Hotspots and Rocks

When you read the word hotspot, you probably think of wifi, coffee shops, and Facebook.   The Yellowstone hotspot has nothing to do with wifi, coffee, or social media; it's a spot of an altogether different and intriguing sort.  Geologists know it as the source of intense heat deep in the earth's mantle that's just now warming water for geysers and hot springs at Yellowstone National Park.   How and why it does this, and where it's been and may be going are fascinating subjects, but we'll save them for another day.  

In the meantime, as unlikely as it may seem, Yellowstone's hotspot played the starring role in producing some of Oregon's most spectacular waterfalls.  It all started around 16 million years ago, when the same hotspot that's now amusing millions of sightseers in Wyoming was located several hundred miles to the west, under what is now northeastern Oregon.   It was much hotter then, and not nearly as amusing.  Instead of colorful mud pots and playful geysers, it was churning out enormous volumes of molten rock, now known as Columbia River Basalts, that flooded across much of Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, eventually covering nearly 25,000 square miles with dense black rock that's almost two miles thick in places.   

These ruinous torrents of sizzling lava were a serious detriment to area tourism. But once the 65,000 or so cubic miles of hot rocks cooled, and spent a few million years enjoying the soggy climate of the American northwest, they've become a huge tourist draw across the entire region. They form much of the scenic and rugged coastlines of Oregon and Washington, along with the spectacular cliffs of the Columbia Gorge, and the picture-perfect cascades of Silver Falls State Park. 

The South Falls

Silver Falls State Park - North Falls
Credit: Lorrie Von, Photographer

Rocks and Waterfalls

Water is nature's chisel, and like the wheels of  justice, it grinds slow but exceeding fine.   Silver Creek has been hard at work shaping a small section of Columbia River Basalts (we'll call them the CRB from here on) for well over a million years.   It's fair to expect such patient effort to produce dazzling results, and the unassuming little creek has done just that.  

Master craftsmen require tranquility and solitude.  Silver Creek found an ideal setting for it's work near the eastern edge of Oregon's Willamette Valley, about 15 miles east of the state's capitol city of Salem.  Hidden in the rolling foothills that mark the transition from the flat valley floor to the slopes of the Cascade Range, Silver Falls State Park now enshrines the creek's artistry. 

Finding the Park

Within the boundaries of the 9,000 acre park, Silver Creek and it's tributaries have chiseled away at the CRB and the softer rocks and soil over which they settled to produce a rugged valley that's interrupted by sheer cliffs rising to heights of over 200 feet.  These cliffs are the launch pads for 10 separate waterfalls that churn Silver Creek into rushing cascades of water droplets and clouds of mist that cool the air and dampen the park's many awe-inspired visitors.  

Trail of Ten Falls MapCredit: Oregon State Parks

Fifty Shades of Green

The falls are a rare and lovely spectacle, and more than enough reason to visit the park, but they're by no means the only source of it's beauty.  Western Oregon has a well-earned reputation for it's wet climate, but in this case, dark clouds really do have Silver linings.

All of the damp days and endless rainfall have not only built the creek's muscles, they've produced rainforest giants of Douglas fir, soaring western red cedar, and too many species of ferns, deciduous trees, moss, and other greenery to count.   Some of the fir trees are nearly as tall as the park's highest cliffs, with enormous mossy trunks and fragrant boughs.  The lush and varied greenery that frame so many of the park's most breathtaking views make it a photographer's dream destination.  Sunlight (yes, it does shine in Oregon) cascades through the verdant canopy, giving the park an inviting green glow and the air a fresh charge of photosynthetic oxygen.  

Cascading Moss Waterfall

Visiting the Park

On the hottest days of an Oregon summer, the falls and the shaded trails keep the park cool and inviting.  The brilliant but distinct colors of fall and spring lend the park a festive air, while the winter rains transform the falls into stunning cataracts of white froth.  And if you're lucky enough to catch the park in sunshine during a hard winter freeze, the park becomes a crystal cathedral of sparkling gems that is truly unforgettable.  

Silver Creek has toiled much longer than the Oregon State Park's staff, but the staff still deserves lots of credit for their work in  designing, building, and maintaining the miles of well-engineered trails,  bridges, buildings, safety railings, and emergency roadways that make the waterfalls and serenity of Silver Creek's handiwork remarkably accessible and safe for anyone that cares to visit.  

The park's reputation as a prime Oregon scenic and recreational destination has grown substantially since it received its first visitors in 1933.  The wonder of standing behind a rushing waterfall, the reflected beauty of the old-growth forest shimmering in the many quiet pools that provide respite for the busy creek, and the 25 miles of hiking, biking, and horseback trails that reveal countless scenic wonders are reason enough to visit.    

Throw in a 1940s lodge and conference center, cafe with outdoor tables, a well-protected swimming hole in Silver Creek, a complete campground with cabins to rent as well as tent, and RV sites, and lots of activities including fishing, playgrounds, expansive and well-maintained lawns and picnic areas, and the park becomes irresistible.  And that's why you'll need to reserve your cabin or campsite at least 6 months before you visit.  You can see and reserve available campsites and cabins online, a quick search of Silver Falls State Park will get you there.  

The hotspot that started it all has long since moved on, although it's still attracting plenty of attention.  But it left behind a place of rare serenity that's become a hotspot of yet a different sort, and one that should not be missed.  

Lower South Falls