Salem, Oregon, just an hour south of Portland in the heart of Willamette Valley Wine Country, is surrounded by natural beauty and is steeped in history. Difficult as it is to narrow it down, I’ve selected five must-do activities and day trips from Oregon’s state capital.
Salem’s history goes back to the Kalapuya people and, more recently, to the pioneers who traveled the Oregon Trail and settled in the beautiful Willamette Valley. Descendants of the Kalapuya continue to live in the area and many are members of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde. The first European-Americans arrived in the Salem area in 1812. They were seeking “Eden” and found it in this fertile valley.
Oregon became the 33rd member of the United States on February 14, 1859, and in 1864 voters reaffirmed the selection of Salem as its capital. Today, it is a vibrant city with a river winding through it, farm to table restaurants, and plenty of exciting events including the annual Oregon State Fair.
An ideal home base for exploring Salem and environs is the luxurious downtown Grand Hotel. The Grand Hotel is known for comfortable rooms, a spacious lobby and the adjoining Bentley’s Grill featuring Northwest cuisine and local wines. Parking is offered at the hotel.
1) Wander the Capitol Grounds and Willamette University
Of course, when visiting the capital of Oregon you’ll be drawn to the white marble buildings and statuary. The Capitol building is just plain different. Oregonians fondly liken it to a washing machine agitator although it is known for its Art Deco architecture. The rotunda is topped by a gilded statue of a pioneer. Two former capitol buildings were destroyed by fire, one in 1855 and the other in 1935 so this one looks pretty fire-proof!
You can tour the building, stop for a snack at the café and go shopping for souvenirs by Oregon artisans and authors. Seasonally, you can climb the 121 steps to the top of the tower and get a great view of the beautiful gardens and monuments on the grounds, a state park.
Just across the street from the Capitol complex is Willamette University, the oldest higher education institution west of the Rocky Mountains. It’s a beautiful campus to wander with gardens, trees, historic buildings, and a creek. The Oregon Symphony and the Salem Philharmonic often perform on the campus.
2) Walk Downtown and Visit the Willamette Heritage Center
Salem’s historic downtown area is very walkable. Most of the early buildings in the historic district were constructed with bricks made at the State Prison between 1880 and 1939 (these bricks have bubbles on their surface). Use the Walking Guide to find out more about the beautiful buildings in downtown Salem.
On the other side of the Capitol complex (about 3 blocks away), you’ll find three historic properties – the Bush House Museum, Deepwood Museum and Gardens and Willamette Heritage Center – are located within easy walking distance of one another.
The Willamette Heritage Center is a fun property to wander and features five historic buildings, and my favorite, the Thomas Kay Woolen Mill. Thomas Kay, a weaver, traveled from England, ended up in the Willamette Valley, and founded the woolen mill.
The mill was rebuilt in 1898 after the original one burned. The beautifully preserved buildings are intriguing to visit because you can see how the mill operated on the gravity principle and how the machines were water-powered. The first steps in working the wool took place on the upper floor, then the wool was dropped through a trapdoor to the second floor and then to the main floor for finishing. Everything was run by waterpower. You can follow the water today from the millrace which can be seen entering the mill at a higher level and through the system of wheels, gears, belts, and turbines all running the machines. You’ll also see the millrace gates that regulated the flow of water.
Thomas Kay's eldest daughter, Fannie, learned the mill business and assisted her father in mill operation and management. When she married retail merchant C.P. Bishop, they put together their merchandising and manufacturing expertise creating the foundation for what was to become Pendleton Woolen Mills.
There is a gift shop, museum, and café.
If you are an energetic walker, you can visit the Capitol complex, tour downtown and make it to the Willamette Heritage Center without using your car. It’s a long day because there is so much to see, but walking allows you to take in all the details.
After all this fascinating history, you might just want to kick back in the Mid-Willamette wine country, taste the wine, and enjoy the view.
In Salem and within minutes of the city you’ll find wineries and vineyards producing small-batch wines that compete with the world’s finest labels. In fact, the Willamette Valley was named the 2016 wine region of the year by Wine Enthusiast magazine, noting the valley's impressive outside investment and praising its Burgundian-quality pinot noir.
While you can take a day-long winery tour or go winery hopping yourself, one winery that I always recommend is Willamette Valley Vineyards. Willamette Valley Vineyards recently named The Best Vineyard/Tasting Room Experience by Sunset Magazine, is just a short drive from Salem. The vineyards were established in the 1980s on pioneer plum orchard land.
The beautiful vineyards and elegant tasting room draw visitors year ‘round. High upon a hill, the vineyards are easily accessible off I-5. They hold special events like the harvest-time Grape Stomp, wine dinners and concerts.
Willamette Valley Vineyards offers meals, private tastings, and free tours on a daily basis. We recently spent the night in one of their view suites and watched the sun set over the valley.
4) Wandering The Oregon Garden and Frank Lloyd Wright House
Just outside Salem in the quaint town of Silverton, you’ll find a beautiful 80-acre botanical garden. The Oregon Garden features more than 20 specialty gardens showcasing the diverse botanical beauty that can be found in the Willamette Valley and throughout the Pacific Northwest. There are sculptural pieces placed throughout and fun finds such as the Children’s Garden and Train Garden with a Garden Railway set up.
The main gardens are easily walkable in a few hours. But to visit the outer natural areas, you might plan for an enjoyable hike and tack on more time.
The Oregon Garden hosts special holiday events and concerts. It’s the type of place that is fun to explore year ‘round. We went in Fall and were surprised to see so much color and diverse plant life.
On the same entrance road you’ll find the Frank Lloyd Wright Gordon House. Originally built on rural property, the house was moved to the current site when the owners no longer used the home. This house, the only building in Oregon designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, offers docent-guided tours of the interior by reservation. At other times, the house can be seen by walking a short trail from the parking lot.
5) Hiking the Waterfalls of Silver Falls State Park
Drive a scenic road east from Salem and in less than an hour, you’ll arrive in a historic and beautiful state park.
A quick but hilly hike will take you on a scenic loop down to and behind South Falls in beautiful Silver Falls State Park. The falls cascade 177 feet to the ground. There are also several viewpoints that are accessible from the parking lot.
If you are interested in longer hikes try the Trail of Ten Falls, a spectacular, nationally recognized hiking trail that weaves through the densely forested landscape. The trail passes a series of breathtaking waterfalls along a rocky canyon and descends to a winding creek on the forest floor. This 7.2-mile loop is considered to be a moderate hike, with an overall elevation change of 800 feet.
Silver Falls State Park is Oregon’s largest state park and has conference grounds, lodge, picnic shelters, and campground. Seasonally you can pick up a snack or warm sandwich at the snack bar.
When You Go
We were hosted by Travel Salem and fully enjoyed our time in Salem and environs. It’s the kind of place that you’ll want to return to. With cherry blossoms in spring, roses in the summer, and gorgeous fall foliage, Salem, Oregon makes for a marvelous destination any time of year. For more ideas on traveling Oregon, see our articles by Wander writers.
Note: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary accommodations, meal, and experiences for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.