Multnomah County: Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center gives students experience living off the grid in an old growth forest. And the three mile hike to camp from the end of the publicly traversable forest service road provides a memorable entry to the outdoor experience.

Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center was founded in 1989 as Friends of Opal Creek to gain protection of the Opal Creek watershed for future generations to study and enjoy. Students come from near and far along the I-5 corridor to this isolated location in the midst of 35,000 acres of old growth forest, about an hour east of Salem.

According to Executive Director Katie Ryan, “What attracts teachers to our program is its location deep in the ancient forest. It’s an opportunity to study a richer forest that hasn’t been managed; there’s just not a lot of that left.”

“Opal Creek is located three miles behind a locked gate,” said Ryan, “When the kids show up at the gate we drive all their stuff in for them and they walk in. Along the walk they learn about things they are seeing in the forest. Their education piece has already begun. A lot of those kids have never walked three miles in their lives and the physical sense of accomplishment is pretty huge for them. When they get into camp they’re so excited and proud that they did it.”

Ryan sees the Gray Family Foundation’s relationship to Opal Creek and other outdoor schools as unique. “There are foundations that want to help with conservation and save the environment. They may want to do direct conservation, set land aside, or they want people out there fighting against environmental policies. The Gray Family Foundation is one of the few strictly solely focused on environmental education.”