Thompson’s Mills State Heritage Site is located not far off of Interstate 5 south of Albany and near the small town of Shedd. It is an incredible piece of history that seems frozen in time, with a fully operational hydroelectric power plant, millworks, elevators, and much more. It had the distinction of being the oldest continuously-operated mill until it closed in 2004 and was sold to the state of Oregon. Because it was still operating when it was aquiredn, all of the equipment was left on the premises. This gives visitors a unique view into how these mills operated. The mill was originally built to grind local farmers’ grains into various flours, but when that market dried up the owners switched to creating animal feed and custom milling jobs.
We visited the mill during off-season and were treated to a personalized tour by the very knowledgable volunteer guide. He fired up much of the machinery and even opened the pond gate to turn the turbines.
The Opal Creek Wilderness is possibly the West’s most accessible wilderness area, for good or bad. It is one of the rare preserves that have active roads running into and through sensitive areas. This accessibility has allowed those who normally don’t visit wilderness areas an up-close experience with pristine waters and virgin forests. Unfortunately, this access has made Opal Creek one of the most overused wilderness areas in Oregon. Day use has exploded in the past few years, with picnickers and sunbathers coming in droves and leaving mountains of trash. Opal Creek’s popularity has also attracted day visitors in high heels and flip-flops into areas that would be difficult for rescue if they fell or had a medical emergency. The Forest Service is ill-equipped to manage Opal Creek and have had to restrict parking in the most congested areas such as Three Pools and the Jawbone Flats trailhead. An inadequate number of forest rangers are spread out over a huge area and consequently most littering and destruction of natural features goes unnoticed and unprosecuted.
At the “ghost town” of Jawbone Flats in the heart of the Opal Creek Wilderness, the Friends of Opal Creek run the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center. They provide conservation education and training in a charming mining town setting. The cabins and meeting rooms are powered by a small hydroelectric plant located in one of the original buildings. Vehicles from the Center are the only ones allowed to use the old road in and out of Jawbone Flats; the road is closed to all other traffic. But visitors can bike or hike the road in and spend a few hours exploring the mining equipment or swimming in Opal Pool.
Abiqua Falls is in the Cascade Foothills roughly between Scotts Mills and Silverton and set in a lovely bowl carved out of columnar basalt at the bottom of a steep canyon. It is less accessible than the waterfalls at Silver Falls State Park and as a result much less visited. The road leading to the trailhead is not maintained and is part of the Crooked Finger Off Road Area, so there are many damaged areas and trash left behind by off-road enthusiasts. The trailhead is actually several “trails” winding down into the canyon. The land is owned by the Mount Angel Abbey as noted on a big sign above one of the trailheads. Someone was nice enough to fix ropes to trees to cover the steeper parts of the trail, but slipping and sliding will still take place if it has been raining.
Silver Falls State Park is Oregon’s largest, encompassing 9,200 acres in the Cascade foothills southeast of Silverton. It boasts an impressive ten large waterfalls, all connected by a hiking path named the Trail of the Ten Falls. During wet season there are even more waterfalls to see throughout the park, including the unusual Winter Falls.
Silver Falls is also one of the most popular day-use and camping spots in Oregon. The creek area above South Falls has a large picnic area with covered gazebos and a playground. The historic South Falls Lodge welcomes visitors during the day, with a cheery fire in its stone fireplace and a cafe serving lunch and snacks. The South Falls Lodge was built by the CCC in 1940 utilizing local wood and stone. The Friends of Silver Falls State Park operate a Nature Store in a log cabin down the trail from the Lodge.
A unique feature of the park is the ability to hike behind several of the larger waterfalls, including North Falls, South Falls Lower South Falls, and Middle North Falls. While the names might not be very original or awe-inspiring, the views of the waterfalls are. Best times to visit for maximum water flow and minimum people are early Spring during the week or late Fall before the leaves drop but after several good rains.
After decades of living in this state, it is easy to become jaded to the many benefits of citizenship to this unique chunk of the Pacific Northwest. Here in the Willamette Valley, we are an hour’s drive from some of the most rugged and undeveloped coastline in the U.S. Gorgeous waterfalls and clear streams are everywhere, small family farms offering everything and anything that grows in our rich valley soil are a stone’s throw. And we are a close drive to an epic mountain, Mt. Hood, and all of the winter and summer activities that it offers. High desert, deep canyonlands, world-class rock climbing, world-class kayaking, volcanic lakes, charming towns, breweries, wineries. . . you name it, we’ve got it.
In upcoming posts I’m going to delve more deeply into some of my favorite places here in Oregon, starting with a special place just up the road: Silver Falls State Park. Stay tuned!