Located about an hour west of Portland in Oregon’s Coast Range, the Gales Creek Trail is a beautifully forested ride, shaded by a dense canopy of stately Douglas-fir trees. But 80 years ago, this area had no living trees at all. The forest had been burned to the ground.
The trouble started on a hot August day in 1933. A logging operation was underway on the south side of Round Top Mountain, in Gales Creek Canyon not far from where the Gales Creek Trail runs today. A steel cable moving a big Douglas-fir log rubbed against the dry bark of a dead snag, igniting it. The fire quickly spread, and for nearly a month it raged across the Coast Range, charring 311,000 acres (nearly 500 square miles) and destroying a staggering 12.5 billion board feet of timber. This fire, and 3 more that re-burned this area over the next 18 years, became known as the Tillamook Burn.
In the aftermath of the fire, Oregon embarked on one of the largest reforestation projects in U.S. history. Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) crews were brought in to help with salvage operations, and for the next eight years they worked on roads, trails, telephone lines, and fire-breaks in the Burn. These young men came from all over the U.S., so while they were working on the Tillamook Burn they lived in wooden barracks at Reehers Camp.
Today Reehers Camp is the northern trailhead for the Gales Creek Trail, and the site of a recreation campground with ten equestrian campsites, six sites for family camping, and a large day-use parking area. Some concrete foundations and the Douglas-fir trees that line the road to the camp are the only visible remains of the historic CCC facility.
The ride on the Gales Creek Trail from Reehers Camp to the summit of 2,550-foot Round Top Mountain is a delight. You’ll pick up the Gales Creek Trail next to the camp’s group shelter or at the day-use parking area. For the first 0.7 mile the trail parallels Cochran Road, then it veers onto Cochran Road and crosses the Nehalem River using the road bridge. On the other side, the trail heads off the road to the left. In 0.5 mile it crosses the historic Tillamook Rail line. (Forest officials are considering a rails-to-trails conversion of the old rail line, so this spot may someday be an important trail junction.)
The trail then heads steadily uphill for 2.1 miles to Bell Camp Road at the summit of Round Top Mountain. Much of the route is heavily forested, though near the top you’ll have views of the surrounding hills through several breaks in the trees.
You can do an up-and-back ride entirely on the Gales Creek Trail, but I like to detour onto the Step Creek Trail on the way up. This trail intersects with the Gales Creek Trail about 0.2 mile after you cross the Tillamook Rail line. If you turn right on it, you can follow the Step Creek Trail along pretty Step Creek and its tributary, Plenty Big Creek, for 1.5 miles. The Step Creek Trail will eventually intersect with the Gales Creek Trail near the top of Round Top Mountain, but for now it stops at Rice Road. If you turn right on this gravel road, it will take you back to the Gales Creek Trail in 1.1 mile. Turn left on the Gales Creek Trail to continue to the summit in 1.4 miles. To return to Reehers Camp, follow the Gales Creek Trail all the way back.
Ride Stats: If you ride out and back on the Gales Creek Trail, it’s 7 miles round trip from Reehers Camp to the summit of Round Top Mountain. If you do a partial loop via the Step Creek Trail, your total round trip will be 8.5 miles. Either way, you’ll go from 1,150 feet to 2,550 feet in elevation. Hoof protection is recommended. The trail is open late spring through fall, though the trail can be very slick after rain, so it’s best to wait until the trail dries out. There is stock water along the trail. The best map of the area is the Tillamook State Forest map.
Note: You can also ride the southern half of the Gales Creek Trail, which starts at the Storey Burn Trailhead off Hwy. 6 and goes up through Gales Creek Canyon to the summit of Round Top Mountain. However, the north section out of Reehers Camp has easier riding, no steep side hills to traverse, far less mountain bike traffic, and you can vary your ride with a side loop on the Step Creek Trail.
Getting to Reehers Camp: From Portland, head west on Hwy. 26. About 32 miles west of the junction of Hwy. 26 and Hwy. 217, turn left on Timber Road and continue 3 miles to the town of Timber. Turn right on Cochran Road and follow it 2.5 miles to Reehers Camp on the left.
Season: May through October
Trailhead Facilities: Reehers Camp has a toilet, potable water from a hand pump, group shelter, manure bins, trash and recycling bins, and camp host. Ten equestrian sites with corrals, picnic tables, and fire pits. Large day-use parking area with toilet and parking for 4-6 trailers. Fee for overnight camping. No fee for day use.
More Information: The Gales Creek Trail is covered in the Reehers Camp chapter of Riding Northwest Oregon Horse Trails, by Kim McCarrel, (Ponderosa Press, 2013)
Reprinted with permission from Northwest Rider Magazine, September 2014.