Autumn in Oregon’s Silver Falls State Park
Oregon’s Silver Falls State Park near Salem, OR is a gem of a park that, acre for acre, rivals any national park I’ve visited.
Everything is close and easily accessible and for waterfall lovers, hikers, and nature photographers, this combination is unbeatable.
This park is spectacular any time of year, but autumn is something special.
I recently (Oct. 2017) led a small two-day photo workshop at Silver Falls and the number of great images we came away with for such a short trip was impressive. It’s truly a target-rich photographic environment.
The Trail of Ten Falls gives one access to, you guessed it, ten waterfalls. There are actually eleven named falls, but the one not mentioned on the map really isn’t worth mentioning.
Out of the ten falls, four are truly spectacular. If you only have a day, those are the four I’d concentrate on. I’ve seen all ten, and as far as waterfalls go, the others are worth a visit if you have the time, but perhaps not worth spending too much time photographing.
That being said, fall color can make anything you pair with it look good.
Besides the waterfalls, the streams are lovely, and the forest and trails can be quite photogenic in their own right.
During the recent two-day workshop, we concentrated more on quality photographs and working a location rather than the quantity of waterfalls photographed.
The first day was cloudless, but being that the waterfalls are in the canyons they helped carve, and that the sun this time of year is lower in the sky, direct sunlight on the falls and their surroundings wasn’t a difficult issue to deal with.
In fact, the sun itself is featured prominently in some of my very favorite images from the trip.
The sun, being low in the sky, was often in the trees above us. This makes a great opportunity for including the sun as a starburst in the picture.
Our first morning started by arriving just past sunrise at the North Falls overlook. This is a good spot to start and to brush out any cobwebs your camera may have collected from the last time you used it.
From there we moved to the North Falls parking lot and hiked the 3/10 mile to North Falls. The trail leads behind the falls to some good viewpoints along the trail. It’s also worth taking the time to explore shots from behind the falls.
Remembering visits from previous years I knew that if we waited long enough, the sun would peak through the trees, providing an opportunity for a starburst. By the time we were done with North Falls it was lunch time.
Returning to the park after lunch, we made our way to South Falls. Since it was mid-afternoon on a beautiful Saturday, the park was pretty crowded. So we hiked the mile to Lower South Falls, hoping for less of a crowd and counting on South Falls being less crowded later in the afternoon. That’s relative.
Lower South Falls is a wide curtain of a waterfall dropping 93 ft. The trail also passes behind this waterfall but photographically, it’s not as good as behind North Falls.
I think the far side of the waterfall is the better place from which to photograph it. The fall color here was a little disappointing. In some parts of the park there was still plenty of colorful leaves on the trees, but here at Lower South Falls, most of the leaves had already fallen. I imagine that the trees were probably still rather full a week before our visit. I can only attribute the differences we saw to micro-climates. Just a guess.
But this was still a remarkable location and I got perhaps my favorite shot of the trip here.
Like North Falls in the morning, the sun will appear through the trees at South Falls in the afternoon. Here I could frame up a shot that included fallen leaves, the waterfall, and a wonderful starburst.
After we were done with Lower South Falls we made our way back toward the parking lot, stopping at South Falls along the way. South Falls is the most popular waterfall in the park, and at 177 ft. it’s certainly the tallest. And it’s closest to the large parking lot, the lodge, café, and gift store.
There are shots to be had along the shore of the stream at the base of the falls, like this shot I made on a previous visit.
But some of the most intriguing shots I saw were along the switchback trail leading back to the top of the falls and parking area. For shots like these, it’s a matter of finding an opening in the trees that you can take advantage of. Sometimes you’ll use leaves against or framing the waterfall. Sometimes you can find trees to frame it. And sometimes, you can find another starburst to work with.
The next morning we once again started close to sunrise, parking at the Winter Falls trailhead and making our way to Middle North Falls. This day was just the opposite of the day before: perfect waterfall and forest photography weather. There was fog and mist floating in the trees and the leaves and rocks were wet, making for saturated colors.
We photographed Middle North Falls from two vantage points. First we followed the side trail behind the falls and shot from there. This is another wide curtain of a waterfall and the shape of it from the side is fantastic. See photo at the top of this post.
The fall color as Middle North Falls was just the opposite of Lower South Falls. Here, most of the trees still had their leaves and they were surrounding the area of the falls. And there was a bit of fog in the trees. Just beautiful.
The other vantage point for Middle North Falls is along the main trail just downstream. The view is of the falls, the stream, and the fall color.
At what was the best vantage point, a large Douglas fir from across the stream fell and deposited some obstructing limbs at just the perfect spot to mess up any foreground you’d want to include. There’s still a shot to be had but it’s harder to include the stream. So I decided to move down the trail a few feet and photograph through some trees and embrace the branches. Sometimes you just have to go with what you’re given.
So those are the four best waterfalls in the park. Another waterfall worth visiting is Upper North Falls, accessed from the same trail head as North Falls.
This isn't to discourage you from visiting the other falls. The other falls in the park are all easy to get to and won't take you too much time. These other five falls are accessible from the Winter Falls trail head.
All in all, this was an extremely productive and satisfying two days as Silver Falls State park.
If you’re interested in a workshop at Silver Falls, let me know. I’ll be planning both spring and fall trips. Just drop me an email and I’ll be sure to place you on a notification list.