Camps and Education

Connecting Youth to Wild Places: Opal Creek Expeditions

It’s 10 AM on a summer Sunday morning. Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center staff are eagerly awaiting the incoming group of backpackers at the Opal Creek trail head. This particular group will spend the next five days circumnavigating the Opal Creek watershed, exploring the various ecological zones, swimming in subalpine lakes and working together as a team to learn to live in the backcountry.


The group gathers, kids say their farewell to their parents and the instructors begin introductions. Some have come with friends, others are here solo, some have gone backpacking before and for some this is the first time. The crew is quiet on the way in; instructors strike up conversation and stop along the way to teach about the ancient forest and what they are seeing. At one spot along the three-mile road to Jawbone, known to be a great amphibian locale, the group spreads out searching the forest floor for elusive salamanders and newts. At another spot, the group investigates the layers of the forest canopy and estimates the ages of the surrounding trees.


Once in Jawbone Flats, staff lead a gear shakedown where they ensure each student has the proper equipment and begin to distribute food and group gear. Thanks in part to Columbia Sportswear, Opal Creek has an excellent gear closet, and all students are granted access to ensure their comfort on the trail. Students spend the first evening in Jawbone Flats going over the maps and routes for the upcoming week.


Well done you all. Cyrus was a little nervous to start but obviously got over that pretty fast! He came back with a little more woods-swagger and definitely seemed calmer, older, and confident in finishing a big trip. Hats off…way to keep it educational, fun, and safe! –Amy, Backcountry Basics parent


Monday morning, after breakfast in the lodge, the group heads off and begins the climb up to the ridgelines. Jawbone Flats sits at 2,200 feet in elevation, and for much of the week the group will be up at 4,500 feet.
Camp for night one will be at Silver King Lake, in the Bull of the Woods Wilderness. As the group makes their way along the trail, instructors point out various flora and fauna, as well as the importance of hydration breaks. The students are learning not just how to spend a week in the backcountry, but also about the natural history around them.


As the week goes on, the group forms strong friendships and bonds over inside jokes, mosquito bites and trail games. The group that comes back into Jawbone on Friday afternoon has conquered something together, they look strong, proud and united. They are no longer quiet, but rather are full of stories and excitement, filled with a sense of accomplishment and making plans for the next time.

Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center began leading Opal Creek Expeditions in 2007. In our 10th year, we expect to see over 100 youth take part in one of these life-changing experiences. Our expedition program is our most immersive experience, with students sleeping out under the stars and truly experiencing the concept of wilderness, where humans are visitors and do not remain.


There are still spaces in our 2017 expeditions. Please see for a full list of program offerings and registration details.

About Katie Ryan

Katie Ryan is the executive director at Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center. She joined the team in March of 2005. She brings over fifteen years of experience organizing and leading field education programs throughout Oregon, Washington, California, the Yellowstone region and Canada. At home in the mountains, she has dedicated her career to sharing these special places with students of all ages, believing 100% that people need to experience wild places in order to care about them.