News for those who live, work and play in the Santiam Canyon

North Fork Road opens; parks still closed

Marion County has reopened North Fork Road, almost three years to the day after the 2020 wildfires blackened huge swaths of the area.

The road, which runs for approximately 15 miles before merging into USFS Road 2207, had access restrictions essentially from the moment the wildfires swept down the Little North Santiam River.

As of Sept. 6, those restrictions ended, and the gates and key entry systems no longer limit traffic to residents and contractors. The end to traffic restrictions also applies to Gates Hill Road, which runs from near the Elkhorn Valley Golf Course to Highway 22 in Gates.

Visitors will notice increased signage regarding areas that have public access and those that are private property. A red stripe has been added to the pavement to note where  parking is prohibited.

Marion County officials opened North Fork Road despite criticism from residents concerned that those interested in recreation opportunities along the Little North Fork River will have nowhere to go. All Marion County and Bureau of Land Management sites remain closed and those in the Willamette National Forest in the corridor are effectively closed.

Residents fear encroachments on private property as well as issues such as trash and alcohol problems.

Willamette National Forest officials say the forest itself is open to the public, but the roads into the area, such as Forest Roads 2207 and 2209 in the Opal Creek area, will remain closed until at least 2024. In other words, you can hike at Opal Creek, but you can’t legally drive to the trailhead.

Marion County Sheriff’s Office deputies who patrol the North Fork area say that when parks were open the traffic on summer weekends reached 2,000 vehicles. Traffic levels with limited or no river access remain to be seen.

Marion County officials have said repeatedly that once North Fork Road repairs were made and hazard trees were removed there would no longer be a compelling reason to continue the access restrictions on the public county road.

Here is an update on the parks in the North Fork region:

Marion County

Bear Creek: Will open for day-use on May 15, 2024. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has released approximately $1.5 million for park restoration. This includes rebuilding the stairs down to the river; restoring restroom facilities, parking areas and information signs; and cleaning up any remaining safety hazards. The county hopes to have camping available in 2025.

Salmon Falls: Set to reopen for day-use on May 15, 2024. Projects before reopening include restoring the restrooms, day-use parking, and pedestrian bridges and stairways leading down to the river.

North Fork: Unique because the land includes parcels owned by the county and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The BLM still is still working through the hazard tree issues. County officials say the public should not expect North Fork to reopen until after the summer of 2024.

Highway 22 parks: North Santiam and Packsaddle have already reopened, with county officials noting that Minto and Niagara likely will reopen on the same timetable as Bear Creek and Salmon Falls (May 2024).

The Marion County Parks Commission in a months-long effort, has produced a plan for the future of Packsaddle, Minto, Niagara, Bear Creek, Salmon Falls and North Fork (the North Santiam process is operating on a different timeline).

County spokeswoman Yancee Gordon noted that “implementation of many of the park improvements identified in the plan will depend largely on the county’s success acquiring recreation grants from various funding sources over time. Our top priority is safe river access for all six parks and camping at Bear Creek as well as the other amenities for each park. Further improvements will happen as funding becomes available.”

County officials working on the plan estimated it might cost as much as $24 million over a 3- to 10-year period.

Bureau of Land Management

BLM sites at Elkhorn Valley and Canyon Creek in the North Fork, remain closed, said Traci Meredith of the BLM’s Northwest Oregon District Office. The BLM’s Fishermen’s Bend facility on Highway 22 is open, but has limited river access and hiking and picnicking options at present. Its extensive camping operations remain closed.

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