Salmon River Canyon

The scent of this morning is confusing. I’ve been here before, stood at this trailhead in the early hours of a summer day, quite recently. The rocky path, sloping up into the forest, and the talkative shallow river look and sound the same. But the smell! Sharp, rich, subtle, sweet: almost familiar and entirely alien.

insanely early hour

I’m at the bottom of the Salmon River Canyon, a deeply shaded cleft in the Cascade foothills south of Mt. Hood, just wide enough for a small road and a wild little river. I’m not sure how many of the tents tucked between those two are pitched on official sites, but I can certainly see what they’re doing here.

This place is…stately. Majestic. It’s also homey, which is an odd combination, but it works. Old growth trees preside over a wide open forest on either side of a clear green river. (These are the kind of ancient woods that seem almost managed, there’s so much space between the trees.) The steep and densely forested canyon walls feel spectacularly high, and the space they enclose is narrow. The effect is a comforting sort of closeness. It’s a physical separation of this piece from the rest of the vast wilderness, an illusion of protection akin to feeling safe in your home, your room, your tent.

The road in – fine walking in itself – offers a pretty carpet of equisetum beneath the overhanging conifers, and in July, peak-season digitalis wave heavy clusters of purple or white bells.

Earlier this summer, I came at 5am on a day predicted to hit 105. Swainson’s thrushes sang to the dawn while I walked a couple of miles on the Old Salmon River Trail. Emerging onto the road when that path ended, I found it so pleasant that I walked the road those couple of miles back. There’s a fine view the whole way of the western canyon wall, the sun at 5 just beginning to light its highest ridge. By 8, I was still cool in the shade on the canyon floor, though the whitening sun had blistered its way down most of the slope, painting it with a glaring haze of heat.

Sure, it LOOKS beautiful.


It’s not all easy walking. I could have chosen to cross the road and pick up the trail actually labeled ‘Salmon River Canyon,’ which is wilder, steeper, and even more beautiful. I did make that choice a couple of weeks later – another early start on another hot day – and today I’m back. I’m hooked.

This path starts out steep, though it evens out just a few hundred yards in. It stays narrow, and on the edges the parched dirt of a long drought crumbles into air underfoot. This is inconvenient because I keep twisting around, planting a foot and then swiveling, following the odd, shifting scent trails that are suddenly everywhere. I feel a little bit like a dog, or an ant, and my husband is laughing at me, but I’m finally on to the mystery here.

It’s not a scent, it’s a least a dozen, and seamlessly blended. I catch hemlock needles, then cedar bark, then summer river water – all familiar scents, but they swirl unpredictably, and they blur, and I can’t name them anymore. A friend told me once that the elusive sweet scent around us then came from a particular fungus, and I smell something similar in this morning’s mix.

The total effect is a perfume I haven’t encountered. I kind of want to wear it. Do I know any perfumers? People used to buy bottled scent made from the musk glands of deer and civets; I am not too proud to wear mushrooms and moss.

The other piece of the puzzle is that something’s brought this out. It’s the cool evening exhaling, maybe, or the long warm day drawing in. Perhaps the paper-dry air just picking up a far-off hint of this weekend’s promised rain.


I get used to the scent, eventually, or it might be that it quiets as the morning unfolds. We’re the first on the trail today, with all the best and worst things that accompany that. No human voices, no need to give way. And no one else to break webs: within minutes, my face and arms are criss-crossed with fine, floating threads. I have spider-silk trailing from my eyelashes – an interesting new cosmetic trend.

The trail stays near the river for perhaps two miles, mostly flat and quietly scenic. We spot several good places to stop for a break by the water. If you’re willing to pack in a camp chair and a book, you could spend a fine day out here doing very little.

Papers, please?

At the boundary of the Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness, we’re starting to get some exercise. The promised elevation gain on this hike is no more than 900 feet – we’ve just found it. I start pushing faster; a slope is a challenge to be met. My body wakes up when I plant my feet on a hill and point them upward. Downhill is a challenge of another sort: intentional slowing, careful foot placement to avoid jarred knees. It lacks the rush, for me, though my husband informs me when we finally turn around that “downhill is the best hill.”

This higher section dips in and out of side canyons, veering suddenly from the chatter of the river into pockets of otherworldly quiet. There’s no wind at all, so the usual sounds of leaf flutter and branch percussion are absent; it’s just the occasional bird call and the river that sounds as if someone has wrapped it in wool. Turn a corner and you’re back, the water carelessly throwing its voice and flashing in the morning sun.

It’s a long trail, and you can make it into a backpacking loop if you want to stay overnight. I’m told there are meadows further up, and a particularly scenic canyon view. I don’t find them today, but they’d be superfluous anyway. There’s enough beauty here to satisfy even if I walked blindfolded. (I tried that once, and learn from my folly: it’s a bad idea for the inexperienced.)

Even if you’re not sure how much walking you’re up to, the Salmon River Canyon is well worth the time it takes to get here from Portland. Wander down the road, stroll along the flat Old Trail and stop to play in the river, get a good workout on the Canyon Trail, read under a big old cedar, or launch a multi-day backcountry expedition. Best choice: camp here in the canyon for a few days, and you’re perfectly positioned to do any and all of those things.

Actual water under the bridge

The two trails mentioned here are reached from the same road. Drive US 26 to Zigzag, and turn on E. Salmon River Road. (It’s right next to the Subway, on the south side of the highway.) The start of the Old Salmon River Trail (easy, short) is about 2.5 miles in, and there’s not a lot of parking, so come early. The trailhead for the Salmon River Canyon trail (moderate, much longer) is about 5 miles in, with somewhat more parking. There’s an official campground in between: Green Canyon. You will need a Northwest Forest Pass.


4 thoughts on “Salmon River Canyon

  1. A lovely way to begin my morning. My walk earlier was not nearly as wondrous as I too walked early to escape the coming heat of the day, at least for an hour or so.


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