Hike of the Week: Vernonia Lake Makes for a Quaint, Easy Stroll, but There’s More to the Locale Than Meets the Idyll

The area is home to the ruins of a long-abandoned lumber mill that's now covered in striking graffiti art—and was used in a semi-recent Green Day video.

With every weird abandoned building comes an even weirder story.

In the quaint town of Vernonia, Ore., about an hour northwest of Portland, there are basically two options for outdoor activity: cycling the Banks-Vernonia State Trail, or taking a casual 1-mile stroll around Vernonia Lake. It might not sound particularly exciting, but the latter, um, "adventure" includes a distinct landmark—the abandoned Oregon-American Lumber Mill. Again, on the surface, that probably won't get too many hearts palpitating with excitement. But there's more to this crumbling agricultural edifice than meets the eye.

A sign at the trailhead tells the tale. Beginning operations in 1924, the mill was once one of Oregon's largest. It closed down in 1958, but that's when the real action began. Vernonia was one of the film locations for Ring of Fire, an obscure 1961 melodrama about a gallant sheriff who saves the residents of a small village from a forest fire. Part of the defunct mill was actually set on fire for one of the scenes, sending it out in a literal blaze of glory.

The only remaining structure is a fuel shed, now marked with colorful and striking graffiti, which itself had a brush with fame four years ago when Green Day filmed part of the music video for the song "Still Breathing" inside the ruin.

What is it about this idyllic country pond that keeps attracting out-of-state film crews? Beats us—but it's certainly not a bad spot to spend a lazy late summer afternoon.

From the trailhead, you can go either direction for the 1.1-mile loop around Vernonia Lake. The surrounding shore is lined with cattails—bring binoculars to get a closer look at the many water birds in the area. A few picnic tables and benches are scattered around the lake in case you want to bring lunch and make a day of it.

The lake is also popular for fishing and there are docks along the way. While part of the lake loop is shaded, a good portion more is exposed, so wear a hat and pack sunscreen. For a longer hike, there's a path that leads to Nehalem River, which is an extension of the 21-mile Vernonia-Banks State Trail.

Before turning off from the lake, though, make sure you also visit the lake's primitive camping ground, complete with an old-timey vault toilet. In Vernonia, the thrills never cease.

Vernonia Lake Loop Hike

Distance: 1.1 miles

Difficulty: Easy.

Drive time from Portland: 50 minutes

Directions: From Portland, take US 26 west for about 20 miles and then veer right onto OR 47 north—you'll see signs for Vernonia/Clatskanie. Drive along 47 north for almost 15 miles and then make a right onto Bridge Street. Drive another mile, cross Rock Creek, and then make a right into the parking area for Vernonia Lake.