When people think of the beautiful landscapes of Oregon, certain places instantly come to mind–the gorgeous waterfalls of the Columbia River Gorge, Multnomah Falls, to Crater Lake. From the rugged coastline of the west to the desolate beauty of the east, as in The Painted Hills, Oregon seems to hold unexplored beauty around every corner. The quiet capitol of Salem is no exception.
A mere 25 miles to the east of Salem, at the foothills of the Cascade Mountain Range, lies Silver Falls State Park. Oregon’s State Park system has a reputation of well-laid out parks with vista points that seem to have been chosen by photographers like Ansel Adams. Silvers Falls does not disappoint. Being the largest of Oregon’s State Parks, the park is complete with areas for pet owners, mountain bikers, horseback riders, and hikers. But, contrary to the name, the attraction of Silver Falls isn’t a waterfall by said name. Instead, the attraction is a series of ten individually named waterfalls along the northern and southern forks of Silver Creek, and the drive there is amazingly simple and quick.
Driving from Salem, head east along highway 22 (Santiam Highway), towards Sublimity. Follow the signs that take you from Highway 22 to the exit to Highway 214 North (Silver Falls Highway). The drive along ‘Highway’ 214 North (most of this being a single lane farm road—drive carefully!) will take you through picturesque rolling hills of farmland. You will even pass near a house built by famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. As you near the foothills, the farms increasingly become Christmas tree farms. The rolling farmland suddenly gives way to towering Douglas fir trees and ferns. The ascent into the foothills, even as it becomes heavily forested, gives no indication of the adventure that awaits.
Your arrival at Silver Falls State Park is marked by a wooden sign welcoming your visit. A small vista area beside the road gives you an inspiring westward view of the Willamette Valley. Signs guide your exit from the ‘highway’, to the left, into the South Falls Day-Use parking lot. A small pay station, with access on both sides, allows you to purchase your day pass for a mere $5.00. The machine that prints the pass takes debit cards as well. The pay station also posts information, for those who may be visiting the park for the first time, and explains such things as how to properly display your day pass in your windshield or of any adverse trail conditions. The parking lot is very large and provides ample parking. The parking lot is conveniently located next to the restrooms, child’s playground, picnic tables, horseshoe pits, volleyball nets, and a swimming area along Silver Creek. Friends of Silver Falls Nature Store provides all of your unique souvenirs and gifts, while the always-delicious Silver Creek Grill supplies food for those who choose dine on something more than picnic cuisine. The day use area is dotted with interpretational sites, giving visitors a chance to learn the history and geology of the park. Many of displays are visually rich, complete with vintage photographs from the late 1800’s. Several locations offer printed brochures; one being the map of waterfall trails.
The Trail of Ten Falls is what draws visitors from around the world. The trail takes you on a 7 to 9 mile hike, past 10 individually named waterfalls. I say, ‘individually named waterfalls’ because, along the trail you will find many other lesser waterfalls. Water seems to pour into the canyon from every angle; you will even see it seep from the rocks. As I discover more, I learn that some of these lesser waterfalls are named, but no signs exist to inform the explorers. The trail distance varies, as there are various ways to travel the trails and, quite frankly, some people walk past a waterfall, while others climb all over one. The Rim Trail, Winter Trail, and the Canyon Trail offer a wide variety of options when exploring the waterfalls. The Trail of Ten Falls will take you to South Falls, Lower South Falls, Lower North Falls, Drake Falls, Middle North Falls, Winter Falls, Twin Falls, North Falls and Upper North Falls. Four of these waterfalls are unique, insofar as you will actually be able to walk behind the waterfall. The first waterfall, South Falls, happens to be such a waterfall.
Not far from the picnic area and the restrooms, the gentle flow of the creek turns into more of a rush. Following the paved path along the creek, you will suddenly find the creek disappears. You are now at the top of South Falls. It is important to note that there are no bathroom facilities along the canyon trail; here’s your chance to use the facilities and grab your water bottle. Signs will lead you to the Canyon Trail, which leads down into the valley, to the base of the waterfall. South Falls has a 177 foot drop, with an amphitheatre-like bowl at the base. Halfway down, the trail splits. You can choose to continue down to the creek, where photographers and tourists alike get breathtaking photos, and continue onward to the footbridge. The footbridge, crossing over Silver Creek, offers more opportunities to enjoy the amazing beauty of this wondrous waterfall. If one chooses not go to the bridge, the trail will continue towards the waterfall. The trail hugs the cliff wall and then snakes behind the waterfall. This is where one gets their first experience of standing behind the veil of water, and looking out onto the canyon below. It is important to note, be prepared to get wet! It is unlikely, however, that you will notice; the beauty from behind South Falls is captivating. From behind the waterfall, the trail continues to the other side of Silver Creek and down to the footbridge. This loop around South Falls is often referred to as the Amphitheatre, and is the most visited waterfall in the park.
From the footbridge, the trail continues towards Lower South Falls. As you walk down the trail, you take in the lush forest around you. The trail varies between gravel and dirt. If you have children, now would be the time to encourage them to keep an eye out for wildlife. If you are visiting Oregon, your children will love to discover the enormous slugs that live in the Cascade Mountain Range. Silver Creek got its name due to the fact that the canyon is shaded by dense forest, so much so, that when the sun hits the creek, it shines like silver. You really get a feel for that along the scenic trail. In approximately a mile, you will get to the stairs that lead down to Lower South Falls. The stairs are mixture of steel stairs and concrete. The stairs zig zag down the side of the canyon, where the trail leads behind the flow of Lower South Falls. The drop on this waterfall is 93 feet, but no less beautiful than South Falls. While you can walk behind Lower South Falls, it’s unique from South Falls because the trail is tighter. You are closer to the water and can feel the power of the flow, as the water moves the air. Expect to get a little wet here, too. These are your first two waterfalls along the Trail of Ten Falls.
One could continue down The Trail of Ten Falls to the end and see all ten waterfalls. The maps are pretty clear on where the waterfalls are and the trails are excellently marked. But, one could easily find reasons why a 7 to 9 mile hike is not such a good idea. My young daughter was my reason. To keep her excited about exploring the outdoors, I like to make sure our walks are ‘action packed’. If this applies to you, then you will enjoy this insider’s tip! At Lower South falls, turn around and head back to the Day Use parking lot; you’re taking a short drive. Return to your car and drive towards the entrance/exit. Instead of turning right onto 214, follow the signs to Winter Falls and North Falls, and turn left. A short drive down the road leads you to the Winter Falls parking lot. It’s a small parking lot at the top of Winter Falls. The trail from the parking lot will take you to the base of the waterfall and the Winter Falls Trail. Winter Falls Trail leads to the middle of the Canyon Trail, where you will see Middle North Falls (you can walk behind this one), Drake Falls (named in honor of the park’s founder June Drake), Lower North Falls, and the tucked away Double Falls. This section is in the middle of the park, and you truly get to enjoy the wild nature of the forest, and an appreciation for the early explorers of the area. A little side trip, on your return back to your vehicle, gets you to Twin Falls. You have now seen 8 of the waterfalls in the park. And, like any good story, the best was saved for the last.
Once you’ve returned to your vehicle, continue down 214. You will see a vista point for North Falls; this offers a stunning view of North Falls from a distance. A little further down the road and you will arrive at the North Falls parking lot. Like the Winter Falls parking lot, it is rather small. Most people choose to stay in the Day Use area, so parking is rarely a problem. This parking lot also has a restroom. From the parking lot, follow the trail that leads to Upper North Falls. The trail leads under the 214 and follows the North Fork of Silver Creek. This is a nice level trail that offers a different look, as you are not down in shadow of the canyon. Upper North Falls is a smaller waterfall, with a 65 foot drop, that marks the end of The Trail of Ten Falls. But, now we will head back past the parking lot and down to North Falls.
North Falls is adjacent to the parking lot. A narrow trail with stone steps takes you down to the waterfall. The trail leading down to the waterfall provides excellent views and will certainly lead to frequent pauses. What stands out the most as you approach the waterfall is the roar. As you near the waterfall, you understand why the roar is so loud at North Falls. The recess that allows you to go behind this waterfall is large and cavernous. It almost has a cave feel to it. The sound of the waterfall is magnified by the recess. The large boulders and logs at the bottom of the waterfall offer dramatic and contrasting views for photographers. From behind the waterfall, with the soothing sound of rushing water, you get an amazing view of the canyon and Silver Creek carving a shining path though the forest. The dramatic beauty of this waterfall is truly something one has to experience to truly appreciate. It seems the perfect way to end an afternoon of hiking and exploring. You now have only a short hike back to your vehicle and you are on the road, headed towards your next adventure!
Silver Falls State Park has more to offer than just the waterfall trail. To learn more, go to www.oregonstateparks.org and learn more about this park, and Oregon’s other beautiful State Parks. Please, as always, help keep Oregon’s trails beautiful by carrying out your own trash and following the park rules about pets on the trail. And, as with everything else in Oregon, there will be lots of walking; bring lots of water and snacks. Come prepared with extra clothing, as you may want to change after your hike. Above all, have fun and explore more!