Silver Falls Shimmers in Rural Oregon


South Falls


Hike behind rushing waterfalls hidden in a forest canyon. Spend the night in a Victorian mansion that doubles as a mini space museum. Munch on baked potatoes served from a converted school bus while sipping Northwest brews at a German-inspired tap room.

If scenic coastline, snow-covered mountains and vineyards producing award-winning wines come to mind when you think of Oregon, think again.

Surrounded by Christmas tree, hazelnut and grass seed farms 20 miles southeast of the capital of Salem are rural towns, peaceful monasteries, and the state's largest park, a gem so hidden it's remains a secret to many natives.

The chance to follow the "Trail of Ten Falls" at Silver Falls State Park led my husband and I to detour off the main highway on our way home to Seattle after visiting friends in Eugene.



Stayton's Gardner House Cafe and bed and breakfast


Just northeast of Stayton, a historical Willamette valley farming town known for its covered bridge, Silver Falls counts as its chief attraction a seven-mile loop trail passing a series of waterfalls, five more than 100 feet high. 

Silver Falls was a center for logging and homestead farming in the late 1800s. When the depression struck in 1929, Oregon's timber industry tanked. The private owner of South Falls charged admission to let people watch as he floated derelict cars over the falls. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt bought the land, and employed men in the Civilian Conservation Corps to develop park facilities. Still standing is a rustic day lodge that houses a cafe and rest area near the start of the South Falls trailhead.


Silver Falls Lodge

We took a recommended short cut that trims the hike to a 5.1 mlle loop. The trail starts at an overlook to the 177-foot South Falls. From here, a paved trail leads into the canyon where hikers can walk behind rushing walls of water.  The trail descends to a winding creek at the forest floor for an overall elevation change of 800 feet. It's not a hard hike, but it takes time due to the ups and downs and rocks to watch out for along the paths.


Behind the falls

The falls spill over 15-million-year-old Columbia River basalt. At that time the Columbia River flowed through this area to the sea at what is now Newport. Lava poured down the river channel from vents in Eastern Oregon, gradually pushing the river northward. As the lava slowly cooled, it fractured to form the honeycomb of columns visible on cliff edges. Circular indentations in the ceilings of the caverns behind the falls are tree wells, formed when the lava flows hardened around burning trees. 

The park offers year-round camping and heated cabins, but we were intrigued by the idea of staying at the 1898 Gardner House, a combination cafe, bed and breakfast and museum dedicated to early U.S. manned space missions.


James and Loni with her  award-winning chocolate cake

Loni Loftus, a former travel agent who always dreamed of owning a bed and breakfast, fills one of the cafe's wooden pastry cases with her ribbon-winning chocolate cake and lemon-lavender scones while her husband, James, fills another with memorabilia from the Mercury and Apollo space missions, part of the Joseph Philip Loftus Jr. Mobile Museum he created to honor the 47-year NASA career of his father.

The elder Loftus went through the astronaut training program "but was too tall to go to the moon," his son says. He worked on Project Mercury, the first U.S. manned space flight program, and the Apollo lunar missions. Among the items on display around the cafe is a Apollo spacecraft altitude control rocket engine, lunar fragments, a space shuttle tile and the skeletons of two monkeys sent into space.  

As part of the museum's mission, Loftus sponsors space-related educational programs for local schools.  His plans call for taking the museum on the road (thus the "mobile" in its name). Until the couple finds a buyer for the cafe and bed and breakfast, they plan to continue offering overnight accommodations, light meals and high tea in the house originally built by the owner of the town's flour mill. 



Covered bridge

Local attractions include Pioneer Park with the Stayton–Jordan Bridge, a covered bridge that is a copy of the Jordan Bridge that was moved to the park in 1988. Destroyed by fire in 1994, it was rebuilt and painted white. 


Yarnell's nursery and garden shop
Locals own most of the businesses in town, including Yarnell's nursery housed in a historic red barn where honey and eggs are for sale along with plants and garden supplies.


The Spud Bus


Small farming towns are not where you'd expect to find a good selection of Northwest microbrews. We gave the local Chinese and Mexican places a pass when we spotted the sign for Wolfgang's Thirst Parlor and Tap House, and the "Spud Bus" parked outside. Soon  we were sipping Oregon porters while helping Ken Carey, a former transportation director for the local school district, fulfill his dream of selling loaded baked potatoes from the window of a  retired school bus. 


If you go:

From Interstate 5 exit 253 in Salem, drive 10 miles east on North Santiam Highway 22, turn left at a sign for Silver Falls Park, and follow Highway 214 for 16 miles to the park entrance sign at South Falls. 

The surrounding area includes several other interesting attractions worth a stop. They include the 80-acre botanical Oregon Garden in Silverton; Mount Angel Abbey where the Benedictine monks brew beer and sell it from a tap room open to the public; and the Frank Lloyd Wright Gordon House Museum.


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