UPDATE on this trail at the end of this post!
I’ve never done a trail review before – but I wanted to give it a go because my husband and I just got back from a crazy adventure on Shale Ridge Trail in the Willamette National Forest! If you go to the Willamette National Forest website, the description of the trail is pretty limited. Shale Ridge Trail, or Trail #3567, is located off of National Forest Road 19, (NF-19) which is north of Oakridge, Oregon. There is a small parking lot at the trailhead, where you could fit 4 or 5 cars pretty easily, more if you were trying hard. It’s a very lightly used trail though, so there is no need to worry about having enough space for parking. There is a station where you are supposed to fill out a wilderness permit, but the box has been vandalized and looks largely unused.
Pictured below is the map that the Willamette National Forest website provides. If you’re new to the area, I do recommend visiting the Middle Fork Ranger Station. It’s just north of Oakridge, and you can get a great road map that has NF-19 on it, as well as some basic trail maps. Unfortunately, the ranger station doesn’t have any trail maps more advanced than the one below. I managed to find a nicer basic topographic map on the USDA Forest Service website that we used. Here is the link to the Waldo Mountain Topographic Map. Shale Ridge Trail is located at the top of this map. The first part of the trail is cut off, but it’s the easy part of the trail. This topographic map, coupled with the road map provided by the ranger station helped us out a lot. Here is a link on Google Maps to the trailhead from the ranger station.
As you can see from the image, the trail doesn’t look so bad at all. The national forest website describes the length of the trail as 5.5 miles, and it’s labeled as a difficult trail. When I googled it before our trip though, I got very mixed reviews on how long the trail was. Some sites and blogs were listing it at 2.5 miles, some said 3.7 miles. Many said the hike’s difficulty was easy/moderate – so I wasn’t exactly sure what we were getting ourselves into. What we liked about this was that it appeared to connect to the Blair Lake Trail (#3553), which would give us options on where to go because we planned on being out for two nights and were not sure how far we would travel.
We got to the trailhead pretty late the first day. We started hiking right at about 6:00 pm. Now, this was June 18th, so it doesn’t get dark until after 9:00 pm this time of year which helped us a lot.
We powered down the trail and I was surprised, it was pretty easy going!
The first couple of miles seemed to be pretty well maintained, not too many trees blocking the path, with a very open, easy to follow trail. The trail led right through the forest, but not on any particular ridge, so we were curious when we were going to encounter that.
The elevation change for the first section of the trail was very minimal. Probably no more than a few hundred feet.
The first “obstacle” we encountered was about a mile in or so – just a small boggy creek area about 4 feet wide. (PLEASE NOTE – I’m guessing on the mileage on all of the landmarks I talk about on this trail. We did not have a GPS.) So far so good. We easily crossed this little creek. As with any neck of the woods in Oregon this time of year, the mosquitoes were out and looking for blood. I am particularly susceptible to their bites, as I swell up like a balloon. We used an ample amount of DEET to keep them at bay, which worked for the most part.
Now, we didn’t have a whole ton of time, and about an hour into our trek we encountered the first stream across the trail. There is a boggy area marked out on the trail map – it was right around there. The whole thing was about 25 feet across, but it was a bunch of small channels of a rocky stream. It was easy enough to cross if you were willing to hop around on rocks. We crossed it but decided to cross back and camp under some cedar trees in an earlier section of the trail. My guess is that our camp was just under 2 miles into the trail by this point.
We found our camp around 7:45 pm, and got it set up well before dark, ate dinner, and tucked into bed pretty quick. Even though we hadn’t been hiking for too long at all, we had a crazy day getting prepped for our trip and doing some work, so we liked that we were able to get some rest right away. In fact, we slept in until 11:00 am! We took our time packing up camp and eating breakfast, and headed down the trail at about 12:30 pm. We had to cross the stream again, this time we took some photos.
There were a lot of amazing plants along this trail. Here is a picture of Indian Pipes or Ghost Pipes, which according to the internet, are plants that actually do not have chlorophyll, rather they have a parasitic relationship with fungi that get their energy from tree roots. Pretty cool stuff!
After about 30 minutes, we reached a very boggy part of the trail, just before the fork of the Willamette River actually crosses the trail. I’d say that this area, based on other people’s reports and based on the map, is about 2.5 miles in from the trailhead. I believe that a lot of people turn around right around this point, because suddenly, the difficulty level of the trail gets much harder. If you’re looking for an easy/moderate day hike, it’s a 2.5 mile trip into the woods to see some amazing old growth cedar trees.
At this point in the trip, we were wondering if the trail was going to get harder, and it sure did, real fast. I think this is why it was so hard to find info on the trail at first because traveling beyond this point became quite the challenge. The North Fork of the Willamette River passes right through the trail. It’s a confusing crossing with multiple small channels, fallen trees, piles of snagged logs, and overgrown brush.
The trail just stops right at the edge of a channel of the river, and you’re left on your own to figure out where to go, as there isn’t any signage or defined trail. Fortunately, someone has tied some ribbons in the trees every 20-50ft. They are real hard to spot. It took us almost an hour of wandering around trying to figure everything out safely. We tried hard to stay dry, but we couldn’t find a safe way to cross the middle two channels without getting our shoes wet. This was a challenge with 45lb packs on as well.
After our river crossing adventures, we immediately encountered our first major elevation change. The path gets narrower and goes almost straight up a mountainside with minimal switchbacks. I’d guess that the path climbs between 700-1000ft in a very short distance.
I think this is the point where the trail lives up to the name of being Shale Ridge trail because now we were finally on a ridge. The trail seemed like it hadn’t had much traffic at all in the past few years. It was hard to see where it was at this point, and there were tons of fallen logs on it.
We forged on down the trail, at an incredibly slow rate. There was a lot of overgrown brush and tons of fallen trees we had to carefully climb over without falling down the cliff. We were now following the river, but it was down in a gorge a couple hundred yards below.
About a mile past the river crossing, we encountered a section of the trail that was very rocky. The only way we knew where the trail was supposed to go was that someone had intentionally put in piles of 3-4 rocks every few feet along the “trail”.
After the rocky area, the trail led back down the mountain to follow the edge of the river pretty closely. The bugs were out in full force of course, but the river was beautiful. We felt like we were bushwhacking at this point, because the trail was so hard to find.
We followed the river for at least a mile, maybe more, before the trail started to climb the mountain again. Even though distance-wise we hadn’t traveled too far, It was getting on in the day, probably around 5:00 pm.
This is where things got challenging. The trail started disappearing much more often. When the trail would disappear, one of us would follow the trajectory of the path, looking for an old cut log from previous maintenance to find the path again. The only cut logs were from years and years ago. After hiking back up a significant part of the mountain, probably climing another 800 feet or so in elevation, we had to give up finding the trail.
It was just after 7:00 pm. My guess is that we got 4.5-5 miles down the trail from the trailhead before we had to stop. We tried our very best to make it to the Blair Lake Trail, but it was not going to happen. There simply wasn’t a trail to follow, and we did not have a GPS or cell signal to help us navigate, and we were starting to distrust our map and the stuff that the forest service website said.
It was amazing how long it took to hike the little bit of distance that we covered. I can tell you that we didn’t dilly dally hardly at all. Our lunch break was about 15 minutes long. Navigating this trail was rough. I can see why it was rated as difficult on the national forest website now, but I think it should get an “extra-difficult” rating due to the fact that it clearly has not been maintained in years and years. It also didn’t help that we had huge packs, but we were thankful for all of the gear that we brought with us.
The next day, we hiked back out, leaving around 9:00 am. Coming back out wasn’t as hard because at least we knew where the trail was, but it was still quite the physical challenge, as we, again, had to fight brush a significant portion of the way. We refilled water (using a Katadyn Hiker Pro water filter) at one point and took an hour break at the river crossing. We made it back to the trailhead somewhere between 2:30 and 3:00 pm. We didn’t take any other breaks really at all, as we were anxious to get back to the car. It was a gorgeous and strenuous adventure. We wanted to make sure we were back to the car with enough time to drive home safely without being completely exhausted. Overall, I think we walked about 10 miles. For a couple of people who are relatively fit, but haven’t done a multi-day hike like that, I think we did pretty well! It was so much fun.
I wanted to post this so that folks could read about the fact that we were BUMMED that this trail is not being maintained and does not connect to the Blair Lake Trail like the website said it did. I hope that someone out there finds this info useful! Please leave comments if you’ve enjoyed this post or have traveled this trail yourself, I’d love to hear from you.
Also, I want to give a shout out to the Cascadia Hiking Blog, which seems to be the only person I could find online who has traveled the trail past the river (and posted about it) from what I can see in the recent years. The post, though, is from 2013, so I really wonder who else, if anyone else has been up there besides us since then. What I liked about this post is the blogger includes a GPS map of the trail they walked at the end of their post. Unfortunately, I don’t have any gear like that.
That’s all for now folks! Stay tuned for an “Airyca’s Favorite Things” post next, about the Becker BK11!
UPDATE 7/12/15 –
So I emailed this blog post to the Forest Service with some questions about Shale Ridge Trail, and guess what?! They answered! I actually got to email back from one of the U.S. Forest Service guys who had probably been the last Forest Service person on the trail. He said that he’d been down the trail where we were at in 2013, and doesn’t recall anyone else from the Forest Service having gone done there since. Even then he had to use a GPS to navigate where the trail disappears. The man that I spoke to when we were on the trail was mistaken that the Forest Service can’t find the trail, it’s just that they have had budget cuts that make it hard to maintain every trail all of the time. The last time that this trail has been maintained past the river was in 2008!
One thing I learned that I didn’t realize before is that you cannot use power tools like chainsaws to maintain a wilderness area, so maintenance of those trails takes a lot of effort. Of course I am hopeful that the trail won’t disappear, but I understand now just how much work it’s going to take to make this trail really accessible again.
Another thing that he said was that the waterfalls that we saw way off in the distance were the North Fork of the Willamette pouring off the rim of the Waldo Basin. Too cool! I wish I owned some nice binoculars, but even with the naked eye, it’s pretty neat to see two fairly large waterfalls at the top of a mountain like that.
A big thanks to the U.S. Forest service for putting out the trail markers that I mentioned earlier in my post, and for responding to my email.