Why It Matters
The North Santiam is a unique Willamette Valley river that retains healthy swaths of lowland deciduous forest and floodplain habitat that are increasingly rare in the valley. The river traverses the homeland of the native Santiam Kalapuya people, and through some of Oregon’s best old-growth forest, eventually supplying drinking water to Salem, the state capitol. The North Santiam is critical for salmon and steelhead of the Willamette River system.
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The North Santiam once produced two-thirds of the Willamette’s winter steelhead and a third of its spring Chinook—runs that face extinction today. Improved fish-passage management, habitat conservation and other programs on both the North Santiam and Willamette are upping the odds that these fish will survive. The river remains the best hope for salmon and steelhead in the valley. It’s also home to cutthroat trout, Pacific lamprey and Oregon Chub (pictured).
Anchored by its wilderness sources, the North Santiam system supports a rich assemblage of wildlife, including sensitive species like western pond turtle, olive-sided flycatcher, willow flycatcher, northern goshawk, northern red-legged frog, rough-skinned newt and the federally-threatened northern spotted owl. The floodplain habitat of the lower river is especially important to many of these species.
How to See It
Tracing most of the river, Highway 22 is your gateway to the North Santiam and some of Oregon’s most scenic gems. The lower river is dotted with boat launches and campgrounds, but the real treasures lie above Detroit Lake, where you can explore ancient forests, secluded waterfalls and emerald pools within the Opal Creek and Mt. Jefferson Wilderness Areas (permits required).
Within the Opal Creek Wilderness, the “Classic Opal” run on the Little North Santiam is a must-do for Class-V paddlers in Oregon, with four miles of intense drops into deep, crystalline turquoise pools. For a tranquil day-float on the North Santiam—and beautiful views of Chahalpam, our project with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde—paddle from Stayton Bridge for seven miles to the Buell Miller boat ramp.
While the wild Chinook and steelhead runs are arguably too fragile to fish, you can cast a line for wild cutthroats and rainbows; try the reach above Marion Forks Campground along Highway 22, in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness. The Little North Santiam Recreation Area near Lyons is another good option. Check regulations.Check regulations.
The Opal Creek Wilderness is a hiker’s paradise, with 35 miles of secluded trails that thread past 1,000-year-old trees, waterfalls and gin-clear pools. Hike in to rustic cabins at Jawbone Flats, or drive to the Little North Santiam Trail, which leads to the three pools swimming site and Shady Grove Campground. Another stunning old-growth hike is the South Breitenbush Gorge National Recreation Trail.
The WRC Story
For over a decade, WRC has been working with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde to acquire and conserve some of the Willamette Valley’s best unprotected habitat for salmon, steelhead and other wildlife. In 2015, we conserved 429 acres along 2.5 miles of the lower river, including healthy bottomland deciduous forests and side-channel habitat critical for spawning salmon. We transferred these lands to the tribe, which renamed them Chahalpam, meaning “place of the Santiam Kalapuya people,” who were the area’s original inhabitants. Upstream, we expanded on this success in 2016 when we bought a 411-acre farm to conserve three more miles of the river. The tribe renamed those lands Chankawan, meaning “place of salmon.” Together, our efforts are protecting some of the most productive habitat for salmon and steelhead in the entire Willamette basin, along with valuable wetlands and forests that shelter imperiled animals like western pond turtle, red-legged frog and Oregon chub.
Best Time of Year
- Trout fishing
Six areas to explore in Oregon’s North Santiam River country(Travel Salem)
Discovering Valhalla: Oregon’s Hidden Gorge(Oregon Public Broadcasting)
Getting salmon past daunting Willamette Basin dams could have a big price tag—and a big payoff(OregonLive)