A small but mighty town at the 45th parallel
written by Ben McBee | photos by Austin White
A half-hour drive northeast from the state capitol is the 45th parallel and Silverton, where the farmland of the Willamette Valley rises to meet the Cascade Range. With a population of just under 10,000 people, this town is an unexpectedly vibrant mixture of culture and history, and the nineteen or so murals that adorn its buildings artfully illustrate the community’s civic pride. Here, a respect for the past is layered with ambition for progress. Historic downtown is a thrum of activity, with modern restaurants and businesses housed in rustic brick storefronts. What started as a sawmill is a city that continues to cut its own path today. In 2008, Silverton became the first city in the United States to elect a transgender mayor. It’s a place full of surprises and a reminder that good things can come in small packages.
Day 1: Waterfalls | Picnics | Brews
For your first day, set your wheels to the road on the Silver Falls Scenic Byway. Heading south from town, you will gradually ascend into forested hills and rolling farms, where row after row of Christmas trees zoom past your window. At the top of this climb is the “crown jewel” of the Oregon State Parks system, Silver Falls State Park, home to towering Douglas firs and cascading waterfalls—ten of them in all. The aptly named Trail of Ten Falls loop is a moderately difficult, 8.7-mile trek that will take hikers on a stunning waterfall tour, along a canyon trail that ducks behind a rushing curtain of water at several falls. If you didn’t bring your hiking boots, the South Falls viewpoint is only a few hundred feet from the parking lot. The falls drops 177 feet from a basalt outcropping, allowing people to marvel at its size and feel its spray as it rushes overhead.
When the weather is warm, take a dip in the protected swimming zone upstream, or bring a picnic to one of the rustic shelters. These buildings, along with the park lodge, are remnants of the area’s rich history. In 1888, the region was home to a thriving logging community. D. E. Geiser, the man who owned South Falls, used to charge a dime to witness its beauty, and often put on circus-like stunts, pushing old cars (and a daredevil in a canoe) over its edge. Following the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps began working to replant the heavily logged woodland and build various structures to attract tourists to the newly acquired state land. Each camp shelter was built by hand, using rock and timber from the park itself. These well-crafted camps are made for relaxation and—with their fireplaces—for the roasting of hot dogs.
Some of the crops that flourish in the fertile Silverton soil are hops and grains. With such ingredients available, five dads took on home brewing and decided it was tasty enough to sell. With seven daughters between them, they surmised they would need to sell enough beer to pay for seven weddings so, together, they created Seven Brides Brewing. After a full day of hiking, grab a refreshing draft at Seven Brides back in town. Choose from one of several flagship brews named after the famed daughters—Lil’s Pils is easy on a sunny spring day. If dark beer is your taste, try Becky’s Black Cat Porter. Order sliders or the sausage sampler from the happy hour menu and cozy up to the fire pit outside.
Day 2: Gardens | Spa | Frank Lloyd Wright
In 2016, one of Silverton’s largest draws, Oregon Garden, celebrated its 15-year anniversary. Open year-round and packed with events, the 80-acre botanical garden continues to impress visitors from all over the state. Geometric pools reflect the foliage of Pacific Sunset maple trees in the Bosque, which serves as a centerpiece to the surrounding pathways. Branching out, you’ll discover displays from lofty conifers to aromatic rose bushes. Fascinating hummingbirds chase after bumblebees as they dart from flower to flower. Admire the A-Mazing Water Garden, which functions to cool Silverton’s treated wastewater, while providing wildlife habitat in the fluffy cattails.
If your feet are sore from yesterday’s hiking, try a free, guided tram tour that departs from the entrance every thirty minutes. It stops at the Children’s Garden, where imitation dinosaur bones wait to be excavated, or onward to Oregon Garden Resort, a luxurious hotel on the hill. Work out those kinked muscles with a couple’s massage at the spa, and finish your romantic evening with a bottle of wine at the restaurant. For families, bring the kids to the pool for some laid-back entertainment.
Renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Gordon House now resides on the property after being dismantled and moved from its original location to prevent its demolition. Designed in Wright’s trademark Usonian style, the L-shaped building’s cedar fretwork harmonizes with the surrounding oak grove. Tours are available with reservations, and the facility can be rented for meetings, dinners and weddings.
Day 3: Historic Downtown | Peaceful Abbey
Silverton’s downtown is a quirky collection of shops new and old. Grab eggs benedict Florentine topped with smoked salmon at Gather, a Northwest-inspired breakfast venue. Browse antiques at The Red Bench or catch a flick at the historic Palace Theater across the street. Mac’s Place, a local hotspot for good grub, harkens back to an era of neon signs and arcade games. Wood-fired pizza from the Old Oak Oven will satisfy the hungriest, and Creekside Grill’s back patio offers a pleasant dinner ambience.
Five miles north of Silverton is the community of Mt. Angel. You will feel as though you’ve been transported to Europe. In 1881, Father Adelhelm Odermatt, and a host of Benedictine monks traveled from Engelberg, Switzerland, to the district and established Mount Angel Abbey three years later. The influx of Bavarian immigrants painted the town as it is today, a setting which draws hundreds of thousands to its annual Oktoberfest, the largest of its kind in the Pacific Northwest.
On the hilltop, Mount Angel Abbey is a sanctuary of peace and solitude for the priests who study in the seminary. The grounds are open to the public, as are the museum and church, where visitors can participate in Mass. Guests can take the walking tour to see the monumental bell tower and painted glass windows, or purchase Black Habit, an artisanal beer made in the Dominican tradition in Benedictine Brewery. In a place meant for introspection and reflection, you will fill with vistas of the surrounding countryside and Silverton beyond.