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Hiking Oregon Salem/Albany Trip report Willamette Valley

Silver Falls Backcountry Loop – 10/23/2021

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.
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IMG_6547Park map at the viewpoint.

IMG_6550Willamette Valley

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.)
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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.
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IMG_6561Sign post for the Newt Loop and mountain biking skills station.

IMG_6563As much blue sky as we were going to get on this day.

IMG_6564A 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.

IMG_6566Nursery 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.

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IMG_6582The 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.
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20211023_085008Does anyone know their salamanders? Not sure what type this one was.

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IMG_6603The 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.
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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.
IMG_6619From the spot that we entered the campground you could just see a hiker sign at the far end of the paved campground road.

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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.
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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.
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IMG_6631No 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.
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IMG_6639The Howard Creek Loop Trail.

This trail crossed a paved road before crossing Howard Creek on a footbridge.
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IMG_6642Howard Creek

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.
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IMG_6645Sign 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.
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In a tenth of a mile we turned right on an old logging road.
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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.
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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.
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IMG_6687Blue 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.)

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IMG_6710The mix of tree trunks here caught our eye.

IMG_6719Approaching the trail junction.

The good news at this big junction was there was good signage and a full park map.
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IMG_6724The 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.

IMG_6723Orange 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.
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IMG_6727The first footbridge which spans Howard Creek. The creek was obscured by brush.

IMG_6730The second footbridge over a tributary not shown on the topo map.

IMG_6731This stream was a little easier to see.

We took a short break at this bridge before continuing on.
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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.
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IMG_6748A reminder of how close the Beachie Creek Fire was.

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IMG_6760The 4-way junction.

We kept on the Buck Mountain Loop for nearly another mile before arriving at the Smith Creek Trail junction.
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IMG_6780Approaching 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.
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We stayed on the Smith Creek Trail for another 1.3 miles to yet another junction, this time with the Rabbit Hole Trail.
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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.
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There were 13 signed switchbacks in just over half a mile before arriving at the Newt Loop Trail near the mountain bike skills station.
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IMG_6839Ramps 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.
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IMG_6850The Catamount Trail arriving on the left.

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IMG_6858The 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 12.9 loop

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

Categories
Hiking Oregon Salem/Albany Trip report Willamette Valley

Silver Falls State Park

It’s been a while since we’ve had a recent trip report to post but we finally took our March hike on Heather’s birthday. We are in the midst of training for the Corvallis Half-Marathon so we were looking for something on the shorter end and without too much elevation gain. After our first plan was scrapped due to our most recent snowfall we turned to – Silver Falls State Park.  We had done this hike a couple of times in the past before starting the blog. In fact our first visit to the park happened on a hot day in August, before we had started hiking, and resulted in us thinking we might die of heat stroke causing us to be unable to visit all the waterfalls. We returned slightly more prepared in July of 2006 and completed the hike which we consider our first true hike.  We went back once again on 7/30/2010 when Dominique chose this hike as his pick during our vacation that year.

It turns out we were there a little early. The posted hours for the day use areas were 8am to 8pm which hadn’t been clear on the park website and the entrance to the South Falls day use area was still gated so we began our hike at the North Falls Trailhead.
North Falls Trailhead

There is a $5 day use fee which we attempted to pay but the envelope box had been removed, presumably for the night, so after filling out an envelope we left the stub on our dash along with a note that the box was not in place so we would drop our payment off on the way out. With that taken care of we took a footbridge over North Fork Silver Creek and followed a pointer for Upper North Falls.
North Fork Silver Creek

Sign for Upper North Falls

The trail immediately passed under Highway 214 then in a quarter mile brought us to the 65′ Upper North Falls.
Upper North Falls

Upper North Falls

Upper North Falls

After admiring the fall we returned the way we’d come and after passing back under the highway faced a choice at a junction. To the left the Rim Trail headed uphill and would follow the highway along the canyon rim to the South Falls Day Use area while the right hand fork would lead us on a longer trek through the canyon and the other waterfalls.
Trail junction in Silver Falls State Park

The question was did we want to end with the more scenic trail through the canyon or start with the canyon figuring that there would be fewer people on the trails earlier in the morning. The prospect of fewer people won out and we took the Canyon Trail along the creek (please note dogs are banned on the Canyon Trail). Not far from the junction the trail descends past a sign for North Falls and passes under basalt overhangs.
Sign for North Falls

Trail to North Falls

North Falls came into view as we descended some stairs before turning back towards the falls and ultimately passing them.
North Falls

North Falls

North Falls

View from behind North Falls

The water was roaring as it crashed down into the splash pool. It was a stark difference from our July 2010 visit.
North Falls
July 30, 2010

North FallsMarch 29, 2018

The trail was now on the north side of the creek and remained fairly level for over a mile as it passed through the canyon. We spotted quite a few flowers starting to bloom along this stretch.
North Fork Silver Creek

ToothwortToothwort

Skunk CabbageSkunk cabbage

Salmonberry blossomsSalmonberry

Blossoms along North Fork Silver CreekIndian plum

The next waterfall up on the Trail of Ten Falls was 31′ Twin Falls.
Sign for Twin Falls

Twin Falls

A short distance from Twin Falls (and about 1.5 miles from the North Falls Trailhead) we came to a junction with the Winter Falls Trail.
Footbridge over North Fork Silver Creek

The half mile Winter Falls Trail starts at the Winter Falls Trailhead along Highway 214 passing Winter Falls and ending at the Canyon Trail. We turned left onto a footbridge crossing North Fork Silver Creek and headed for Winter Falls.
Footbridge over North Fork Silver Creek

The trail was fairly level as it led to the 134′ waterfall.
Winter Falls

Winter Falls

Later in the year Winter Falls all but dries up so this was the first time we’d gotten to see this waterfall.
Winter Falls

After checking this fall off our list we returned to the Canyon Trail and continued downstream toward Middle North Falls.
Sign for Middle North Falls

In just .2 miles we came to the side trail down to Middle North Falls.
Middle North Falls

Here there was another opportunity to go behind the waterfall.
Middle North Falls

Trail behind Middle North Falls

View from behind Middle North Falls

View from behind Middle North Falls

The side trail continued on the far side of the fall wrapping around the canyon to a great view of the cascade.
Middle North Falls

Middle North Falls

After oohing and ahhing at this waterfall we returned to the Canyon Trail which also had several nice views of this fall. Of all the waterfalls on this hike this one was probably the most visibly different from our previous visits.
Middle North FallsJuly 7, 2006

Middle North FallsJuly 30, 2010

Middle North FallsMarch 29, 2018

A little downstream from Middle North Falls we came to a viewing platform above little Drake Falls.
Drake Falls

Drake Falls

Less than a half mile from the Winter Falls Trail junction we arrived at another junction. This time with a very short spur trail to Double Falls.
Sign for Double Falls

Here again the difference in water volume was very apparent.
Double Falls

Double FallsJuly 7, 2006

Double FallsJuly 30, 2010

Double FallsMarch 29, 2018

Just beyond the spur trail to Double Falls the Canyon Trail passed 30′ Lower North Falls.
Lower North Falls

Lower North Falls

After the flurry of waterfalls in the three quarters of a mile between Twin Falls and Lower North Falls things settled down. The trail continued on the north side of the creek for about a quarter of a mile before crossing over on a footbridge.
Footbridge over North Fork Silver Creek

The trail then stayed on the south side of the creek passing an unnamed seasonal waterfall.
North Fork Silver Creek

Unnamed waterfall in Silver Falls State Park

The trail soon veered away from North Fork Silver Creek and a mile from the spur trail to Double Falls we arrived at a junction with the Maple Ridge Trail.
Maple Ridge Trail junction

The Maple Ridge Trail allows for a shorter loop option if you start at the South Falls Day Use Area but that loop only passes three waterfalls. It was however our escape route on our first visit when the heat of August and our lack of carrying water forced us to abandon our attempt at the full loop. The Canyon Trail here rejoined a creek but not the North Fork Silver Creek. This was now the South Fork Silver Creek. A short distance upstream we came to Lower South Falls.
Lower South Falls

Lower South Falls

Lower South Falls is another that the trail passes behind but before we headed behind the water a varied thrush landed on a branch just a few feet from us. I’ve mentioned before that these birds are my nemesis as I can rarely get a decent photo of one. This guy was no exception, despite his sitting on the branch for a good 15 seconds or more I could not get the camera to focus on him.
Varied Thrush at Lower South Falls

Having failed to get a clear picture of the bird we headed behind the waterfall and out the other side.
Lower South Falls

View from behind Lower South Falls

Lower South Falls

Again the difference in the appearance from our previous visits to this waterfall was obvious.
Lower South FallsJuly 7, 2006

Lower South FallsJuly 30, 2010

Lower South FallsMarch 29, 2018

Another series of stairs climbed up above Lower South Falls which was probably the most strenuous part of the hike. The trail then leveled out again for about a mile before arriving at South Falls.
South Fork Silver Creek

South Falls

A footbridge over the creek below the falls allows for a short loop from the day use area. We passed by the footbridge opting to pass behind this waterfall as well.
South Falls

South Falls

View from behind South Falls

A comparison of our visits shows the difference that the timing of a visit makes.
South FallsJuly 30, 2010

South FallsMarch 29, 2018

Doing the loop in the direction we’d chosen made South Falls the 10th of the 10 waterfalls along the Trail of Ten Falls but that didn’t mean it was the last waterfall we’d visit on the hike. That honor went to Frenchie Falls. A sign part way up the trail from South Falls pointed toward this little fall.
Sign for Frenchie Falls

Even at this time of the year it wasn’t much more than a wisp of water and it lacks a good vantage point but it’s a named fall none the less.
Frenchie Falls

After checking out Frenchie Falls we completed the climb out of the canyon to a viewpoint above South Falls.
Plaque above South Falls

Looking down from the top of South Falls

We then looped around a picnic area and into the South Falls Historic District.
South Falls Historic District at Silver Falls State Park

South Falls Lodge

South Falls Lodge

Nature Store

Here we passed the cafe, store and theater before arriving at a junction with the start of the Maple Ridge and Rim Trails.
Rim and Maple Ridge Trails

We followed the Rim Trail through a picnic area and into the forest.
Rim Trail

Rim Trail

Rim Trail

The last of the winter snow was melting as the first of the spring flowers were coming to life.
Snow along the Rim Trail

Violet

The Rim Trail passed through the Winter Falls Trailhead parking but offered no views of the waterfall. The only real view of any of the falls came near the end of the 2.1 mile trail when North Falls was visible down in the canyon below.
North Falls from the Rim Trail

The pay box was in place at the trailhead (which was now full of cars) so we dropped off our $5 before driving back home.  With all of our previous visits having come during the summer months it was great to visit when the water levels were higher. A few more weeks will bring out the flowers adding to the beauty of this hike. Happy Trails!

Flickr: 2018
2010
2006