Oregon's Tillamook Forest: A Craggy Option

Everyone's heard of the Cascades, but no one seems to know about Tillamook State Forest.
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Everyone's heard of the Cascades, but no one seems to know about Tillamook State Forest.

Like any self-respecting Oregonian, I wear flannel, visit the local espresso shop three times a day, and bike to work. But where I break rank is in my choice of hiking destinations. While everyone else seems to head east to the Cascades, I drive west to Tillamook State Forest. There, I get everything a Northwest hiker craves: craggy peaks, deep forests, elk in the meadows, and volcanoes on the horizon. Plus, Tillamook's trails remain snow-free long after Cascade trails are closed for the season.

Like a backcountry phoenix (the mythical bird, not the city), Tillamook State Forest is a wilderness reborn from the ashes of several catastrophic fires earlier this century. Beginning in the 1950s, the state began a concerted effort to replant the charred mountainsides, and today you'll find a thick, rich, nearly continuous canopy of Douglas fir, red alder, and bigleaf maple. The rivers and streams, always wild and undammed, support some of the healthiest salmon and steelhead runs in the Northwest.

The best introduction for Tillamook newcomers are the Elk and Kings Mountain Trails, which can be combined into a satisfying trek. The views from Elk Mountain's summit rock gardens are sweeping and varied. In one direction the dark, forested ridges are reminiscent of Virginia's hazy Blue Ridge Mountains; in the other direction, the mountains resemble Washington's Olympics.

Experienced backpackers with good navigation skills should take advantage of Tillamook's accessible terrain and venture off-trail. Well-defined elk paths and remnants of old roadbeds run along the top of nearly every ridge in the Sawtooth Ridge area, providing relatively easy hiking. Some worthy bushwacking destinations to aim for include: the jumbled peaks and ridges of Sawtooth, Cedar Butte, upper Company Creek, Mutt Peak, and Feldshaw Ridge.

As I've discovered while leading numerous off-trail outings for the local Sierra Club, you'll have your run of this rugged place.

QUICK TAKE: Tillamook State Forest, OR

DRIVE TIME: The Kings Mountain trailhead is 50 miles (1 hour) from Portland, Oregon.

THE WAY: From US 26 west of Portland, exit onto OR 6 west, following the signs for Banks and Tillamook. The Elk and Kings Mountain trailheads are on the north side of OR 6. To reach the Cedar Butte trailhead, head west on OR 6, exit at Jones Creek Campground, then drive steep Cedar Creek Road for roughly 30 minutes.

TRAILS: For a challenging 17-mile backpack trip, climb Kings Mountain, then head to Elk Mountain, descend Elk Creek, and loop back on a new connector trail. Off-trail routes on Sawtooth Ridge are limited only by your imagination, but a good start is Cedar Butte, reached by a 1-mile trail. From the summit, continue west on elk trails and open ridge for 2 miles and stop at the unpassable gap. Or for superb vistas, try the 6-mile round-trip hike that runs the length of Feldshaw Ridge. Upper Company Creek is an ideal place to set up a basecamp for exploring Mutt Peak and surrounding ridges.

ELEVATION: Kings Mountain trailhead is at 800 feet; Kings Mountain summit reaches 3,226 feet.

CAN'T MISS: Ridgetop wildflower displays in spring, and crystal-clear pools and waterfalls in every river.

CROWD CONTROL: Stick to the areas listed above, where ORV use is not permitted.

MAPS AND GUIDES: Elk and Kings Mountain hikes are detailed in 50 Hikes in Oregon's Coast Range & Siskiyous, by Rhonda and George Ostertag (The Mountaineers; 800-553-4453; $10.95). Bushwhackers should get USGS 7.5-minute topos Cedar Butte, Jordan Creek, Woods Point, Cook Creek and Foley Peak (USGS Information Services; 800-435-7627; www.usgs.gov).

WALK SOFTLY: In rock gardens, stay on the path to avoid crushing flowers. Don't sneak up on elk.

MORE INFORMATION: Tillamook committee, Sierra Club, 3701 SE Milwaukie Ave., Suite F, Portland, OR 97202; (503) 231-0507; www.spiritone.com/~orsierra/comittee.html.