There are two reasons to go to Silver Falls State Park, the waterfalls, and then there’s everything else. Annually about 750,000 people come to the park for one thing or the other.
Oregon is blessed with many waterfalls. The Columbia River Gorge (My Gorge Journal ), that natural boundary between Oregon and Washington, has the largest concentration of falls in the world. The lushly beautiful northwestern rainforest of Silver Falls, one of the largest State Parks (8,700 acres), has ten falls linked by a single path.
[Waterfall facts: A single drop (unbroken top to bottom) is properly called a fall, multi-drops (dropping to ledges before dropping again) are falls. Groups, like Niagara, are falls regardless of the drop total. A non-seasonal continuous flow defines year-round fall(s).]
The falls range from 27 feet to 177 feet-tall, with both single and double drops. Four overhang the trail, letting you pass behind a wall of water of various density and width. I fully understand that this seems completely thrilling and romantic to most people, myself included, I just don’t fully understand why. But standing behind this liquid wall looking outward through the distortions of the water at a world become surreal, with the wet smell of earth and rock surrounding you while the spray cools your skin is a fairly magical moment. This isn’t a new experience, Vision Quest ceremonies were once held behind the curtain of North Falls. I leave it to you to develop your own theory as to why it resonates for you.
The path, known as the Trail of Ten Falls, twists past large Douglas fir (and other conifers), moss-draped trees, large ferns (smaller ones sprout from the cliff face, from the sides of trees…), wildflowers, and crossing creeks, outflow of the falls you pass. You’re getting a geological tour as well. The volcanic eruptions known as the Columbia River flows (instrumental in creating the Gorge as well) covered an area of 25,000-square-miles, laid down in at least four recognizable layers. Here, the basaltic flows overlaid the previous limestone deposits. Erosion from Silver Creek and its tributaries have contributed to the canyon’s shape, carving out the softer underlying stone to create the grotto like overhangs behind some of the falls. The canyon walls reveal the story. Behind the falls, don‘t forget to look up as well. In some places, decomposed trees (caught just standing around by the lava flows) have left lava-casts of their shape in the roofs of these grottos.
The path, a series of inter-connected trails (see resources below for map links), is 8.7 miles long, configured as two uneven, but overlapping, loops. Mostly narrow, unfortunately unpaved (although roughly graveled),and often not an easy grade – in a couple of places, the rise in terrain has even necessitated inclusion of sizable flights of stairs (marked on the trail map), although some stretches are not only level but covered with pavers. The whole experience can be tranquil, it can enervate, or it can exhaust; certainly doing the entire trail ensures sleeping soundly that night. More lasting are the memories.
Open: 6am-9pm (June 1 to August 31); 7am-8pm (September); 7am-7pm (October); 8am-5pm (November 1- February 28); 8am-6pm (March); 7am-8pm (April l 1-May 31)
Fees: $3 Day Use fee, payable at the yellow box. Boxes will be found next to the North Falls parking area or on your way into the South Falls/Lodge area. Display the receipt on your dashboard or risk having your car towed. A camping permit serves this function.
Charges for overnight stays depend upon your chosen option. (See camping below.) Discovery Season (October 1- April 30) has lower rates. Rates are posted on the Park’s website.
Contact: (State Park info) 800/551-6949, (camping) 503/873-8681, (reservations) 800/452-5687, (Conference center) 503/873-8875; Feedback & Info
Getting to Silver Falls: Highway 214 passes through the park and all the parking for the falls.
--15 miles from Silverton: Drive south on Hwy-214.
--26 miles From Salem: Take Highway 22 east to the junction with 214. Turn left on 214 and follow it into the park.
Abridged Falls Tour
It’s possible to see nine (or possibly all ten) waterfalls without (for whatever reason) doing the entire trail. It requires parking your vehicle four times, viewing one fall from a distance, and backtracking quite a bit. This shortened tour will function too as a comprehensive sampling (at least a little taste of everything) of the trail, is a good workout and sleep inducement. All turns are lefts, unless originating in Silverton, which makes the initial one a right. Total distance walked: about 4 miles. Option B adds 1.2 miles, Option C adds .6 miles.
Parking #1 (1 Fall): Follow signs leading to South Falls and the Lodge. Then follow signs specifically to the Lodge. Park. Visit the lodge (see below). Get maps and other brochures. Walk to the fall overlook. Hike down the trail (about .2 miles) to stand behind the falls. Backtrack. (Option B: The one fall not included in my truncated tour is .6 miles further along this trail, adding 1.2 miles to the total -- if you’re up for it.) Return to your vehicle. Total of about .5 miles.
#2 (6 Falls): Proceed 2 miles east/northeast on Highway 214 to Winter Falls parking. The trailhead is beyond. Follow trail down to North Falls. Continue on. At the fork, go left. Next up are Middle (another walk behind) and Drake Falls. At the next junction, continue on a few feet to Lower North Falls. Backtrack and turn left to visit Double Falls. Backtrack to the fork. Proceed on (without turning) to Twin Falls. Backtrack to the fork, turn left, and return to parking. Total: 3 miles.
#3 (1 Fall): From Winter Falls drive east about .5 miles to the next parking from where you can see the entire distant North Falls. Total: zero.
#4 (1 Fall): Again travel eastwards. From the parking walk over the pedestrian bridge and turn left and proceed to Upper North Falls, the coolest part of the canyon in my opinion -- like air-conditioning. Backtrack to parking. (Option C: If you have the time, you can go straight by the bridge and visit the walk-behind North Falls, adding another .6 miles to this segment.) Now you can continue on to Silverton, Salem, or visit somewhere else in the park. Total .4 miles, or 1 mile.
And the Other
The park contains an additional 25 miles of hiking, biking, and horse trails; swimming, picnicking facilities, a children’s playground, camping, cabins, a conference center, a visitor center housed in an historic lodge, and lots of opportunities to bird- and animal-watch. Last trip I saw six chipmunks, two deer, a number of butterflies, and numerous birds. Fishing is all catch and release, with barbless hooks only.
Built as the park’s food concession in the 1940s, this Adirondack-style building is now used as a visitor center. The Lodge contains a series of interpretive displays, a small gift shop, a snack bar, indoor seating (outdoor seating is also available), and a large stone fireplace. Walls are either windowed or hold historical photos of the falls. Maps and brochures are near the main entrance. The gift shop, run by Friends of Silver Falls, includes a selection of books and videos on Oregon subjects, and a map full of round-headed pins showing the home locations of many visitors over the last few years.
The immediate area around the lodge has multiple picnicking areas, children’s playground, additional snack facility, and ample parking. Last trip here, I found someone painting the view of the creek -- easel and all. It’s a lovely area. The paths are level, with pavers, and fully ADA accessible. There is a great view of South Falls.
There are a number of campgrounds and options. Tent sites, horse camps, youth camps, group camps, RV (singular and group), both one and two room rustic cabins (locking doors and electricity, but no inside cooking or plumbing) are available. The Silver Falls Conference Center also does lodging with meals. Quiet hours in the campgrounds are 10pm-7am.
--Bear and Mountain Lion (Cougar) inhabit more remote areas. Use caution. Report any sightings to park rangers. The visitor center has brochures instructing what to do should you encounter the more dangerous wildlife.
--Hiking trails can be slick in damp weather.
--Damaged by winter storms trails can be closed until repairs are complete, which on a meager budget sometimes takes a while. Check park website for updates.
--Pets allowed on leash only (except in pet exercise area), but are restricted from the buildings and most of the Trail of Ten Falls.
The *d maps are available in hardcopy at many tourist info stations, various attractions about the state, and at the park.
-- Trail Map* (pdf)
--The Park Map* includes a detail map of the campgrounds. (pdf)
--Bird List (text file)
--Friends of Silver Falls State Park has lots of information on the park. Unfortunately, the last update was in 2002.
--Interactive Park Features Map