Falling for the falls


An hour into your visit to Silver Falls State Park, you start to notice the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between waterfalls.

There are thundering falls, trickling ones, thin streams of falling water that splash off rocks and wide sheets of Cascade runoff that plunge into deep pools.

You become so accustomed to trails that lead to remarkable water features you begin to wonder whether it's even worth going down a path without a waterfall at the end.

A sign in the northern section of the park suggests as much. It reads: "No waterfalls on this trail."

The diversity of waterfalls attracts a diversity of people, including Judy Baker, a self-described waterfall lover and amateur photographer from Ripon, Calif., who came with her tripod and camera. Although she has documented spectacular falls such as Yosemite's Bridal Veil Falls, Baker seemed impressed by the sight of 177-foot-high South Falls as it appeared through her viewfinder.

"It's beautiful," she remarked while snapping long-exposure pictures. "It's the powerfulness of waterfalls I like. When you slow them down there is something just beautiful about them."

Whether you're a fanatic such as Baker or just a casual observer who can appreciate the beauty of water in suspended motion, you can find a waterfall here to call your favorite. In addition to South Falls, which is probably the most-photographed attraction at Silver Falls, nine other falls are at the park.

The park is in the foothills of the Cascades about 25 miles east of Salem. It takes a moment to realize you've escaped the flatlands, but an elevated viewpoint near the southern entrance reveals you are no longer on the valley floor.

This unassuming park lacks a grand entrance and you could easily drive several miles before realizing you were in a protected area. Park officials are working to remedy this problem with new signs and entry gates, but part of the charm of Silver Falls is that it doesn't scream "Look at me!" Instead, it's up to you to find those points of interest lurking around heavily forested bends.

"Arrive early, bring a camera and go down every trail you can find," says Hannah Schoneman, offering her best advice to visitors.

Schoneman and her husband, Jason, who call Pacific City home, went the opposite direction of most travelers and headed away from the coast for their two-day vacation. They were glad they did.

The outdoor-loving couple, who have toured national parks far and wide, walked most of the 8.7 miles of trail that take visitors to all the major waterfalls in the park. They pronounced the well-maintained paths among the best they had used, and named the "impressive" South Falls and the 178-foot-high Double Falls their favorites in the park.

When Silverton photographer June Drake first visited the falls in the early 1900s, he probably had similar sentiments. Known as "the spark that brought about this great park," he launched a decades-long campaign to convince business leaders and state officials that the area deserved preserving. In 1931, the Oregon State Parks Commission purchased the first parcel of land that would eventually become part of the park.

The park started as two entities, Silver Creek Falls State Park and the federally owned Silver Creek Recreation Demonstration Area. In 1947, the two parcels were merged into one property when the federal government gave some 6,000 acres of demonstration area land to the state.

One of the difficulties Drake encountered was convincing officials that the area was worth saving. Years of logging and three major fires had left its mark on the landscape. Historic photographs show the area around South Falls to be a treeless wasteland of debris.

"It was very desolate ... cut over and burned," park manager Steve Janiszewski explained. "Now, this is all second-growth forest."

Today the park is fully forested, thanks in part to the Civilian Conservation Corps, which planted thousands of trees. The surrounding parcels, most of which are privately owned, have been heavily logged, and in a reversal of fortune, Silver Falls is now the lushest, greenest plot in the area.

Silver Falls is in a temperate rain forest. The park sees 80 inches of rainfall a year. Even so, it's open year-round, and although summer weekends book out nine months in advance, visitors can easily rent one of the small log cabins during the winter. The weather may be crummy but, Janiszewski says, the falls roar twice as loud during the rainy season.

With only about 100 campsites, Silver Falls is a bit short on places to stay. The park does offer group camps, a horse camp and two ranches that hold 75 for $100 a night. There's also a kids' camp run by the YMCA and a conference center.

Janiszewski recommends coming on weekdays, or better yet, booking for the spring or fall. The changing of the leaves in Silver Falls is an underappreciated attraction for visitors, and a great way to avoid the summer's crowds. Vine maples usually begin turning in early to mid-October.

Overall, the park is a photographer's paradise &

as evidenced by the number of visitors packing expensive camera equipment and tripods. The park's legacy even involves photography, as Drake used his photos to help convince leaders the area was worth saving.

Silver Falls boasts activities, too, including a popular swimming hole near the South Falls day use area, and miles of mountain biking and horseback riding in the southeastern portion of the park.

The park is kid friendly, with trails that can easily be hiked in a matter of minutes.

For visitors who wish to see a number of falls without spending the whole day doing it, Janiszewski recommends combining hiking with driving to see nine of the 10 falls. Save some energy, though. Remember, you've got to hike back out of those canyons.

While the park emphasizes the architectural contributions, including the 1941 South Falls Lodge made by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the group's greatest gift to the park may be paths that run behind the waterfalls. It's one of the things that makes a visit to Silver Falls so memorable, and something nearly every visitor remarks upon.

Stopping underneath those large overhanging shelves of basalt, it's easy to become mesmerized by so many droplets of falling water. It's one of the things that captivated Jennifer Nava and her family from Clovis, Calif.

"It's amazing," she remarked while hiking the path to the North Falls overview. "I've never seen anything like this."

Geological transformations are happening at a much slower rate than the other changes at Silver Falls, which is expanding to meet the needs of a fast-growing Willamette Valley population, Janiszewski says.

New plans being laid out as part of the park's master vision include the addition of a welcome center and expansion of camping and recreation offerings.

Even as the park moves forward it remains firmly rooted in its past. Silver Falls, the city that once stood near the site of the South Falls Lodge, is still fondly remembered as a population center for 200 residents that had a hotel, church and sawmill.

The city eventually foundered after the area was logged out, but each July the park celebrates Al Faussett Days to commemorate one of the area's most famous events. Faussett was a 1920s daredevil who took a 177-foot plunge off the South Falls in a contraption consisting of inner tubes enclosed in canvas.

Faussett survived the fall but broke multiple bones. When he emerged from the hospital two weeks later, he discovered his manager had absconded with the money he earned by charging admission for the stunt.

"They say there were upwards of 5,000 people who paid to come and watch him," said Lou Nelson, a board member of Friends of Silver Falls State Park. "Now Mike Faussett, his grandson, comes to the park every year (for the festival)."

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