I’m going to cheat – Gnat Creek isn’t in Columbia County! But it’s on the edge of the county, just 15 miles west of Clatskanie on Highway 30, and is one of my favorite hikes in the area. It’s also the easiest place that Columbia County residents can access State Forest land. So lets ignore those artificial borders for one post. 🙂
Gnat Creek describes a campground, fish hatchery, and hiking trail in a beautiful track of coastal spruce/hemlock forest in the Clatsop State Forest. The hatchery is a Steelhead and spring Chinook hatchery, with a couple sturgeon as an attraction.
When my wife and I showed up at the hatchery along with my parents and both of my sisters’ families, the sole fellow visitor was looking for much smaller fish.
We hiked in from the hatchery rather than the campground (see the description at the end). The first landmark is “Barrier Falls”, an artificial waterfall created with dynamite in the mid-20th century to prevent released hatchery fish from polluting the hatchery’s upstream water supply. The creek was fairly tame when we visited in June but can get dangerous in the winter months.
My nieces and nephew took to the creek to do their freshwater version of tidepooling. They are experienced on wet rock, but you’d have to be especially careful with less experienced or younger children due to the ease of slipping. This goes for the trail as well, which has a couple of drop-off sections where you’ll need to watch the kids closely.
The nets were for a 4H project the girls were doing, a study of aquatic insects that they entered into the Columbia County Fair and later the Oregon State Fair. But they also used them to inspect frogs and newts that they found without having to grasp them roughly. In this little pool they uncovered a Northern Red-legged Frog and a Rough-skinned Newt.
Also looking for aquatic insects in the pools was that wonderful resident of fast-flowing Oregon streams, the American Dipper.
After we found five species of amphibian in the creek (three different salamanders in addition to the frogs and newts), we headed back up for the real hike. The spruce and hemlock that dominate the area were last logged some time ago and have a pleasing open understory, giving the impression of a forest that has been allowed to grow up.
The trail is a bit hilly, gaining 600 feet over a couple miles and feeling like more as you lose and regain elevation several times. It is nice elk habitat, though we didn’t see any sign on this day. My younger niece found a Western Red-backed Salamander at one little creek across the trail, which she preceded to share carefully with my nephew.
Every animal found (except for the aquatic insects for the project) was carefully placed back exactly where it came from, with any disturbed rocks moved back to the orientation they were found in so that the habitat could remain intact.
Ninety percent of the forest was closed canopy, though there were tiny openings here and there. These sunning spots were home to local reptiles.
As we hiked we saw the relics of logging past – enormous stumps that dwarfed the surviving trees, sometimes with the loggers’ cuts still visible in their sides. Eventually we reached a high point on a hill about two miles in that appeared to suffice as a lunch spot and turnaround point.
While the others ate I jogged further down the hill for one last look at the creek. There was a gorgeous Red-spotted Garter Snake lying on the trail near the water, then a Rough-skinned Newt crawling along the bottom of the stream. But the highlight was in the relatively still water next to an old stump….a Coastal Tailed Frog! This one appears to be a female as it doesn’t have a “tail”. The tail of a Tailed Frog is actually the unique external reproductive organs of the male that they use to fertilize the female’s eggs in the fast-flowing streams in which they live. This rarely-seen frog is only found in the coolest, cleanest mountain streams, and I was amazed and overjoyed to have found one so close to home.
I hope that you have an amazing sighting on your hike as well!
Gnat Creek Trail at a glance
What: Hiking, camping, fish hatchery, stream, waterfall
Where: The trailhead at Gnat Creek Hatchery (46.16918, -123.48801) is on the south side of Hwy 30 just over 15 miles west of Clatskanie, while the trailhead at Gnat Creek Campground (46.17728, -123.50193) is another mile west on the north side of the road.
Hiking: Eight miles total out-and-back if all the trails are taken. It is 2.5 miles out-and-back from the campground to the hatchery, another 1.5 miles of nature trail looping around the hatchery, and a little over 4 miles to go out-and-back along the stream. For more specific information check out Gnat Creek Hike at Oregon Hikers.
Camping: Four primitive campsites maintained by the Department of Forestry.
Notable Wildlife: Roosevelt Elk, Belted Kingfisher, Dipper, Steelhead, Chinook Salmon, stream amphibians
Property status: Clatsop State Forest