There’s an apocryphal story that Silver Creek got its name when an Oregon pioneer – saddle packs filed to the brim with silver – attempted to cross the creek in high water. The man and horse, it is said, made it across, but the packs were lost in the rushing creek and the silver was never recovered. That might inspire you to take a trip to Silverton, Oregon to seek lost riches. But silver or no, you’ll find the trip enriching as long as you spend time within the glorious canyons of Silver Falls State Park.
This parkland hosts a varied geologic history, from ancient beach, to rich forest, to burning hellscape, and back again to forestland. The earliest records of life here are of clams and other aquatic forms as preserved in the sedimentary layers of the Scotts Mills formation in the northwest portion of the park. Later, as the land rose from the sea, forests dominated the landscape and the ancestral Columbia River carved a channel through here, dozens of miles south of its current route. That forest haven was destroyed, though – repeatedly – by the massive Columbia River Basalt lava flows that filled this ancient river channel, charring and burying the forest as they passed. These lava flows (classified as the Ginko Intra-Canyon Flows) passed through here 15.4 million years years ago, and since then little Silver Creek has been carving into them the breathtaking canyon into which you can hike.
There are several ways to enjoy a hike at Silver Falls State Park. First determine just how long of a walk you’d like to take. This guide gives you options for a 2.5 mile hike, a 5-miler, and an 8-miler. Regardless of which route you choose, it’s best to start at the South Falls parking lot where you can pay your entry fee, use the facilities, and pick up any interpretive materials you desire at the South Falls Lodge.
The trail begins at the overlook for South Falls very near the parking area, but before heading that way I encourage you to check out the CCC building that’s just behind the gift shop. You’ll find many fossils there, as detailed in this post.
South Falls creeps up on you. You’ll hear it first, then – as you follow the path – you’ll notice that you stand above it and the tinkling south fork of Silver Creek is transformed into a thunderous falls, pouring over a rock amphitheater of its own making. The trail winds down the hill and under the frozen lava flow which supports the waterfall. From here you get a “behind the scenes” view of the falls as the sound of water pounding on rock echoes against the canyon walls. Behind and above you lichens and mosses grow against the bare rock face, splashing color upon the scene.
An interpretive sign here will tell you that the gaping holes in the rock above you are erosional chimneys. That may well be, however I remain skeptical. I suspect that the true origin of these holes, like the ones you’ll see under North Falls later, is tree casts… trace fossils of ancient trees which instantly froze the encroaching lava, leaving a hollow imprint where a massive pine once stood.
The orange line on the map to the left represents the path of the Ginko Basalt Flows (Click the map for a full version). Intra-canyon lava flows like this are a gift to geologists, as they give us clues as to how long the Columbia River has flowed, and what routes it has taken in the past. We can trace this ancestral river route all the way back to the present day Columbia River Gorge between the towns of Mosier and The Dalles. From this evidence, we know that the river once ran through land now occupied by Mount Hood and its foothills.
Like all of the waterfalls in the park, Lower South Falls varies dramatically depending on the season and the weather. At times you’ll see only a few pillars of water pouring over the edge and kissing the rocks along the edge of the pool below. In the wetter months, this waterfall is a full curtain of water, rushing on its way to lower elevations.
Lower South Falls is another which the path meanders behind, though this one is often a bit wetter, and the stones underfoot a bit slicker. Be careful, and enjoy!
From here, you’re just a short jaunt to where the Canyon Trail (which you are on) intersects the Maple Ridge Trail. If you’re only in for a short hike, this intersection is your turnaround point. The Maple Ridge Trail will take you back to the South Falls Lodge and your vehicle. All others can continue on the Canyon Trail for another 1.5 miles to enjoy Lower North Falls, Double Falls, Drake Falls, and Middle North Falls.
The five-mile trek requires you to take the Winter Trail route (which you’ll intersect shortly past Middle North Falls) to the Rim Trail, which will take you through a peaceful hemlock and doug fir forest back to your car.
If you reach the Winter Trail turn-off and your feet still feel happy, then I highly encourage you to continue along the Canyon Trail to the iconic North Falls and Upper North Falls (pictured at the start of this post).
North Falls is an excellent bookend for the hike. Almost like a mirror image of South Falls, you can hike into the cavern behind this falls, and (again like South Falls) you can see tree casts – this time indisputably so – in the lava flow above you.
Upper North Falls is just a little further down the path, and you must pass under the road to get there, but it is absolutely worth the short additional leg of the hike. It’s a great place for a lunch and often fairly private compared to the rest of the waterfalls, probably because it’s little advertised and usually overlooked.
This, at last, marks the ultimate turn-around point for the hike. Take the Rim Trail all the way back to the Silver Falls Lodge and your vehicle.
If your journey through Silver Falls State Park touches you in the way that it does for most, I encourage you to check out Friends of Silver Falls and investigate ways to contribute to maintaining the integrity of this beautiful natural area for all time.