Ancient Forest Loop Trail at Oregon’s Breitenbush Hot Springs

Hiking the Ancient Forest Loop Trail is one of the many perks of staying at the Breitenbush Retreat and Conference Center in northeastern Oregon. The 4.7- to 5-mile route stitches together several trails on and around the property to form a loop of old-growth forested beauty. The trails and Breitenbush are located just outside of Detroit, Oregon, in the Willamette National Forest in the Oregon Cascades.

About Breitenbush
Breitenbush Retreat and Conference Center is a self-sustaining, worker-owned cooperative and wildlife preserve comprising 154 acres of woodland along the Breitenbush River. Entirely off-the-grid, Breitenbush generates its own hydroelectric power from the river and heat from the naturally occurring hot springs throughout the area. The community generates income by offering rustic, geothermally heated cabins at rates ranging from $78 to $127 per person double occupancy, depending upon day of the week and time of year, which includes three sumptuous vegetarian meals daily, 24-hour access to the hot springs and pools, and access to a variety of well-being programs such as yoga, meditation, music, and other activities ( Breitenbush also offers limited day use of their natural hot springs, soaking pools, and sauna; reservations and non-refundable payment of $15 to $28 per adult is required in advance.

Signage at the trail junctions.
Signage at the trail junctions.

Experiencing The Ancient Forest Loop
Immediately adjacent to the Brietenbush parking lot is the trailhead for the Spotted Owl Trail, a logical place to begin the Ancient Forest Loop Trail. Maps are available from the Breitenbush office, but the route is pretty simple if you follow these directions and signs. Do check with the Breitenbush staff prior to setting out to determine whether the bridges across Devil’s Creek and the two forks of the Breitenbush River are passable. Vicissitudes of winter’s ice and snow, coupled with spring thaw, can wreak havoc on bridges, boardwalks and signage.

Proceed south on the Spotted Owl Trail through mixed coniferous and deciduous forest. Douglas-fir and Western hemlock dominate the canopy, with aspens and vine maple in the understory. The first mile is fairly level and the trail easy to follow. After about a mile, you reach the first water crossing, over Devil’s Creek. The rustic footbridges here are subject to washouts, but most of the time you will find a safe passage.

Shortly after the creek crossing (about 0.1 mile), you will reach a (usually) signed junction. For the shorter (4.7-mile total loop) and flatter option (but some climbing is still involved), continue on the Spotted Owl Trail by taking the left fork. Alternately, you can take the right fork onto the Cliff Trail, which climbs more steeply. If you take the Cliff Trail, watch for the junction with Devil’s Ridge Trail. At that junction, if you wish to continue on the Ancient Forest Loop (the 5-mile version), turn left. You will rejoin the Spotted Owl Trail at its junction with the Emerald Forest Trail 0.3 mi. later. (Turning right at the junction of Cliff Trail and Devil’s Ridge Trail takes you on a spur trail, where you’ll reach Devil’s Lookout after a steep 0.6 mile, and have the option of continuing on to Devil’s Peak, 1.1 miles past the lookout. Doing the entire out-and-back spur will add 3.4 miles to your hike.)

Boardwalks and bridges aid in water crossings.
Boardwalks and bridges aid in water crossings.

Emerald Forest And Breitenbush Gorge Trail Segments
Whichever route you’ve taken, you will eventually reach the 3-way junction where Spotted Owl Trail meets Emerald Forest Trail. Follow the aptly named Emerald Forest Trail a mile to a crossing of the South Fork Breitenbush River. Along the way, depending upon the season, you may see many of the edible and non-edible fungi for which this ancient forest is known (among the many workshop offerings at Breitenbush is a fall mushrooming foray). You will certainly see some of the common flora such as vanilla leaf, devil’s club and a wide variety of ferns.

You will reach a junction with the Breitenbush Gorge Trail after your river crossing. Take a left and follow this trail 1.1 miles to another series of bridges that take you across the North Fork Breitenbush River. The next 0.3 miles can, depending upon the season, be swampy or icy; sturdy boardwalks aid your passage. After 0.3 miles, you will come to a road; turn left and follow this road 0.4 miles, passing the cabins of the owner-workers of the Breitenbush facility. After you pass their parking lot, turn left and take the high and sturdy bridge across the Breitenbush River to the conference and retreat center. Note the community’s hydroelectric facilities on your left at the far side of the bridge. Walking up the hill and through the Breitenbush property back to the main guest parking lot where you began will total approximately 4.7 or 5 miles, depending upon your route choice.

Getting There
From Portland, Oregon, take Interstate 5 south to Salem, then Highway 22 east to Dayton. From Dayton, follow the signs to Breitenbush. Your destination is 2.5 hours from the Portland airport, an hour and 20 minutes from Salem, and 10 slow miles (maybe 20 minutes) from Dayton.


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