At the 1.5 mile mark, begin to pass periodic campsites, including one that used to be formally known as Bighorn Campground. A footbridge once crossed the Salmon here, leading to the Hambone Trail on the opposite shore. After another half mile, reach the Rolling Riffle Campground, another longtime camp spot, where one site still retains a decaying picnic table. Signs mark this campground, and this is a reasonable spot to complete if you don’t want to tackle the climb to the viewpoint. These campsite are usually full on weekends, so if you plan to spend the night, arrive early.
From Rolling Riffle, the trail crosses a side stream on a bridge, then reaches the wilderness boundary, and registration box. From here, the trail begins climbing away from the river, curving in and out of three side canyons with small streams before reaching a high bluff. At an unmarked fork, take the trail on the right, which quickly leads to a rocky viewpoint of the canyon, and a small waterfall on the river, some 600 feet below. This is a good spot to stop for lunch, and soak in the view. A scramble path drops below the trail here, but resist the temptation to follow it: the views are no better, and these are dangerous cliffs that have been fatal to several careless hikers.
From the viewpoint, the narrow path curves across a steep, exposed slope before entering woods, and climbing through two switchbacks to the main trial. You can continue upstream here for another mile to campsites and water at Goat Creek. But if you are day hiking, you’ve already had the best views (that can be reached safely), so turn left and follow the main trail back to the trailhead. A safer way to see the waterfalls is to visit the links below, where you can view photos from trips to the bottom of the gorge by foot and by kayak.
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Guide books that cover this hike
60 Hikes within 60 Miles of Portland by Paul Gerald
- Photos from 1963 and 1983 expeditions to the Salmon River Gorge
- Photos from the fourth known kayak descent of the Salmon in 2001
- Splintercat (Tom Kloster) (primary)