Wildlife, Water and Wheels in the Salem Area
Your guide to exploring local parks, wildlife refuges, lakes, rivers and waterfall trails.
April 28, 2022
With its meandering rivers, green forests, clear lakes and accessible pathways, the Salem region’s natural spaces provide a refuge for wildlife and humans alike. Ready to see a signature slice of Oregon from a new perspective? Pick one of these activities and start exploring.
Run, Walk or Bike Among the Wildlife
Though Salem itself is a bustling urban center, wildlife options abound not far from the city limits — and some are even closer than that.
Take, for example, Minto-Brown Island Park. Spread along the banks of the Willamette River not far from downtown Salem, you can walk, bike or run through this 1,200-acre park along nearly 30 miles of pedestrian and bike trails that snake through woods and meadows and past wetlands teeming with wildlife, like black-tailed deer and beavers and 175 species of birds. Ponds and rivers in the park are also home to populations of bass, bluegill, perch and catfish, while side-channel habitat is critical for migrating and resident Chinook salmon and winter steelhead. The park is connected to downtown Salem, Riverfront Park and Wallace Marine Park via the Peter Courtney Minto Island Bridge and Trail, and the Union Street Railroad Pedestrian Bridge so it’s easy to extend your adventure beyond Minto-Brown.
Beyond the park, the Salem region also boasts two expansive National Wildlife Refuges, both of which are critical habitat for dusky Canada geese and scores of other bird species. Located just south of Salem, Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge sits on nearly 2,800 acres near the confluence of the Willamette and Santiam rivers and offers multiple trails, including a boardwalk, a nature center and opportunities for cycling. Fourteen miles due west of Salem off Highway 22, the 2,558-acre Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge has more than 230 recorded species of birds, plus western pond turtles, coyotes and other small mammals. Trails wend through the refuge’s prairies and forests and lead to an observation deck atop the 414-foot Mt. Baldy.
To experience one of the region’s real gems, head about a half-hour east of the city to Silver Falls State Park. Here you’ll not only find iconic Pacific Northwest waterfalls — hike the 7.2-mile Trail of Ten Falls to see 10 of them — but you’ll also be in the forested habitat of birds, raccoons, deer, and other wildlife. Reserve one of the park’s campsites or cabins to take advantage of prime early-morning wildlife-spotting hours.
Paddle on a River or Lake
If water’s your thing — and who doesn’t like a nice dip in the lake or paddle down the river — then the Salem area is your place.
Start with the most obvious body of water around: the Willamette River. This storied river runs right through Salem as it flows from its headwaters high in the Cascades all the way to the Columbia River nearly 200 miles away.
Wallace Marine Park, on the west bank of the Willamette near downtown Salem, is a convenient place to drop into the river for a paddle. From there it’s a short jaunt over to Minto-Brown Island Park, where you can explore the various channels that cut inland.
Paddlers with more time can keep going. The Willamette River Water Trail offers lots of helpful information for planning multiday trips on the river, including camping sites, parks, amenities and more. One unique stop on a Willamette River paddle is the biker/boater campground in Independence’s Riverview Park. Just a mile from downtown Independence on the banks of the river, the small campground is only for cyclists and boaters. It makes for an ideal stopping place for paddlers who are making their way down the river, as do Champoeg State Heritage Area and the Historic Butteville Store, which are farther downriver, north of Salem.
For lake lovers, it’s hard to beat a trip to Detroit Lake. A little more than an hour east of Salem, Detroit Lake is a scenic reservoir that sits in the shadow of Mt. Jefferson. In the summertime, the lake buzzes with boaters, water skiers, paddlers, swimmers, campers and picnickers. Anglers can also fish the lake for trout, Chinook salmon, largemouth bass and catfish. Make sure to come prepared for a day on the water, with a required Waterway Access Permit and everyone (including pets) outfitted with life jackets.
Catch the Sights on Two Wheels
When it’s time to switch from paddling to pedaling, the Salem area has a nice array of options for putting two wheels on pavement, gravel or rugged backcountry.
In Salem proper, ride from Riverfront Park over to Wallace Marine Park for a nice pedal along the Willamette River. There’s also a short Historic Downtown Salem ride, which passes the Oregon State Capitol, the Historic Elsinore Theatre and other local landmarks.
The more adventurous can boost their adrenaline at Black Rock Mountain Biking Area in Falls City, southwest of Salem. Packed with jumps, ladders, rollers and berms, the trail network winds through a towering forest and offers terrain for all levels of experience.
The region is also lucky to host a good portion of the 134-mile Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway, a cycling route that unrolls from Eugene in the south to Champoeg State Heritage Area in the north. You don’t have to do the whole thing all at once. The route can be sectioned up nicely with, say, a 30-mile round-trip ride from Champoeg to Willamette Mission, or heading from Salem to Independence. Then tour a winery or two farther south to celebrate a successful ride — and start planning your next one.