Silver Falls State Park is one of Oregon's most popular parks, and this time of year it's easy to see why.
Attracting more than a million visitors annually, it features an 8.7-mile Trail of Ten Falls that takes hikers deep into canyons where in the spring the greens are so vibrant and lush, they seem part of a forgotten paradise. Many woodland flowers are at their peak, and the 10 falls laden with spring snowmelt are an unbroken white tracery almost too bright to gaze upon.
Start date: The park opened July 23, 1933.
Brief history: Kalapuya and Molalla Indians lived in the area from about 14,000 years ago until the arrival of white settlers in the 1800s. Two men had key roles in founding the park. June Drake, a Silverton photographer, struggled for years to convince Congress to make it a national park, but the plan was rejected. He then turned to Samuel H. Boardman, the first superintendent of Oregon state parks, who backed Drake's effort to make it a state park.
Trail rules: The paths at the base of the canyon are for hikers only, but horses and bicycles are allowed on some of the upper trails. You can take pets on some trails as well.
Hours: 8 a.m.-9 p.m. from May through August, with shorter hours during the fall and winter.
Animals: Bears, cougars and Pacific blacktail deer live in the park, but are rarely seen.
Only 15 miles east of Salem and 35 southeast of Portland, this park has long been a summer refuge for northern Oregon's urbanites. At 9,000 acres, it's Oregon's biggest park, offering beautiful vistas from above and at river level along the north and south forks of Silver Creek. And even better, four of the parks best falls have paths under the cliffs they plunge from, for an even more spectacular perspective.
Lower South, South, North and Middle North falls drop over volcanic basalt that lies atop older, softer rock that has eroded, allowing for the mesmerizing behind-the-torrent views. And all this is only the beginning of the park's many delights, which for Southern Oregonians will mean a trip of at least two or three days.
Although the number of hikers was only moderate when I was there during several weekdays in late May, the trails fill up once schools let out for the summer.
Fortunately, the shorter south fork trails get most of the heavy traffic, so anyone doing the north fork portion of the Ten Falls Trail will encounter fewer people, allowing more time to enjoy parts of the hike in solitude.
Not far from the parking lot and the nearby café and nature gift shop, a path leads down to South Falls along Silver Creek's south fork. This is the most spectacular torrent for walking behind, because of its breadth and length. This is the shortest option, an ideal one for families, with its quick walk down into the canyon and back up.
More serious hikers will continue north from this waterfall and after a mile reach Lower South Falls, which also has a behind-the-water view. From there, they can continue along the path of the Ten Falls to Lower North Falls and other, more impressive north fork torrents. Or they can go three-tenths of a mile beyond Lower South Falls to reach the one-mile Maple Ridge Trail branch that loops back to the parking area from a higher viewpoint. This loop covers about 2.25 miles, leaving the longer north fork hike for the following day, which is what I'd recommend.
For the north fork loop, hikers park at the North Falls trailhead, and walk west all the way to Lower North Falls, retrace their steps for about a mile to the turnoff trail to Winter Falls and then catch the Rim Trail at that waterfall for the walk back to the parking area. This option is a hike of about 4.75 miles, but you'll see eight falls and spend much more time beside the creek than on the south fork loop, which includes only two falls. Also, this route involves less climbing because you start at stream level. And you can turn back at any point to shorten the walk.
Every waterfall along the Ten Falls Trail has its own magic. My two favorites are Middle North Falls and Double Falls. Middle North Falls is the most intimate of the walk-behind torrents. Its powerful plunges of water send spray inward like a cooling balm. The water coils in so many ways, it become hypnotic. By comparison, Double Falls, another north fork cascade, has a thin tracery of water high up that hits a pool, where it seems to collect itself for a moment before rolling down in a longer expanse for a total of 178 feet, the longest waterfall in the park. The shortest, Drake Falls, at only 27 feet, seems more like a large rapid after the lengthy delicacy of Double Falls. Double Falls and Upper North Falls are slightly off the main trail, so keep an eye out for the signs indicating these.
One of the ironies of the park is that despite the richness of its plant life, the upper part was heavily logged before being set aside for the public in 1933. Only the areas down in the canyon are filled with a preponderance of old-growth trees. There you'll find aged Douglas-firs, western hemlocks and big-leaf maples among green carpets of sword and maidenhair ferns. Wildflowers are there in abundance, too, among them bleeding hearts, wood anemones, large-flowered fairy bells, yellow wood violets, star-flowered Solomon's seals and false Solomon's seals.
The day-use fee is $5. A portion of the proceeds from sales at the nature shop, which is run by The Friends of Silver Lake State Park and manned by volunteers, goes to support the park.
For campers, there are tent and recreational vehicle options. Rustic cabins also are available for $40 a night. It's best to reserve camping spots and cabins ahead of time because of the park's popularity. Check www.oregonstateparks.org/ and follow the prompts to check rates and make reservations. The park also has many picnic tables for day users and a swimming area the kids will delight in.
The number and magnificence of the falls make the park particularly inviting in the spring, but it's open year-round. In any season, its combination of falling water and rich vegetation amid deep canyons is not to be missed.
Steve Dieffenbacher is a part-time Mail Tribune page designer/copy editor. You can reach him at email@example.com.