Oregon's capital city, Salem, as well as the surrounding region of Marion and Polk County are extremely diverse. Salem is known for state government, unique historic museums, award-winning wineries and beautiful gardens. However, the region also boasts outstanding outdoor recreational opportunities that are a well kept secret.
Fun on the Water
Outdoor activities abound in and near Salem. With the Willamette River flowing through the city, there are many opportunities for water sports - from water-skiing to kayaking and canoeing to fishing for trout and salmon. The North Fork of the Santiam River, a major tributary to the Willamette, and many other smaller rivers also offer fishing opportunities and fishermen and fisherwomen travel here from around the world to test their skill against Rainbow Trout, Cut-throat Trout and Steelhead (a trout that spends a part of its life cycle in the Pacific Ocean).
Lakes in the region include Detroit Lake. The lake is 400 feet deep, more than nine miles long and has over 32 miles of shoreline. This is the place to go for all types of water sports in a beautiful mountain forest setting. The recreation area is open March through November and includes campgrounds, a boat ramp and docks, a wildlife viewing area, visitor's center and a store.
There are a number of outfitters and retail establishments devoted to fishing in the region who can provide you with information or guides to make your fishing excursion here a success.
Where Waterfalls Abound
Silver Falls State Park near Silverton is the state's largest state park. Only twenty-six miles east of Salem, this park's trails accommodate hiking, bicycling and horse riding. Here nature has carved a canyon that contains ten magnificent waterfalls - all accessible through a network of trails. The most visited falls is the South Falls, near the WPA built lodge, this waterfall drops an awesome 177 feet. The paved trail loops behind the falls, providing a spectacular 360-degree view and unique experience. The Oregon State Parks' web site, www.oregonstateparks.org, has information about trails, overnight and day use accommodations and usage fees.
History and Nature
Willamette Mission State Park, north of Salem is the location of one of the first settlements in the region. Methodist missionaries established a mission here near the banks of the Willamette River with the objective of bringing education to the native population. Today the Willamette Mission State Park is a place for picnics, horse rides, hiking or just enjoying a quiet afternoon away from the city. An interesting side trip is a ride on the Wheatland Ferry that crosses the Willamette River at the park's edge.
Wildlife Viewing and Bird Watching
If bird watching is of interest to you, there are an abundance of opportunities to take your binoculars and hope to find an unusual or rarely sighted bird. To the west of Salem is Baskett Slough, a wildlife refuge area where birders are often found. A short twenty or thirty minute drive from downtown Salem takes you to this national wildlife refuge of grasslands, farmland, forest and shallow water wetlands. Although the refuge is closed from October through April, winter viewing can take place from adjacent roads and Baskett Butte Trail, the only trail open year round within the refuge.
Over 200 species of birds have been identified here - from the rare to the common. Canada Geese winter over here, as well as ducks and other species of geese. Bald Eagles and other raptors are present most of the year. Look for Northern Harriers, Redtail Hawks and American Kestrels, along with Peregrine Falcons, Cooper's Hawks and songbirds. Keep your eyes open for blacktail deer, coyotes, beaver and nutria, as well as raccoons and opossums.
Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge, 20 minutes south of Salem, also offers nature opportunities. Nearly 200 wildlife species may be seen on the refuge including many species of birds (herons, eagles, hawks, shorebirds, songbirds), deer, reptiles and amphibians. The refuge has wildlife observation areas and trails that meander through wetland and oak/ash forests to allow visitors a close-up view. The Salem Audubon Society's web page (www.salem-audubon.org) will provide you with a birder's field list and other information about Baskett Slough and Ankeny Wildlife Refuge.
Go Wild in the City
If hiking is what you enjoy, you will not be disappointed in the region surrounding Salem - or within the city itself. Like most cities in Oregon, the citizens of Salem enjoy easy access to nature. Two city parks provide outdoor experiences that can be taken advantage of on the spur of the moment. Both are just a few minutes away from historic downtown Salem - one lying along the Willamette River, the other nearly in the heart of the city.
Historic Deepwood Estate is a beautiful Queen Anne home that is now a city park. While the grounds close to the house are beautifully landscaped, much of the property lies in its natural state and many city residents enjoy a stroll throughout the park's "Deep Woods" and open meadow. Birds, raccoons, opossums and even deer reside here, so keep your eyes open!
Minto-Brown Island Park contains 833 acres that lie alongside the Willamette River. Named after its two original owners, Isaac "Whiskey" Brown and John Minto. The land originally was two islands bounded by the river that were used for farming. Periodic floods have changed the landscape, most notably great floods that occurred in 1861 (the greatest ever recorded) and nearly a century later in 1964. Today the "islands" have disappeared with the changes in the river's channel.
The park includes a leash-free dog area where dogs and their owners socialize, over five miles of paved bikeways that are shared by bicyclists, joggers and walkers, observation platforms for wildlife watching and picnic areas. The pathways take you from open meadows to dense brush and forest and past farmlands and wetlands. Through an agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Commission, some of the farm crops remain unharvested for waterfowl and wildlife - designating the crops themselves for recreational use. Eagles, hawks, owls, songbirds, squirrels, deer, opossum, raccoons and even coyotes all live here and can be spotted by the observant visitor.
Geothermal Hot Springs
To really experience nature in all its glory, you need to go to the mountain forests. The Willamette National Forest encompasses seven volcanic peaks, including Mt. Jefferson which can be seen from Salem's hills. A part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, the Cascade Range provides geothermal activity that heats natural hot springs.
Breitenbush Hot Springs Retreat and Conference Center provides many amenities for those seeking physical and mental solace. Whether you come for a day or rent one of the cabins for an overnight stay, delectable vegetarian meals are available at the lodge, massages can be obtained, and there are several hot springs from which to choose to soak away your cares. At the hot spring pools you'll find that some visitors are comfortable with the "clothing optional" environment while others choose to wear swimsuits.
Old Growth Forests and Wilderness Areas
Visitors have described the old growth forests of the region like that found in Europe's great cathedrals. Giant trees tower hundreds of feet above the forest floor. Light streams through the canopy, touching beautiful flowers in the undergrowth - trillium, orchids, rhododendron and ferns. Old growth forests contain a diverse ecosystem that includes many species of trees, underbrush and wildlife. The Northern Spotted Owl makes its home here, as does the Golden eagle, Raven, jays, chickadees and many other songbirds. Blacktail deer, Roosevelt elk, black bear, bobcat, coyote, beaver and pika are among the forest's mammalian residents. Native fish can be found in the streams and lakes.
The Opal Creek Wilderness, Bull of the Woods Wilderness and Table Rock Wilderness all provide a wealth of hiking, backpacking, and old growth forest experience. Whether you choose to limit yourself to a day hike, take an extended backpack trek or travel with horses there are many trails, lakes, and areas of scenic interest from which to choose.
Opal Creek Wilderness is one of the last great old-growth forest reserves in western Oregon. The extensive trail network in this wilderness provides access to the breathtakingly beautiful Opal Canyon. This 35,000-acre watershed lies 42 miles northeast of Salem. Here you'll find 45 miles of streams, spectacular waterfalls, lakes and pools. While summer provides opportunity to delve deep into the region's forests, cross country skiers take advantage of winter snows by skiing three or four miles to Elk Lake from the snow line on Road 4697. Only the Opal Creek Trail is usually open year round. Other trails are generally snow free from April through November.
Adjacent to the Opal Creek Wilderness is Bull of the Woods Wilderness. The 68-mile trail system here centers on the Bull of the Woods lookout tower. At an elevation of 5,532 feet this lookout tower's sweeping view encompasses the high country from Mt. Hood to Mt. Jefferson and, to the west, the Willamette Valley. This isolated wilderness encompasses over 27,000 acres with dozens of lakes and streams that have an abundant supply of trout.
Table Rock Wilderness is also easily accessible from Salem. This rock outcropping is a remnant of a lava flow that once covered the western foothills of the Cascades. Approximately 19 miles of trails provide access to this small wilderness area. A relatively easy hike will take you to the summit of Table Rock and a sweeping vista that includes Mt. Rainier far to the north, Bull of the Woods Wilderness to the east and the Willamette Valley to the south.
These three wilderness areas provide hikers with day trips or longer two and three day hikes into mountain lakes and areas of real solitude. Panoramic vistas, beautiful scenery, an abundance of wildlife and a distinct lack of other people will make your visit to these pristine areas truly memorable.
Remember if you are hiking in the woods or in wilderness areas to plan ahead and be prepared, no matter how short a hike you plan to take. Many hikers find themselves unprepared for weather changes and every year some become stranded or even lost.
In planning and preparing for your trip let someone know where you plan to go and when you plan to return. When in the woods, dispose of your waste properly - pack your trash and carry it out with you. Remember to leave what you find so that others may enjoy the wilderness for years to come - don't be tempted to pick the flowers. Respect the wildlife, after all it's their home that you're visiting. Remember to be considerate of others who are there to enjoy the natural setting and might not appreciate hearing cell phones ring, radios playing or noisy individuals who disturb the peace and relative isolation that is sought here. And, above all, be extremely cautious when using fire - check before you go for the fire conditions and restrictions in the forest as many places forbid campfires.
Essential equipment to bring along - even for a short hike - includes a map, compass, flashlight, extra food and clothing. Include some rain gear, a pocketknife, waterproof matches, fire starter, a first aid kit, sunglasses and sunscreen. And always check for current weather and trail conditions before you head out. Information that can aid you in planning and having a safe trip can be found at www.naturenw.org or at U.S. Forest Service Ranger Stations.
Trip Planning Assistance
Maps of wilderness areas and national forests may be obtained from the U.S. Forest Service and many guidebooks have been published that give detailed directions as well as descriptions of parks and wild areas.
In the region surrounding Salem, Oregon you'll discover outdoor activities year round for a wide range of interests and levels of physical activity. Many city, county and state parks have ADA compliant facilities to accommodate wheelchairs. Whether your interests include bird watching, fishing, hiking, backpacking, bicycle touring, water sports or an afternoon's solace provided by Mother Nature, you'll find it all within a relatively short drive from Salem, Oregon.
About the Author: Sharan Barnett is a native Oregonian who grew up in a family that enjoyed camping and fishing. Much of her childhood was spent in mountain wilderness areas, as well as excursions to Oregon's coast and high desert regions. Today she and her husband, photographer Frank Barnett, reside in Salem and often enjoy nature's beauty that is so close to home.
You can receive additional information by visiting the Salem Convention and Visitors Association.