Hike of the Season: Riverside Trail

December 18, 2017

By Cheryl Hill, Board Member, Trailkeepers of Oregon

When winter snow has buried your favorite trails at high elevations, the Riverside National Recreation Trail #723 along the Clackamas River offers a great alternative. At 1,500 feet elevation, the trail is accessible during most of the winter except when the snow level has dropped very low. With a rushing river, creek crossings, towering trees, and a mossy forest, this hike will whet your appetite during the wet days of winter, but not overly tax you. The four-mile-long trail follows the river between Rainbow and Riverside campgrounds, but the Riverside Trailhead around the midway point is a good starting point for this hike.

A river flowing through a forest.

View of the Clackamas River from the Riverside Trail. Photo by Cheryl Hill.

From this trailhead a short connector trail drops down to the Riverside Trail, where you’ll turn right and begin hiking upstream. After a short distance watch for a side trail on the left which takes you to a sweeping cliff-top viewpoint overlooking a big bend in the river. Don’t attempt to scramble down to the river here—further along there is much easier access.

The trail meanders upstream with the sound of the river always present, even if it’s not always visible. The trail crosses Mag Creek on a nice footbridge. When you pass a large beach, be sure to take one of several side trails to check it out. This is a pleasant spot for sitting and watching the river, and you may even see an American dipper (also known as a water ouzel), a gray songbird that feeds in fast-moving streams.

Back on the trail and continuing upstream, cedars, hemlocks, and Douglas fir trees tower above you, some quite large. Moss abounds in this moist environment. The trail crosses two more footbridges and traverses a boardwalk, after which you might watch for a side trail to another cliff-top viewpoint overlooking the river and surrounding forest.

A trail through a mossy forest

The Riverside Trail passes through a forest abundant with moss. Photo by Cheryl Hill.

The trail curves right to follow the quieter Oak Grove Fork with numerous side trails leading to the shoreline of this gurgling river. The trail ends at Rainbow Campground, locked up and deserted during the winter. Turn left past the restroom and you’ll find a picnic table next to the river where you can sit and enjoy your lunch with a pleasant water view.

Return the way you came. It’s 5.3 miles from the trailhead to Rainbow Campground and back, but if you are up for more mileage you can continue past the trailhead another 1.5 miles to the Riverside Campground, adding a total of three more miles onto your hike. Look for steelhead gathering in the still river pools on this section. Otherwise, call it a day!

(Note that the Rainbow Campground is closed from mid-September to Memorial Day, and the Riverside Campground offers no services during this time.)

Oregon Hikers Field Guide: Riverside Trail Hike

The National Recreation Trail System

By John Sparks, Board Member, Trailkeepers of Oregon

The Riverside Trail is a designated National Recreation Trail (NRT). The system is sanctioned by the Department of the Interior and organized by the nonprofit American Trails. Hiking the Riverside Trail, you will see the NRT badges, similar to Pacific Crest Trail badges, posted on trees. NRT trails include short and long trails, city and backcountry trails, and water trails, biking trails, universal access trails, and equestrian trails. There are over 1,100 National Recreation Trails spread throughout the fifty states. NRTs in Oregon include the South Breitenbush Gorge Trail, the Elkhorn Crest Trail, the Rogue River Trail, the Ankeny Rail Trail, the Wildwood Trail, and the North Fork John Day River Trail.

The National Trail System Act of 1968 was passed by Congress to promote the establishment of a system of national trails that cater to all needs and capabilities. The Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture approves the designation of a National Recreation Trail based on an application usually submitted by the governing agency, such as the US Forest Service or the US Fish & Wildlife Service. Applications need to be submitted by November 1, and the designees are announced on National Trails Day, the first Saturday in June every year. As an example, six new NRTs were designated in 2016. The most recent Oregon addition was the Tillamook County Water Trail System in 2012. Designation as a National Recreation Trail accords that trail some significance and attention, which as a practical matter translates into better incentives for funding and upkeep as well as promotion of trail use by the public.

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