With over 20 miles of horse-friendly trails, Silver Falls State Park is a fabulous place to ride. The park is located 20 miles east of Salem, and at 8,700 acres it is Oregon’s largest state park.
Silver Falls attracts equestrians from all over the Northwest, and it’s easy to see why. The trails are wide and in excellent condition, the terrain is not difficult, and the forest is beautiful. You can create a number of nice loop routes by linking the park trails in different ways. And the park has excellent camping facilities at Howard Creek Horse Camp, plus a huge day-parking area.
Here are some examples of the Silver Falls’ excellent horse trails:
The Buck Mountain Loop runs 8.5 miles past enormous old-growth trees to the top of its namesake hill, for a gradual elevation gain of 850 feet in a little over 4 miles. Much of the route runs along old forest roads, so the trail is nice and wide. On the eastern leg of the loop, you’ll find massive stumps from a long-ago logging operation interspersed among the live trees. Today these stumps act as “nurse logs,” providing nutrients for the younger trees growing out of the rotting wood.
The Howard Creek/Buck Mountain Loop is 5 miles long, and like the Buck Mountain Loop it features huge old-growth Douglas-firs and hemlocks, plus massive maples and dense undergrowth. The trail runs along Howard Creek and the Smith Creek riparian area.
The Rackett Ridge/Perimeter Loop gains 1,000 feet of elevation in 2 miles as it explores Rackett Ridge and the eastern boundary of the park. This beautiful 10-mile loop crosses several creeks, and like the park’s other trails it is densely forested.
Shellburg Falls is another worthy destination, though at 15 miles long with 2,500 feet of elevation change it’s more strenuous than the other trails in the park. The route follows the Buck Mountain Loop to its highest point, then runs (at times steeply) down the south side of Buck Mountain, leaving the park and entering the Santiam State Forest. When you arrive at the Shellburg Falls Trailhead, tie your horse at the hitching rail and continue on foot for 0.4 mile to the falls. Horses are not permitted on the trail to Shellburg Falls because part of it descends a steep staircase. The trail will take you behind the falls.
The 214/Smith Creek Loop is a very nice 7-mile ride that crosses Howard Creek and Smith Creek before swinging around to connect with the Buck Mountain Loop. Some sections of the forest along the trail have been clear-cut in the past, creating variation in the vegetation you’ll see along the way.
While you are at the park, be sure to visit some of the spectacular waterfalls along the Trail of Ten Falls, which passes – you guessed it – ten waterfalls, allowing you to walk behind several of them. Horses are not permitted on the waterfall trail so you’ll have to hoof it on your own. But the exertion is absolutely worth it!
Reservations are required for Howard Creek Horse Camp, so plan ahead because summer weekends get booked up early.
Getting There: From the junction of I-5 and Hwy. 22 in Salem (Exit 253, Mission St.), go east on Hwy. 22 for 5.5 miles. Take Exit 7 and drive east on Hwy. 214. After 15.5 miles, turn right into the park. Follow the signs to the horse camp, about 1 mile farther. The day-use parking area is on the left just before you reach the horse camp. You can also do day rides from the 214 trailhead just south of the park entrance.
Fees: Fee for overnight camping and for day use
Season: Year round
Camping Facilities: Howard Creek Horse Camp has five campsites with steel corrals for four horses each. One site is a pull-through and all others are back-in. All are level and graveled, with room for 2 vehicles. All sites have fire pits, picnic tables, and water spigots with potable water. In addition, there is a group site with corrals for 12 horses and parking for multiple vehicles. The camp has portable toilets and manure bins.
More Information: The trails at Silver Falls State Park are covered in more detail in Riding Northwest Oregon Horse Trails, by Kim McCarrel, (Ponderosa Press, 2013).
Reprinted with permission from Northwest Rider magazine, September 2016.