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Six Family-Friendly Hikes Around the Willamette Valley

By Matt Wastradowski

All year long, the Willamette Valley is home to all manner of natural wonder. Winter means quiet forests and our annual ornament contest, spring brings wildflower blooms and bird migrations, summer offers pleasant weather for river walks and waterfall hikes, and fall brings colorful foliage to the Willamette Valley and Cascade Range.

No matter when you visit, you'll find plenty of easy hikes that suit the whole family—complete with incredible views, gentle inclines, and short distances. Highlights range from the 286-foot Salt Creek Falls to an interactive hiking trail near Corvallis to numerous paths through a water treatment plant in Albany. All offer something to enchant children and the young at heart alike.

So as you look forward to your next visit, here are six family-friendly hikes throughout the region worth visiting.

At 286 feet tall, the massive Salt Creek Falls has earned acclaim as one of the tallest single-drop waterfalls in Oregon. The waterfall pours over a basalt lava flow in the heart of the Cascades and is an easy walk from the parking area, making it an especially fun family outing in spring and summer—when, fed by winter runoff, the waterfall is at its thundering peak. 

A wide, paved trail—flanked by a forest of Douglas fir and rhododendron, which bloom in late spring—arrives after just 50 yards at a viewing platform that peers into the Salt Creek Falls amphitheater. (Note that the viewing platform is wheelchair accessible.)

A short trail to the left continues along the rim of the waterfall amphitheater and along Salt Creek. A longer hike connects to the nearby Diamond Creek Falls Loop Trail, as well; this 3.2 mile (5.1499 km) loop trail skirts the rims of the Salt Creek and Diamond Creek Canyons.

The Oregon State University College of Forestry hosts its unique Forest Discovery Trail Program, which takes hiking to a whole new level with the addition of an adventure map, nature scavenger hunt, and activity cards-all designed to help children learn about ecology and the great outdoors.

Here's how it works: Parents and teachers can request a Forest Discovery Backpack, which contains the materials necessary to make the most of a hike along the trail-including activity cards, art supplies, and more. Once on the trail, families can take part in the activities, keep an eye peeled for the scavenger hunt, and learn about wildlife, native trees, how humans interact with the forest, different habitats within the forest, and more.

The North Fork of the Middle Fork Willamette River Trail (say that five times fast!) boasts an easy hiking trail with little elevation gain, plenty of views, and more than a few opportunities to wade into the river when temperatures allow.

The hike begins from a parking lot just beyond the Office Covered Bridge-at 180 feet, it's the longest covered bridge in Oregon-near Westfir. Dandelions and ferns line the trail, the Middle Fork Willamette River provides an ambient soundtrack, and a forest of hemlock, alder, and Douglas fir enrich the natural experience. The trail only gains about 335 feet, making it an easy outing for kids of all ages. And if weather allows in midsummer, keep an eye out for short spur trails that lead down to the shore, where you can wade in and enjoy the chilly water.

After about 3.5 miles, the trail arrives at an intersection with NF 685 and NF 1910; a few rocks along the trail offer the chance to enjoy a lunch in the shade here. This is a fine place to turn around, though families with smaller children might want to turn around earlier along the trail.

Water treatment education seems like an unusual hook for a hike-but Albany's Talking Water Gardens blends an enjoyable outdoor experience with a fascinating look at how the city cleans its water.

Two miles of walking paths offer an up-close look at Talking Water Gardens, a series of water treatment ponds originally created as a wetland to cool treated water from the Albany-Millersburg Water Treatment Facility. Today, three settling ponds and several small waterfalls comprise Talking Water Gardens, which attracts more than 100 species of birds, turtles, frogs, and several species of mammal-including marten and mink.

The Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey launched in the Willamette Valley in 1955 as a way for the members of its monastic community to reflect, pray, heal, and grow spiritually. And for more than 60 years, the surrounding forest has been a cherished part of that tradition. Today, visitors of all faiths are invited to hike those same trails, enjoy views of the surrounding valley, and learn about the abbey's rich history.

Visitors are asked to check in before hiking and remain silent in the abbey building, as well as around the on-site ponds, to respect the monks and those who are at the abbey as part of a meditative retreat. 

Once checked in, visitors can grab a map and head uphill through the surrounding oak savannah; roughly five miles of trails cover the abbey, with a total elevation gain of 770 feet. The longer Guadalupe Loop circles the abbey land, with three trails bisecting the loop for shorter options. A short spur also heads to the Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine. 

Well-behaved children appreciate the chance to learn about the abbey and enjoy the views, which encompass the Yamhill Valley and the Coast Range, and generally enjoy the modest trail length and elevation gain.

Other rules of note: Dogs are not allowed, the trails are open dawn to dusk, cyclists are not permitted on the trails, and hikers should respect all wildlife and other visitors. Learn more about trail guidelines and the hiking experience.

Best for older children, the 6.5-mile Molalla River Rim Trail Loop has a bit of everything that makes the Willamette Valley so great: old-growth forest, plentiful opportunities to watch wildlife, and (in summer) wild berries that can be plucked right from the vine.

The hike mostly passes through a thriving forest of Douglas fir, alder, cedar, and cottonwood-and briefly passes an old homestead. The shaded nature of the hike makes it an especially pleasant outing on warm spring and summer days, and wildlife-watchers enjoy the variety of birds present in the lush forest. Note that the trail gains 1,550 feet and, therefore, is best suited to older children.

Your adventure begins with the official Willamette Valley Travel Guide. Request your complimentary printed guide or download a digital guide today.

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