The ‘crown jewel’ of Oregon State Parks

Lower South Falls flows over a straight ledge of basalt, dropping 93 feet. Though it has a narrower path carved into the rock than the other three go-behind falls, it still provides a roaring, awe-inspiring experience.

Deb Allen
Lower South Falls flows over a straight ledge of basalt, dropping 93 feet. Though it has a narrower path carved into the rock than the other three go-behind falls, it still provides a roaring, awe-inspiring experience.

Silver Falls State Park is known as the “crown jewel” of the Oregon State Parks system, and once you visit, you’ll know why.

The 9,200-acre park lies about 20 miles east of Salem on Highway 214, a wonder-land that must be added to your bucket list. Where else can you take in 10 waterfalls, and even walk behind four of them?

“We don’t have the tallest waterfalls, we don’t have the widest waterfalls, but we have the highest density of water-falls in the nation,” says Katharine (Kit) Kittinger, a park specialist who has worked at Silver Falls for five years. “We’re actually the largest in the state of Oregon.”

Despite its size, there are times this popular place can be teeming with visitors. Kittinger recommends making your visit midweek to avoid some of the weekend crowds, which can increase 20-fold as visitors look to swim, picnic, bike and hike the many trails.

But if you’re visiting Silver Falls for the hikes, follow these other tips from Kittinger:

“I always recommend people to go clockwise (on the hiking trail loops) because the majority of traffic is going clockwise,” she says. “So if you’re all traveling in the same direction then you’re not going to be passing a lot of people and it won’t feel like a lot of people. But if you go counter-clockwise, you’re going to feel like it’s Disneyland.”

The park offers a wide range of hiking experiences. There is a viewpoint over the top of South Falls just a few hundred feet from the South Falls Day-Use Area. At the other end of the waterfall viewing spectrum is the 7.2-mile Trail of Ten Falls loop, named so because it takes in all 10 falls.

“We do have about 800-feet of elevation change,” Kittinger says of the Trail of Ten Falls loop. “It’s labeled as a moderate hike due to its length. It’s not that strenuous; it’s a long trek.”

options, she says. “There’s a great five-mile loop in which you see seven of the water-falls. And there’s a pretty arduous two and a half-mile loop, that’s basically straight down and straight back up, but you go in behind South Falls, down to Lower South Falls and just back up again.”

If you’ve seen all the water-falls and just want to enjoy a walk in the woods, Kittinger says there’s another 25 miles of hiking trails that most park visitors don’t know about.

For those intending to hike the waterfall loops, Kittinger advises leaving your pets at home.

“With hiking, there is inherent risk associated,” she says. “When you have thou-sands of people on the trail with steep drop-offs, leashes, toddlers and elderly people, they just don’t get along. So, we have to draw the line somewhere.”

There is one pet-friendly hike to Upper North Falls, which is accessed from the North Falls parking area and trailhead. However, Kittinger says this parking area does fill up quickly.

Pets are also allowed on the Rim Trail, Perimeter Trail and Bike Path, although there are no falls along these trails.

Her personal favorite is hiking the 25 miles of dog-friendly back trails where she regularly takes her canine companion for long, peaceful walks. “We’ll do miles and miles of trails and never see anyone,” she says.

A trail guide showing all 30 miles of trails can be found on the park website, which Kittinger recommends viewing before your visit. Visit oregonstateparks.org, scroll down the alphabetical listing of all parks and click on Silver Falls State Park.

Trail guides also are offered onsite at kiosks.

“And we have friendly volunteers in the lodge who hand out maps and answer ques-tions,” Kittinger says. Located at the South Falls Day-Use Area, the lodge and café are open daily, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Memorial Day through Labor Day. Outside of that, the lodge and café are open only on weekends.

“We have overnight accom-modations from as little as a tent site to as big as group facilities for up to 250,” says Kittinger of the facilities that range from rustic to “significantly less rustic.” Overnight reservations are required and can be made by calling 800-452-5687.

If traveling to the park in groups, she recommends pre-planning your meeting place because of questionable cell phone service.

Kittinger also advises visiting the park’s blog to access a calendar of special events and guided tours. “The Tuesday walks with Earl are pretty great,” she says. “They’re a walk through history.”

But that’s just the nature of Silver Falls. “There’s a lot of history here,” she says. “The park has been open since the ‘30s, but there’s buildings onsite that have been around since the 1800s. We also have guided hikes. We used to be a logging town. Most of the trees had been logged, so we were denied our national park status. But since then, the trees have grown and we’ve become a park.

“The later in the summer, the drier it gets and the smaller the waterfalls get. Come in the summer and we definitely still have water, but if it is a drought like last year, it’s going to be less spectacular. So if there is a drought warning, come in September, October –come later when it starts rain-ing.”

The park is open year-round with each season holding its unique splendor. So, visit the park any time of year – you won’t be disappointed.

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