Let blooming botanicals and cascading waterfalls tantalize your senses.
Some small towns make a self-conscious effort to cloak themselves in the trappings of a bygone era just to show how small they really are. But in Silverton, some 15 miles east of Salem, it's the subtle—some might say practical—details that make you realize this is the real deal. There are still penny parking meters downtown and the locals have even resisted putting in a traffic light. Instead, a local retiree volunteers to direct traffic between 4 and 6 every afternoon.
That's no accident, either. This town, surrounded by the rolling hills of the Willamette Valley, has always taken civic pride in its unique character and colorful history. But while Silverton is loaded with color and charm, perhaps the most talked-about attraction sits just outside of downtown: the recently sprouted Oregon Garden. This 240-acre botanical complex celebrated its grand opening in June of last year and has so far completed only a quarter of its world-class displays, but it's a taste of things to come.
The garden has a mind-boggling variety of plants—everything from grape hyacinths and multilayered passionflowers to Pacific dogwood and autumn purple white ash—that spring up in a dynamic assortment of formal gardens, natural meadows, and wetlands. A grove of white oaks is filled with wild, arching branches, while the Children's Garden features such weirdly named plants as the monkey puzzle tree and zebra grass. There's no wrong way to view this living mosaic: Visitors can stroll a number of interconnecting pathways, enjoying hidden staircases, abstract sculptures, bubbling waterfalls, and enchanting ponds. An outdoor amphitheater plays host to a mix of summer concerts featuring jazz and classical music.
While at the gardens, you can also view the Gordon House, the only Frank Lloyd Wright home in the state. Designed as part of the architect's plan to create modest working-class homes, the house was moved from its original location in Wilsonville, Ore. Once the house is restored, the interior will showcase furnishings designed by the architect.
Silverton's other crowning glory, Silver Falls State Park, is sure to please nature lovers, too. Its 8,700 acres of towering Douglas fir and western hemlock, tucked into the west side of the Cascade Range about 15 miles south of town, make up the largest state park in Oregon. Orient yourself at the South Falls Lodge, completed in 1941 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, before hitting the hiking trails. Follow the Trail of Ten Falls on a seven-mile loop past—you guessed it—10 waterfalls. Don't miss the 177-foot South Falls as it drops from the rock face like mercury into Silver Creek. It was over these falls in 1928 that daredevil Al Faussett took the plunge (literally) in a canoe and lived to tell the tale.
Silverton itself actually began along Silver Creek as a mill town in 1854. By 1894, the town supported both a major flour mill and a sawmill, the Silver Falls Timber Company, once the largest of its kind in the world. Today the mills are gone, but several of the venerable downtown buildings seem to echo those early days, as does the covered Gallon House Bridge, erected in 1916. The bridge earned its name during Prohibition when thirsty folks from Silverton would meet there to conduct transactions with suppliers of spirits from nearby Mount Angel, the town just across Abiqua Creek.
It's very easy to take in Silverton on foot. Stroll down Water Street to where it crosses Main and you're at the heart of it. The downtown shops and galleries offer an eclectic mix of antiques, knickknacks, and art. The upscale Silver Creek Gallery displays art, jewelry, and furniture, and the fun and funky Lunaria Gallery, an artists' co-op, showcases everything from handmade ceramics to wood sculptures. Check out tiny teapots at the cozy Sundrops Gifts and Tearoom or handcrafted blankets at WindowBox Quilts.
A collection of outdoor murals, which began as a community project in 1992, is also scattered throughout downtown. The nine completed pieces include Norman Rockwell's Four Freedoms and a tribute to Homer C. Davenport, a Silverton native who became a popular political cartoonist in the late 19th century. For more lively images, swing by the Palace Theater. Built in 1935, the theater offers up the latest movies (for less than what you'd pay at a multiplex) and 25-cent candy. As an added treat, the staff occasionally dresses up like characters from the featured flick.
If you're feeling a bit peckish from all the shopping and history, stop off for cappuccino and fluffy cinnamon rolls at the Silver Creek Coffee House, a comfy gathering place with a back porch view of the lovely Silver Creek. But save your appetite for dinner at the chic Silver Grille Café & Wines. The chef, Culinary Institute of America graduate Jeff Nizlek, offers a wide-ranging Continental menu enhanced by such regional ingredients as Newport Bay shrimp, Oregon blue cheese, and locally foraged chanterelles.
Accommodations in town range from the modest Nordic Motel to the newly remodeled Water Street Inn, a stately Victorian bed-and-breakfast run by Sheila and Laurie Rosborough, a mother-and-daughter-in-law team. Every room in the house has a private bath and some come equipped with a hot tub. Don't miss Sheila's feather-light lemon soufflé pancakes with fresh raspberry sauce.
If you conclude your visit to Silverton by heading back to the great outdoors, you might want to first zip over to the deli and bakery at Roth's grocery and assemble an elegant picnic lunch with some of its freshly made panini to go with a Caesar salad and cookies. Then you're ready to check out some of the most beautifully planted acres in the fertile Willamette Valley.
Fields of commercial irises and peonies emblazon the outlying flatlands. At Cooley's Gardens, the world's largest grower of bearded irises, springtime onlookers are invited to gawk as the 280-plus acres of display gardens are transformed into a sea of stunning purples, pinks, yellows, and oranges—just what you'd expect from a town that's not afraid to show its true colors.
Planning Your Trip
All phone numbers are in the 503 area code unless noted. Pick up AAA's Oregon & Washington map. For more information, contact the Silverton Chamber of Commerce, 873-5615, www.silvertonor.com .
El Toro, 200 E. Main St., 874-9057. Family-oriented Mexican restaurant serves seven flavors of margaritas.
Mac's Place, 201 N. Water St., 873-2441. Laid-back bar and grill with burgers, sandwiches, and salads.
Roth's, 918 N. First St., 873-6311.
Silver Creek Coffee House, 111 N. Water St., 874-9600.
Silver Grille Café & Wines, 206 E. Main St., 873-4035.
Egg Cup Inn, 11920 Sioux St., 873-5497, (877) 417-1461. Two suites decorated with a quaint eggcup collection. Rates from $60 to $70.
Nordic Motel, 310 N. Water St., 873-5058. Eleven rooms. Rates from $39 to $72.
Water Street Inn, 421 N. Water St., 873-3344, (866) 873-3344,
www.thewaterstreetinn.com . Restored Victorian with five rooms. Rates from $95 to $150.
What to do
Cooley's Gardens, 11553 Silverton Rd. NE, 873-5463, www.cooleysgardens.com . Open daily 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. during peak bloom, usually mid-May to mid-June.
Mount Angel Abbey and Seminary, in nearby St. Benedict, 845-3030. This Benedictine monastery features a library designed by renowned architect Alvar Aalto. Open for self-guided walking tours.
Oregon Garden, 879 W. Main St., 874-8100, (877) 674-2733, www.oregongarden.org . Open daily 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (summer); 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. (winter).
Palace Theater, 200 N. Water St., 873-2233.
Silver Falls State Park, 15 miles south of Silverton on S. Water St., 873-8681 or for reservations (800) 452-5687.
Peak Bloom Festival, a free celebration featuring a flower show, winetasting, and entertainment. May 18-June 3. 873-5463.
Homer Davenport Days, an international cartoon contest, art show, parade, and tennis tournament. August 2-4. 873-5211.
Photography by Basil Childers
This article was first published in March 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.