The run of sunny Saturdays finally came to an end so we were looking for a good rainy day hike. We turned to Matt Reeder’s “Off the Beaten Trail” (2nd edition) for inspiration. Hike #7 in his book is a 9.3 mile lollipop loop in the backcountry of Silver Falls State Park. He lists Oct-Nov as some of the best months for this hike as well as mentioning that it is a good hike for rainy days so the timing seemed right. Our original plan was to start the hike at Howard Creek Horse Camp just as Reeder describes but to deviate a bit from his description to see more of the backcountry. Our previous visits to the park had all involved hikes on the uber popular Trail of Ten Falls (post). There are no waterfalls in the backcountry and therefore far fewer people. The park opens at 8am so we actually slept in a bit in order to not arrive too early but we still had a couple of minutes to kill when we arrived at the park entrance so we stopped briefly at the South Viewpoint.
Park map at the viewpoint.
It was rather windy at the viewpoint and it was cold with the wind chill in the mid-30s. We thought we were going to be in for a chilly hike only as soon as we got into the forest in the park the wind was gone and the temperature was near 50 degrees. We picked up a $5 day use permit at a fee booth between the Park Office and campground and continued toward the Howard Creek Trailhead. As we neared we kept seeing signs along the road with pointers for “base camp” and “catering”. We hadn’t seen anything on the park website but it appeared that there might be some sort of event happening. There were a bunch of trailer trucks parked at the Horse Camp and we were flagged down by a Park Ranger? who mentioned that the trailhead was open but there would be a detour to get around the equipment and wires set up on the “horse loop”. We thanked him but didn’t ask any additional questions which we probably should have. We started to park but then decided that if there was an event then it was probably going to get pretty busy/crowded there so we decided instead to start from a different trailhead.
The route that we had settled on was a combination of several trails including the Howard Creek Loop, Buck Mountain Loop, Smith Creek, and 214 Trails. The 214 Trailhead would provide us access to this loop as well as give us a reason to add the Rabbit Hole and Newt Loop Trails to the itinerary. We drove back toward the park’s south entrance and turned left into the large 214 Trailhead. (There is no fee station here so you need to pick up a day use permit elsewhere.)
From this trailhead is was just over 3/4 of a mile on the 214 Trail to the junction with the Smith Creek Trail where we would have eventually been on our originally planned loop. We followed signs for the 214 Trail at junctions. Signage in the park is hit and miss, having a map of the park is a must to avoid getting confused at unsigned junctions.
Sign post for the Newt Loop and mountain biking skills station.
As much blue sky as we were going to get on this day.
A massive old growth nursery log. The tree stood for hundreds of years and will spend hundreds more slowly decaying and providing nutrients for younger trees.
Nursery stump. While some old growth exists in the park it was also logged heavily which was the primary reason it was passed over for National Park status.
The Smith Creek Trail junction.
We stayed left on the 214 Trail at the junction with the Smith Creek Trail following it for another 0.6 miles to a junction with the 1.1 mile Nature Trail Loop.
Does anyone know their salamanders? Not sure what type this one was.
The Nature Trail junction.
We called an audible here and decided that a 1.1 mile loop wouldn’t add too much distance onto our day so we turned left and then left again to go clockwise on the Nature Trail.
In just over half a mile the trail popped us out in the park campground. After consulting our maps we determined we needed to turn left to find the continuation of the trail.
From the spot that we entered the campground you could just see a hiker sign at the far end of the paved campground road.
At an unlabeled junction with the Racket Ridge Connector Trail we stayed right on the Nature Trail. The Racket Ridge Connector Trail crossed South Fork Silver Creek while the Nature Trail followed the south bank for a short distance.
It was a half mile from the jct with the Racket Ridge Connector Trail back to the 214 Trail and just before we completed the loop we passed a blind.
No wildlife to view today.
When we got back to the 214 Trail we turned left to continue on our loop. Just under half a mile later we arrived at a “T” junction with the Howard Creek Loop Trail where we turned left.
The Howard Creek Loop Trail.
This trail crossed a paved road before crossing Howard Creek on a footbridge.
On the far side of Howard Creek the trail turned right along the road we had taken earlier to reach the Howard Creek Horse Camp.
Sign for the trailhead.
We hiked past the gate in the photo above and encountered the Park Ranger from earlier. He directed us to a trail on the right that would bypass the “wires and equipment”. This time we at least confirmed that the Buck Mountain Loop was open and thanked him before continuing on our way. We still aren’t sure what is/was going on but it wasn’t an event like we had thought. It appeared that they were either upgrading part of the horse camp, repairing the entrance road, or doing some thinning. Whatever they were doing we were able to pick up the Howard Creek/Buck Creek Loop trail at the SE end of the loop at the end of the road.
In a tenth of a mile we turned right on an old logging road.
Three tenths of a mile later we arrived at another junction where the Howard Creek Loop split to the right while the Buck Mountain Loop continued straight uphill.
For the next 2.7 miles we followed this road uphill until it leveled out and came to a large trail junction at the edge of a fire closure. We often turned to the maps along this stretch to ensure we stayed on the correct road.
Blue appeared to mean Buck Mountain Loop (the posts along the Howard Creek Loop had been red and later the Smith Creek Trail posts were yellow.)
The mix of tree trunks here caught our eye.
Approaching the trail junction.
The good news at this big junction was there was good signage and a full park map.
The 2020 Beachie Creek Fire threatened the Park and did in fact burn over nearby Shellburg Falls (post). As it was a small portion of the park was burned causing the very SE portion of the park to remain closed until repairs and removal of hazard trees are completed.
Orange fence marking the closure of the Catamount Trail.
We stuck to the Buck Mountain Loop which descended to a pair of crossings of tributaries of Howard Creek.
The first footbridge which spans Howard Creek. The creek was obscured by brush.
The second footbridge over a tributary not shown on the topo map.
This stream was a little easier to see.
We took a short break at this bridge before continuing on.
Just over a mile from the large junction we arrived at a 4-way junction where we turned right to stay on the Buck Mountain Loop.
A reminder of how close the Beachie Creek Fire was.
The 4-way junction.
We kept on the Buck Mountain Loop for nearly another mile before arriving at the Smith Creek Trail junction.
Approaching the Smith Creek Trail junction.
Up until this point other than a few very brief sprinkles we hadn’t seen much actual rainfall during the hike. As we started down the Smith Creek Trail though a steady rain began to fall. We followed this trail downhill for 1.6 miles to a junction near the Silver Falls Conference Center.
We stayed on the Smith Creek Trail for another 1.3 miles to yet another junction, this time with the Rabbit Hole Trail.
We faced a choice here. Looking at the map the Rabbit Hole Trail offered a slightly shorter route back to the 214 Trailhead versus the Smith Creek Trail, but it also appeared to climb a steeper hillside, albeit via switchback. The deciding factor for us though was whether or not there appeared to be many mountain bikers coming down the trail. Given the weather and not seeing any bikers or fresh tire tracks we decided to give it a shot.
There were 13 signed switchbacks in just over half a mile before arriving at the Newt Loop Trail near the mountain bike skills station.
Ramps in the background at the skills station.
We turned left on the Newt Loop and followed it through the forest ignoring side roads and trails for 0.6 miles to the 214 Trail just two tenths of a mile from the 214 Trailhead.
The Catamount Trail arriving on the left.
The 214 Trail from the Newt Loop.
We didn’t encounter any bikers on the Newt Loop or Rabbit Hole trails. In fact we only saw one mountain biker all day and that was on the Buck Mountain Loop. We did see a couple of larger groups of trail runners (or one big group split into smaller groups) on the Nature Trail but otherwise I don’t believe we saw even a half dozen other trail users during our 12.9 mile loop. Reeder had been right, this was a great rainy day hike and the fall colors made it a good time of year to visit. While we managed to spend time on a number of the trails in the backcountry there is still plenty for us to explore and I’m already coming up with other ideas for the future when the fire closure is lifted.
Our “hiking season” is quickly coming to an end for the year and while it wasn’t an ideal year from a drought and wildfire perspective we’ve been fortunate enough to get some great hikes in while wrapping up a number of our longer term goals which we will be posting about during our off-season. Happy Trails!
Flickr: Silver Falls Backcountry