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Hike Like a Local: Lesser-Known Family-Friendly Hikes in the Willamette Valley

Came to enjoy the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, but found a crowd of people at all your planned spots? Yeah, it’s pretty great here and lots of people want to take in the incredible gifts that nature has given us in this part of the country. So it’s not surprising when you arrive at a super cool place to go hiking in Oregon, like Multnomah Falls, and don’t really get the chance to enjoy it the way you thought you would. These special hiking areas will offer you similarly great views as the more popular attractions but without the mobs of tourists. Better even still – they are all *FREE* family-friendly locations.

Chehalem Ridge Nature Park

One of the newer nature areas in The Valley, Chehalem Ridge Nature Park made its debut in June of 2022 and the locals have been raving about it ever since. This park is by far the largest one on this list, encompassing 1,260 acres of true Oregon beauty. This gem is about 45 minutes from Portland, 1 hour from Salem, and a little over an hour to the coast, but the drive is definitely worth it! Open to hikers, bikers, and horses, there are over 10 miles of trails at Chehalem Ridge.

The Logistics:

  • Paved road most of the way, that turns to packed dirt about 1/4 mile from the park; road is well-maintained and vehicles of all sizes should have no problem entering.
  • Large parking area
  • Bathrooms at parking area
  • Large grassy picnic area
  • NO dogs allowed here in order to protect the wildlife & habitat

Why We Love It:

  • Printable activity guides (found here) allow for some education and better observation while we explore
  • Multiple lovely viewpoints
  • Informative signage telling about the local tribal people (the Kalapuya) and piece of their story
  • Each trail junction offers excellent signage, including a full map of the park. 
  • More mileage means more time out!

The proximity of this park to the Portland Metro area makes it a great stop if you are visiting the Pacific Northwest and want to get a taste of the local flora & fauna. See it on your way out to the coast, or make a full day out of visiting Chehalem Ridge Nature Park.

Chehalem Ridge Nature Park
38263 SW Dixon Mill Rd
Gaston, OR 97119

McDowell Creek Falls

Nestled at the edge of the Cascade Mountain range, just outside the town of Lebanon, Oregon is the lovely county park, McDowell Creek Falls. This 60-acre park features entrancing views of Majestic Falls & Royal Terrace, with fishing & wading opportunities at the base of the falls. While this location is absolutely family-friendly, be mindful of the elevation changes here and the stairs that can be challenging for some hikers.

The Logistics:

  • 3 miles of well-maintained hiking trails, include stairs, viewing decks & bridges
  • Main trail is a 1.6 mile loop, but there are a few side trails to be explored as well
  • 3 distinct parking areas – use any of them to connect with the loop trail
  • Bathrooms at the trailheads

Why We Love It:

  • The crystal clear waters of McDowell Creek offer stunning views year-round
  • Trail is easy to travel, with a slight challenge of elevation changes – great for beginner hikers who want a bit more than a flat walk. 
  • Trail is well-marked
  • It’s downright gorgeous. Between the falls themselves and the general Oregon rainforest, you are surrounded by beauty the entire way. 
  • Bonus; My kids LOVE the wooden viewing decks. I’m not entirely sure why, but something about a wood bridge/deck makes it all the more fun!

Don’t skip McDowell Creek Falls if you are on the east side of the valley, or traveling into the Cascades. It’s such a treat to be able to picnic by those falls, and in the right season, dip your feet in the refreshing waters. 

McDowell Creek Falls
43170 Mcdowell Creek Dr,
Lebanon, OR 97355

Beazell Memorial Forest

Just 45 minutes from Salem, 20 minutes from Corvallis, & 45 minutes from Newport, sits Beazell Memorial Forest, one of the absolute sweetest spaces for family-friendly hikes in the Willamette Valley. This self-sustaining conservation forest is a grove of nature’s bounty everywhere you look. In the winter & spring seasons you’ll find a plethora of mushroom varieties and newts along the rushing creek. Spring is the best time for wildflower viewing; here you’ll find bleeding hearts, trilliums, meadowrue & more. In summer & fall you’ll be surrounded by fruiting trees, wild strawberries & the golden change of seasons. The area is dominated by Big Leaf Maple trees as well as giant Douglas Firs, so the trail does tend to be cooler. Anytime you visit is sure to be magical! There is a reconstructed barn on site that is available for event rentals, as well. 

The Logistics:

  • Approximately 4 miles of trails! All are well-maintained & open to hikers, bikers & horses.
  • There are 2 distinct loop trails, but with many connection options you could really build any sort of custom adventure!
  • Picnic tables, both open & covered options. 
  • Bathrooms on site at the trailhead/parking area.
  • Plenty of parking
  • Paved highway to get there, gravel parking area. 
  • Large grassy area for frisbee, picnics, or fetch.

Why We Love It:

  • The “choose your own adventure” style of this park offers variety. Pack a picnic and make a full day of it while enjoying some creek play, or pop out of the car for a quick leg stretch!
  • One of the trails, Plunkett Creek Loop, has a hidden treasure (psssst– it’s an old car! Cross the creek to explore it and ponder how it got there).
  • All the nature! Whether you’re into trees or birds, newts or flowers, you are sure to find something exciting here. 
  • Location, location, location! Not too close to the city and not so far away that you get cranky kiddos on the car ride. 

The value is in the simplicity at Beazell Memorial Forest. It truly is one of those “hidden gems” that you can easily miss if you don’t know about it!

Beazell Memorial Forest & Education Center
37283 Kings Valley Hwy.
Philomath, OR 97370

Newell Creek Canyon Nature Park

This last one may not qualify as “lesser known”, but if you need to stay closer to the Portland Metro area, Newell Creek Canyon Nature Park located in Oregon City, is worth a mention. For its location, this Nature Park was surprisingly quiet, and I heard plenty of birds singing, ranging from the smaller Pacific Wren to the more imposing Red-Tailed Hawk. Big Leaf Maple trees prevail in this park, but you’ll find Cottonwoods down in the canyon (on the hiker’s Canyon Springs trail) as well as plenty of Douglas Firs.

The Logistics:

  • Over 4 miles of trails! All are well-maintained, but pay attention as some are designated for hikers only while others are solely bike trails. 
  • Large Picnic area, with multiple tables and grassy field area. 
  • Bathrooms on site at the trailhead/parking area.
  • Limited Parking
  • No pets please!

Why We Love It:

  • The major appeal of this place is the metro location, making it easier to access if you want to stay closer to the city. 
  • I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of nature I found here. Lots of variety of birds & plants made this urban walk quite pleasant. 
  • Designated bike paths & hiking trails means that those with wandering kiddos can enjoy the hike without the worry of their little one impeding a bicyclist. 
  • Really great signposts at each trail juncture, featuring full maps of the park. 

It’s worth noting that as soon as you leave the parking lot, you are wandering downhill; which means its an UPhill climb the entire way back. There are a few benches to help with that, but be prepared if you’ve got smaller people with you. 

Newell Creek Canyon Nature Park
485 Warner Milne Rd,
Oregon City, OR 97045

There’s no shortage of hikes in the Pacific Northwest. These four are just a sampling of the fun you can have outside of the well-known & popular attractions. No matter which corner of the Willamette Valley you are in, don’t forget to check out one of these peaceful hikes. 

Map of hiking areas in the Willamette Valley

March 21, 2024

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