Friday, March 18, 2016

Exploring Salem's Waterfront

The Willamette River winds through its namesake valley for over 180 miles, connecting cities, towns, and farmland as it meanders from the Cascades to the Columbia. Our state capital grew up along its banks, and in recent years Salem has revisited its watery roots by developing public parkland beside the river.

Accessed from Front Street, Riverfront Park on the east bank offers fun for the whole family. The Gilbert House Children's Museum holds court in a collection of Victorian houses at the north end; this is a must-see for families with small children. There is some parking here, or along nearby streets on busy days. Walk south on the paved trail along the riverbank for access to a small public dock and views over the water toward Minto-Brown Island Park. A bridge over the slough is currently being built to connect the two parks, providing easy access to the miles of trails on the "Island." Riverfront Park has a children's play area, restrooms, and best of all, a beautiful carousel that is wheelchair accessible and only $1.50 a ride (free for people with disabilities). When the weather turns ugly, head for the carousel building; it's warm and cheery and staffed with friendly volunteers.

This a lovely park with acres of grass and mature trees, but the east bank is steep and water access is very limited. To really connect with the river, loop back around to the north end of the park and look for an old train trestle. This is the century-old Union Street Railroad Bridge, now repurposed as a popular footbridge over the river.

Riverfront Park has a city-park vibe that is quickly left behind when you walk or bicycle over the river to Wallace Marine Park on the west bank (or drive over the bridge to West Salem and take Wallace Road to Glen Creek Road). This park is known for its softball fields, but it also offers soft-surfaced hiking trails, a paved boat ramp, and a lovely riverside area with picnic tables and a stony beach for hand-launching small boats. On sunny days, this area is filled with families enjoying the river and lounging on the lawn. The water bobs with all manner of watercraft, from jet skies to sea kayaks to air mattresses, all somehow managing to avoid collision. In the winter and spring, however, the Willamette is an energetic force with strong currents and potentially rising water. Enjoy the parks, but respect the river.

Once in Wallace Marine Park, look for a paved path that heads north parallel to the river, turning into a woodchip trail, then dirt, and then eventually petering out near a surprisingly pretty water-filled gravel pit. Birds sing in the cottonwood trees and snarls of brush, interrupted by the occasional wail of a train; you are still, after all, in Salem.There are plans underway to develop this end of the park into a bike park, with a network of cross-country trails for all skill levels.

Those of us who get spring fever as soon as Christmas is over are looking for any chance to get outside while we wait for the sun to return. Salem's waterfront parks are a great way to get the family out without encountering huge puddles, mud wallows, and downed trees. When the Minto-Brown bridge is completed in the fall of 2016, all three parks will be connected, giving access to over twenty miles of trails.  Softball, an ampitheater, a dog park... all this, and a carousel, too.

A. C. Gilbert House Children's Museum
The Willamette Queen, a vintage stern-wheeler, often docks at Riverfront Park
Minto-Brown Island from Riverfront Park

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