The Wonders of Mother Nature Surround Salem
Salem is a city of contrasts.
Within half a day’s drive, the adventurous or even slightly adventurous can experience a variety of landscapes.
Fingers of the famed high and low desert reach into the low foothills on the leeside of the Cascades, while the ocean lies less than an hour’s drive to the west. For the deep woods – and a true Oregon outdoors experience – you need only head about 25 miles to Silver Falls State Park. The park has more than a dozen waterfalls, some with drops of more than 170 feet.
Close to home, Salem is a city of parks. This city is so intent on preservation that it has earned the Tree City USA stamp of approval by the National Arbor Day Foundation. And there are just as many unique spots within Salem as within driving distance – from the 23-acre Riverfront Park to Minto-Brown to the south. The city is also actively exploring the conversion of the Union Street Railroad Bridge into a pedestrian walkway connecting these major greenways.
“What sets Salem apart,” says Chris Havel, who runs the director’s office in the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, “are nature, history and play.”
Maybe the best place to begin exploring the urban parkland is the state capitol on State Street, which adjoins modest Wilson Park – with its gardens and fountain. Across the street is the green expanse of Willamette University’s campus direct. You can walk down to Mill Street to the Thomas Kay Historical Park, home to the Mission Mill Museum, a window deep back into the early history of Salem when the first pioneers from the Oregon Trail arrived here.
Then, head south on 12th Street to Bush’s Pasture Park – the biggest park within the center city.
“Bush Pasture Park has this tremendous historical connection – one of the oldest pieces of land in Salem where you can close your eyes and it’s like a hundred and fifty years ago when people were just moving into the Willamette Valley,” Havel says.
Head just a little further south from Bush’s Pasture to Minto-Brown Island Park “where you can take a walk for two or three hours and not see another person,” Havel says. “It’s an urban nature preserve.”
Minto-Brown wraps around the curves and twists of the Willamette River – as does Wallace Park, due north, across from downtown – and comprises the rich river bottomland that was once tilled by farmers. Much of Minto-Brown’s earlier pasture setting has been preserved. There’s a lot of history that’s been preserved too. Named for Isaac “Whiskey” Brown, who cleared the land on the island, raised livestock and grew tobacco, and John Minto, who bought the bulk of a nearby island in 1867. The stage (as well as names) were set for the park that the city of Salem bought in 1970. The urban nature preserve now encompasses all the diversity that existed during the time of Minto and Brown – an old riverbed, sloughs, native timber, dense underbrush and grassy meadows that are a major habitat for birds. In addition, there are dozens of hiking and biking trails in this mostly untouched corner of Salem – the biggest reminder that you don’t even have to leave city limits to enjoy some of the best Oregon has to offer.