Explore the emerald pools Oregon's Elk Lake Creek via ‘wilderness snorkeling’ – Statesman Journal

August 14, 2019 - Comment

Zach Urness Salem Statesman Journal Published 10:49 AM EDT Aug 14, 2019 The only problem with snorkeling Oregon’s clearest rivers and creeks is that the water is often bone-chillingly cold.  Even with a wetsuit — or even a drysuit — the streams of most crystalline purity feel as warm as a bathtub of ice cubes


The only problem with snorkeling Oregon’s clearest rivers and creeks is that the water is often bone-chillingly cold. 

Even with a wetsuit — or even a drysuit — the streams of most crystalline purity feel as warm as a bathtub of ice cubes when you dive underwater.

But that’s the price you pay for the chance to explore worlds of emerald glass in streams such as the Little North Santiam, Collawash and, earlier this month, a place called Elk Lake Creek.

Over the past two summers, I caught the river snorkeling bug — exploring streams with a face mask, breathing tube and fins. Below the surface, you discover deep canyons, come nose-to-nose with curious fish and appreciate the complexity of rivers in a way you can’t from above.

My favorite part is what I’ll call “backcountry snorkeling,” which includes packing your gear and hiking a few miles into the wild to find the most interesting spots.

Last month, I headed to Elk Lake Creek, a remote stream that flows as clear and cold as liquid glass through the Bull of the Woods Wilderness. 

It was everything I could have hoped for, minus turning into a human popsicle. 

Snorkel setup and getting started

If you want to get started in river snorkeling, it’s easier than you might think. Last summer I headed to Salem Scuba for advice and all the gear needed to get started.

After a quick test-run with the equipment, I was ready to roll. 

The purchase has been worthwhile. I’ve brought snorkel to countless swimming holes around Oregon, even to places like Detroit Lake. It’s just an easy thing to include on any adventure. 

More snorkeing: Discover an underwater world in the Little North Santiam river via snorkel

Backcountry snorkeling is more involved. I packed all the snorkel equipment into a pack that also included a waterproof case for cameras, maps, cell phones and lunch. (Nobody wants a soggy sandwich).

A good backcountry snorkel trip means in addition to hiking, you’ll also be traveling and exploring in the water — maybe even jumping off waterfalls — and want to be as waterproof as possible.

Elk Lake Creek

I met adventure pal Jeff Green, a Salem photographer and homebuilder, at the Elk Lake Creek Trailhead around 8 a.m. We quickly went over the plan.

First, we’d hike three miles to a place called Emerald Pool, scouting out good spots to access the creek on the way. We didn’t want more than six miles of hiking overall, because snorkeling and exploring takes plenty of energy itself. 

“Good?” I said.

“Good,” said Jeff.

The trail starts in second-growth forest but nice views begin quickly, with a booming waterfall in the first half-mile and a promising-looking canyon for snorkeling.

“Let’s make sure to leave enough time for this place,” I said.

We crossed into Bull of the Woods Wilderness and at mile 2, reached Welcome Creek.  It’s a beautiful spot, with multiple tiers of waterfalls.

Beyond, we reached the first crossing of Elk Lake Creek. The stream’s clarity made it hard to judge just how deep the water is. 

“While the creek may appear to be only inches deep, you’ll be surprised to discover that it’s knee to waist deep,” wrote Matt Reeder in his guidebook “101 Hikes in the Majestic Mount Jefferson Region.” 

Snorkeling in ‘Emerald Pool’

At mile 3.3, we reached our destination: Emerald Pool. It’s long and narrow, between canyon walls just below the trail.

I put my hand in the water to check the temperature. 

“Yup,” I said. “I’m wearing the drysuit.”

A big question for me is always whether to pack in my drysuit, a full-body layer that’s the gold standard for keeping warm. It’s harder to dive because it traps air, but I’d rather error on the side of warmth, so I put it on and slid into the water. 

It was cold.

Really, really cold. 

Jeff dove in wearing a wetsuit, made a noise, and resurfaced.

“Yeah that’s cold,” he said laughing.

The upside, of course, was amazingly clear views of the deep hole, along with a handful of curious cutthroat trout that inhabit Emerald Pool.

The most striking thing was the depth. We’d kick down, and the bottom was like an optical illusion that seemed close but got further and further away as you reached out to touch it.

We explored Emerald Pool for an hour or so before packing up and hiking back the way we came.

Waterfall canyon pool

The second place we snorkeled was below the big waterfall and canyons we’d seen within the first half mile of the trailhead. 

It was a tricky place to access that required hopping off a ledge and into the pool. I’ve always loved snorkeling below waterfalls, because the churning water looks really interesting underwater — waves of energy rippling through the blue.

The most interesting place was downstream, where the creek drops into steep canyons and the pools are deep, with fascinating caverns visible below the surface.  

There appear to be even better places to explore downstream by “creek-whacking” — swimming and hiking — but it would also have been a challenge to get back to the trail. 

So, we played it safe with the afternoon getting late and decided to pack up and return to the car.

Overall, I’d still say the Little North Santiam is my favorite spot for backcountry snorkeling, but Elk Lake Creek was a beautiful — although frigid — place to explore an underwater world. 

Zach Urness has been an outdoors reporter, photographer and videographer in Oregon for 11 years. To support his work, subscribe to the Statesman Journal. Urness is the author of “Best Hikes with Kids: Oregon” and “Hiking Southern Oregon.” He can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.

MORE FROM ZACH URNESS:

  • Despite 4,800 lightning strikes, Oregon dodges major wildfires for now
  • Whitewater Trail reopens for first time since wildfire in Mount Jefferson Wilderness
  • Mount Jefferson’s iconic trail reopened, transformed by wildfire. How did it happen?

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