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

Tour shows promise of Canyon parks

Marion County is getting ready for the great reveal of its under-restoration Santiam Canyon-area parks.

The seven parks, North Fork, Bear Creek and Salmon Falls in the North Fork/Elkhorn area and Niagara, Packsaddle, Minto and North Santiam along Highway 22, all were damaged by the 2020 wildfires and only Packsaddle and North Santiam have reopened.

North Fork and Bear Creek reopen May 15, although limited to day-uses such as picnicking and hiking.

Marion County hosted a tour of the seven parks on Friday, April 12. Participating were Commissioners Kevin Cameron and Colm Willis, Sheriff Nick Hunter, several parks and public works officials and members of the media.

Here is a stop-by-stop look at the tour as well as information on parking and day-use fees:

North Fork: Just 2 miles up North Fork Road from Highway 22, this was the most popular county spot pre-fires because of its Little North Santiam River beach access and proximity to the highway. Beach access will be available on opening day, May 15, as well as picnic tables, but the facility still contains vivid reminders of the severity of the fire damage. The road into the park remains a bit rough. Log accumulations still must be cleaned up and sold for firewood. Hunter also cautioned about how fast-moving and cold the water will be for spring and early summer users. 

Bear Creek: A new set of stairs leads to the beach. Picnic tables and some walking paths will be the lone other amenities by May 15, although parks officials are hoping to add camping. Cameron noted that there is Bureau of Land Management property at the eastern edge of the property and that there has been talk of adding it to Bear Creek.    

“Not yet,” said Marion County parks supervisor Kevin Thompson. “That idea still is being floated around. We could extend the campground over there. It’s a blank slate at this point. It used to be solid trees.”

Salmon Falls: This popular waterfall will not be open until at least the summer of 2025.  Day-use improvements still are being planned. The badly scarred restroom must be replaced and parks officials will be using a grant to restore a wetland at the east end of the park. Stairs to the river and the swimming sites still must be repaired.

“Safety and resource protection are the key issues driving when we open here,” Thompson said.

Niagara: This park, the county facility farthest east along Highway 22, won’t open until the summer of 2026. The park has 55 metal steps that survived the fire in good shape and lead to a large rock formation in the middle of the Little North Santiam. The rocks were the foundation for a paper mill that kept getting washed out by the paper. The brick work and other infrastructure from the mill still can be seen and is more than 100 years old, said Russ Dilley, the county’s veteran parks coordinator. “Isn’t this fabulous,” said Commissioner Willis. 

Picnicking and hiking will be available once Niagara opens, but officials still are evaluating how to establish access to the rock formation, which includes great views of the swirling Little North Santiam as well as a waterfall on the south side. You can watch paddlers navigate a narrow chute around the rocks and scramble among the boulders, but you also can fall into the river and drown. Marion County Sheriff’s Lt. Matt Wilkinson was on the tour and told the story of a 2004 death at Niagara that is memorialized with a plaque in the rock wall.

Packsaddle: This facility was the first to reopen, although it suffered severe fire damage. Its key function as a put-in/take-out spot for paddlers remained viable because there was room for trailers to park and the ramp to the river was functional. A trail that headed east up the river was totaled. Officials already have improved the gravel roads leading into the park and are hoping for future parking lot and ramp improvements.

Minto:  “This looks really close,” Cameron said. “We’re almost there,” added parks restoration staffer Ryan Wade. The tour participants walked on a freshly graded gravel path.  The new restroom positively gleamed. At Minto the possibilities are obvious. From a bluff overlooking the river floodplain you can see the network of riverside trails that are taking shape. Look for the park to open in the fall of 2024.

North Santiam: Operations of the park were turned over to the county from the state parks system post-wildfires and the deeding of the land is expected soon. There was quite a bit of fire damage here, but what was spared is of high value. Riverside campsites with freshly mowed grass, A covered group picnic shelter. Restrooms with flush toilets. A boat launch. A camp host helps oversee the park. “This one checks all the boxes,” Thompson said. “It’s open. It’s great.” Parks planners are looking at possibly adding RV sites, yurt and perhaps small cabins, with the goal being to raise revenue that will be poured back into park restoration and upgrades.

Those wishing to visit the parks should note that parking is severely limited on North Fork Road. Visitors should only park in official lots. Red stripes on the road indicate no parking areas. Signs were added that note which properties are public and which are private. Visitors should stay inside the plastic fencing that is set up to protect young plants and seedlings.

Gateway Project: The county is adding a pair of day-use fee stations on North Fork Road just a short distance from Highway 22. The county is using the same turnout it employed for the security system key entry pad when the road was closed because of fire hazards. The fee is $5 and the system is cash-less. Fee stations also will be placed at North Fork and Bear Creek for their May 15 openings, although the remoteness of Bear Creek means the county will have to install wi-fi to make the kiosk functional. No day-use fee will be charged at Packsaddle or North Santiam for the time being. Thompson said the option is being explored.

Other park properties: The two BLM parks in the North Fork area, Elkhorn Valley and Canyon Creek, will not be open by May 15 but might be available for day use by this summer, BLM officials said. The Opal Creek/3 Pools area farther up the north fork on U.S. Forest Service roads might be years away from reopening.

PUBLIC SESSION

Members of the Marion County Board of Commissioners as well as county public works, parks and law enforcement officials will be on hand for a 6 p.m. Friday, May 1 get-together at the Elkhorn Fire Station, 32788 Nork Fork Road. All topics related to county business are up for discussion.

VOLUNTEER SHIFTS

Marion County is using volunteers on some of the required habitat restoration, replanting and invasive weed control efforts. Trailkeepers of Oregon, Oregon Parks Forever and SOLVE are hosting volunteer days May 4 – 5.  Work goes on rain or shine. Registration is required and NO parking is available at the job sites.

May 4: Shifts from, 8:30 a.m. to noon and 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. at North Fork. Shuttle from the ODF compound at the North Fork Road turnoff from Highway 22. Sign up and get more info at https://comsync.lijit.com/1/d/r?aqet=clk&v0=5884f768e775c4871d537f029d4c9077&ru=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.eventbrite.com%2Fe%2Fhelp-reopen-marion-county-parks-willamette-valley-tickets-861138026017%3Futm-campaign%3Dsocial%26utm-content%3Dattendeeshare%26utm-medium%3Ddiscovery%26utm-term%3Dlisting%26utm-source%3Dcp%26aff%3Debdsshcopyurl.

May 5: Shifts from, 8:30 a.m. to noon and 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Minto. Shuttle from the Gates park and ride at Central and Horeb. Sign up and get more info at https://comsync.lijit.com/1/d/r?aqet=clk&v0=291904fde13b5c7c2138b09b9b219170&ru=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.eventbrite.com%2Fe%2Fhelp-reopen-marion-county-parks-willamette-valley-tickets-874047929887%3Futm-campaign%3Dsocial%26utm-content%3Dattendeeshare%26utm-medium%3Ddiscovery%26utm-term%3Dlisting%26utm-source%3Dcp%26aff%3Debdsshcopyurl.

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