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Wilson River Traverse Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

Kings Mountain and the footbridge at the Tillamook Forest Center, Wilson River Trail (bobcat)
Big deer-vetch (Lotus crassifolius), Elk Mountain, Wilson River Trail (bobcat)
Big Creek, Wilson River Trail (bobcat)
Trailside pinnacle, Lester Creek bowl, Wilson River Trail (bobcat)
North Fork Wilson River at Diamond Mill, Wilson River Trail (bobcat)
Lester Creek Falls, North Fork Wilson River (bobcat)
Jones Creek Footbridge, Wilson River Trail (bobcat)
Cedar Creek, Wilson River Trail (bobcat)
The Wilson River near Wilson Falls (bobcat)
The crossing at Wolf Creek (former bridge shown), Wilson River Trail (bobcat)
Raccoon tracks near Ryan Creek, Wilson River Trail (bobcat)
Muesial Creek Falls, south of Keenig Creek (bobcat)
GPS track of the through hike; click link for large image: [Wilson River Trail] (KepPNW)

  • Start point: Elk Creek TrailheadRoad.JPG
  • End point: Keenig Creek Trailhead
  • Hike Type: Traverse (car shuttle)
  • Distance: 22.6 miles one way
  • Elevation gain: 3950 feet
  • High Point: 1835 feet
  • Difficulty: Difficult
  • Seasons: All year
  • Family Friendly: Yes, in short sections
  • Backpackable: Yes
  • Crowded: No


Hike Description

The Wilson River Trail gives hikers a sense of a major river corridor in the Coast Range, running as it does from Elk Creek to Keenig Creek, where ends the last section officially completed. The trail as it exists arose from an amalgam of user tracks, fishermen's trails and abandoned logging roads, as well as freshly carved passages across steep hillsides by dedicated trail building crews, and there are plans to extend the trail both north and south of its current course. Where the Wilson River runs on public land, the trail keeps fairly close to it, but there are two major deviations from the river, both with significant elevation gain, to avoid parcels of private property: the first is above Lees Camp, which, since November 6th 2006, has held the Oregon record for the most rainfall in 24 hours (14.3 inches); the second is on the last section of the trail in the large bowl of Ryan Creek.

The area is wet, but all sections of the trail provide opportunities for hiking at any season although there could be closures of damaged segments. Another restriction may be Highway 6 itself, which seems to get closed at least once a winter because of flooding, trees down, slides, or all the above. Forest cover comprises dominant stands of red alder and big-leaf maple in the river and creek valleys, with Douglas-fir, western hemlock, western red-cedar and the odd Pacific yew being the only conifers. The understory is most commonly sword fern, with Oregon grape, salal, and vine maple as significant companions. The entire woodland had been logged in parts before being devastated by the Tillamook Burns of 1933 - 1951. You will note only a handful of trees over 60 years old. Elk are often seen and their sign is everywhere. Blacktail deer, coyote, and bobcat also ply the trail; their spoor is most often discerned after a winter snowfall. Mergansers fish the river, beavers chip away at the alders, and dippers bob and dunk for insects in the spate. The Wilson River is an Oregon angler's mecca for steelhead as well as fall and spring Chinook. You will probably see more fishermen than hikers along the trail.

The trail is well-signposted and easy to follow. Pay attention to closure signs: in the volatile Coast Range, where subduction stress from the Juan de Fuca Plate tilts the mountains gradually eastward, hillsides slip away with regularity and parts of the trail could be closed in any fall or winter to await a summer repair. The two brochures offered by the Oregon Department of Forestry are sufficient to follow the trail (see the links under Maps below).

The entire trail is eminently doable as a car shuttle for fit hikers and a hike and bike is also an option if you drop off a bike at the Elk Creek Trailhead and begin the hike at the Keenig Creek Trailhead or any point between; however, most people will want to attack it in sections. The descriptions below split the trail into five parts, beginning with the one closest to Portland. Elevation gain is for all "up" sections, in and out, and the mileage given is for the round trip.

1. Dog Creek section

Directions: From the trailhead, head up the trail and shortly come to the Wilson River-Elk Mountain Trail Junction. Go left here, rise, and then drop below a rock face and steep wildflower meadow. The trail levels on an old road bed, crosses a small creek, and eventually rises again to a view of the Wilson River valley. The trail crosses another creek and then makes a gently descending traverse through a sunny opening. Make two switchbacks down and cross Big Creek. Keep rising in an understory of maidenhair fern, sword fern, salmonberry, oxalis, and thimbleberry. A new section of the trail (2013) heads in and above a small bog and rejoins the old tread to cross a footbridge over Dog Creek. A shortcut trails peels off to the left, but soon you will reach the signposted Kings Mountain Trail at the Wilson River-Kings Mountain Trail Junction. It's 0.1 miles down an eroded forest track to the Kings Mountain Trailhead.

2. Lester Creek section

Directions: From the trailhead, go up the rather eroded trail into red alder, big-leaf maple and Douglas-fir woods with a carpet of sword fern. Pass a tie trail leading to the right and come to the four-way Wilson River-Kings Mountain Trail Junction, where you go left. Cross a creek in an eroded gulley and come to a junction with a mossy jeep track. This is the former Kings Mountain Junior route. Keep straight here and traverse upward through Douglas-fir woods. The trail heads up a gully, crosses a wooden footbridge, and then negotiates another gully. The path loops upward across an oxalis/sword fern carpet and then makes a switchback. Heading up along the east side of a ridge, there are glimpses of the Elk and Kings Mountain summits through the trees. The trail switches over to the west side: hike along it to reach a ridge crest. Pass a mossy spring and keep ascending through Douglas-fir, Oregon grape, and alder forest to an old road bed. Here, go left and reach the nose of a ridge in an alder glade, the unsigned Wilson River-Kings Mountain Junior Trail Junction.

The trail keeps to the alder-shaded road bed and heads around the face of the Lester Creek bowl. Drop to the end of the road bed. Traverse on the level, drop, and join another former forest road. (Many of these roads were created for the sole purpose of replanting in the 1950s.) Cross Lester Creek and begin a traverse, crossing another creek with small waterfalls. Looking down, you will see more small falls in the gully below. Everywhere, there are burn snags from the great fires. Pass a rock pinnacle, and, looking back across the valley, you will see its twin (these are sometimes called the Lester Creek Pinnacles). The trail rounds a point with an open view and heads into another steep-sided valley. Cross a creek, round a rocky point with views back to Kings Mountain, and descend, crossing a road bed. The trail switchbacks down in a Douglas-fir plantation with a carpet of Oregon grape and sword fern. Switchback again, pass a huge stump, and head across a grassy opening at an old road junction. Wind through woods and then make a loop around a wetland sprouting skunk-cabbage and mossy alders. The trail enters alder woods and reaches a creek. Traverse a slope, crossing small brooks. At this point, you may become familiar with the sounds and smells of the Diamond Mill ORV Area. The trail switchbacks to a 110-foot suspension bridge over the North Fork Wilson River. There's a picnic table here for your dining pleasure.

Before you return, walk along the west bank of the North Fork past the end of the ORV parking area to get a view of Lester Creek Falls, a three-tiered beauty tumbling on private land. From here, head back the way you came.

3. North Fork Wilson River section

Directions: This is the shortest but least prepossessing of sections on the Wilson River Trail, paralleling as it does for most of its course the North Fork Road, which sees a lot of ORV traffic. The highlights are right at the beginning. Walk from the Diamond Mill Trailhead to the impressive suspension bridge over the North Fork and scan the clear waters for languishing steelhead. Then take the trail down the west bank of the river to get a view of Lester Creek Falls. From the south end of the ORV staging area, the trail crosses a creek and makes several short switchbacks up to cross the North Fork Road north of its one mile marker. There are great views of Kings Mountain from here. Head up to cross and ORV trail and traverse the hillside before reaching the ridge crest to switchback down. Traverse to the road again under Douglas-firs and alders. Cross the road at the 0.5 mile marker, then drop down and double back along a sword fern-cloaked slope. Cross a stream on a plank and head up the gully to drop down an old road bed. Reach Cedar Creek Road at a pair of wooden handrails; from here, go left and then right into the Jones Creek Trailhead parking area. You can access a picnic area on the Wilson River by walking down some steps.

4. Cedar Creek section

Directions: From the Jones Creek Trailhead, walk past the information board down steps to a picnic area near the river. Head along a wide gravel trail to reach a gravel road and pass the outhouse at the group camping area for the Jones Creek Campground. Cross Jones Creek on a footbridge, cross a smaller creek at the Jones Creek Meadow, and then reach the Wilson River-Tillamook Forest Center Trail Junction. You can go left here to cross the massive footbridge over the Wilson River to the Forest Center (open March 1st to late November), where you can get information, see exhibits, and pick up trail brochures. The Tillamook Forest Center Trailhead is also an optional beginning for this section of the trail. (Note, however, that the bridge cannot be accessed from the Center when the latter is closed.)

Continue on the Wilson River Trail under red alder, big-leaf maple, and western red-cedar and begin rising. You will see Cedar Creek Road above the trail. Reach the road and walk along it for about 100 yards before dropping to resume the path. Almost any time of year, you will notice fresh elk tracks and droppings in this area. Hike in mossy woods above the river and then head in to Cedar Creek Road again to cross wide, alder-shaded Cedar Creek on the vehicle bridge. The trail heads off the road and you get a view of Luebke Creek entering the Wilson on the opposite bank. Then make two switchbacks up. You'll see a few huge, fire-charred stumps in this area. High above the river, the trail crosses the small creek at the base of Wilson Falls. Keep rising to a ridge and then switchback down. Ascend and then drop again to a log footbridge. The trail now takes advantage of an old road bed in mixed forest of Douglas-fir and red alder with a carpet of sword fern. Reach another footbridge and head uphill, drop, hike on the level for a stretch, and then rise again to the Wilson River-Footbridge Trail Junction.

To see the footbridge and Bridge Creek Falls, go left here and switchback down to a rocky overflow channel. Go left to a scenic bend in the river and note the huge log pile on the rock outcrop above. Take the trail past the log pile up the salal-covered knoll and cross the footbridge over a narrow gorge. See Lower Bridge Creek Falls spilling out of a culvert just upriver. Walk up stone steps to the highway. To reach the Footbridge Trailhead, which has restrooms, continue up the highway and take a tie trail down to the parking area.

For Bridge Creek Falls, cross the highway at the end of the crash barrier and walk a few yards down the road to the stone staircase leading up Bridge Creek. Pipes from a small cistern at the base of the falls conveyed fresh water to highway travelers in times past.

5. Ryan Creek section

Directions: Head off up a gravel pathway from the Footbridge Trailhead parking area to Highway 6. Walk along the highway, keeping to the right of a low stone wall and glimpsing a view across the highway of Bridge Creek Falls, which is worth a visit on the way back. Stone steps lead down to the footbridge. From here, get a view of Lower Bridge Creek Falls and the Wilson River Gorge. Descend the flank of a rocky knoll to cross an overflow channel at a bend in the river. There’s a huge pile of log debris here. The trail resumes at the other end of the channel. Heading into an alder grove, come to the Wilson River-Footbridge Trail Junction.

Go left here and cross a creek with a small waterfall. Rise gently and cross a footbridge in sword fern and alder woods with some large stumps - all that remains of the magnificent old growth. Descend and then traverse up above the Wilson to cross a creek. The trail rises under Douglas-firs and big-leaf maples. Make a high traverse above the river, crossing a rocky face. Then take two switchbacks down and join gravel Wolf Creek Road. Bear right up the road for 200 yards, noting elk tracks and droppings, with Wolf Creek rushing down to the left. The trail drops down into lush woods and crosses two footbridges, over Wolf Creek and a tributary, then switchbacks up, gradually rising in alder, Douglas-fir and hemlock forest. Hike north along a ridge and then traverse a slope. Undulate a little, and then make a level traverse, crossing several small creeks. You have now entered the drainage bowl of Ryan Creek. Two streams slide down over bedrock. Make two switchbacks up and make another level traverse, passing in front of a small waterfall. Begin to descend and cross a creek, then another creek below a 25-foot waterfall partially hidden by young alders. Head in and out of shallow gullies. Another creek slides down rocks to the trail. Cross two more creeks and round a ridge nose. Make a traverse to cross another creek. Eventually, the trail joins an old road bed under cedar, Douglas-fir and hemlock. This road bed joins the Cedar Butte Road.

The trail resumes 40 yards down the road. Pass large stumps and a lone Sitka spruce out of its element as you begin a traverse in a clearcut. There are also scattered Douglas-firs and hemlocks. Cross a motorcycle trail. Highway 6 is far below along the river as you begin switchbacking down. At the fourth switchback, pass a thicket of young alders. The trail is grassy and open and not heavily used here, except by elk. Make nine more shorter switchbacks. Groundcover includes evergreen and trailing blackberry, foxglove, and sword fern. Make a longer traverse past huge stumps, switchback, and traverse again. Switchback above a gully with a view of a small waterfall and make three very short switchbacks to cross a creek in an open landslide area. Traverse west and switchback over a small stream to descend past a trail sign and reach Muesial Creek Road above the Keenig Creek Trailhead and campground. There are a couple of outhouses here.

Further explorations: The original plan for the Wilson River Trail envisioned a 30-mile corridor. Sections have been worked on below Keenig Creek, and there is a completed section from Elk Creek to Idiot Creek Loop Road.

To hike the section below Keenig Creek (about a mile), go right up the road about 120 yards to cross over Keenig Creek and then head down a campground access road blocked by a chain. The track leads down to a campsite rimmed by alders. Head straight toward the river and pick up the trail, which is marked by red flagging. The trail heads west above the river on steep slopes. It drops to only a few feet above the river at a bend. You can see a beaver-gnawed tree across the river. Walk under powerlines and pass a campsite on the right and then come to Muesial Creek where it enters the Wilson. The path heads up to the right and hits the Muesial Creek Road. Cross the bridge over the creek. There’s a waterfall pouring down above the bridge. A few yards up the road, the trail drops down and follows a grassy path under the powerlines. Reach an access point from Muesial Creek Road to the powerline corridor. This would be a good place to turn around.


Fees, Regulations, etc.

  • Share trail with mountain bikers
  • Check ahead for trail and highway closures in fall/winter
  • Camping at Elk Creek, Jones Creek, Diamond Mill and Keenig Creek (The last three see a lot of OHV users); there are walk-in tent sites at Jones Creek

Trip Reports

Related Discussions / Q&A

Guidebooks that cover this hike

  • 25 Hikes on Oregon's Tillamook Coast by Adam Sawyer (all sections)
  • Afoot & Afield: Portland/Vancouver by Douglas Lorain (Sections 1, 2, 4)
  • 100 Hikes/Travel Guide: Oregon Coast and Coast Range by William L. Sullivan (Section 4)
  • Best Hikes Near Portland by Fred Barstad (Sections 1, 2, 3, 4)
  • 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Portland by Paul Gerald (all sections)
  • Take a Hike: Portland by Barbara I. Bond (most of Section 5)
  • Oregon & Washington: 50 Hikes With Kids by Wendy Gorton (Section 4)
  • 50 Hikes in the Tillamook and Clatsop State Forests by the Sierra Club, Oregon Chapter
  • 50 Hikes in the Tillamook State Forest by the Tillamook State Forest Committee, Columbia Group Sierra Club (Sections 1 & 4 only)
  • Best Trail Runs: Portland, Oregon by Adam W. Chase, Nancy Hobbs, and Yassine Dibboun (Sections 3 & 4)

More Links


Oregon Hikers Field Guide is built as a collaborative effort by its user community. While we make every effort to fact-check, information found here should be considered anecdotal. You should cross-check against other references before planning a hike. Trail routing and conditions are subject to change. Please contact us if you notice errors on this page.

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