How to get there:
From Salem, travel south on Interstate 5, exit at HWY 20 and head east towards Lebanon. Approximately 5 miles east of Lebanon look for the McDowell Creek Park exit and turn left onto Fairview Road. Follow signs for about 9 miles to the county park. There are three parking areas (lower, middle and upper) that access the waterfalls.
Distance and Elevation Gain:
There are roughly three miles of trails that wind through the canyon and connect to three waterfalls and the parking areas. It’s a very easy hike with only a 200-foot elevation gain.
Fees and Permits:
No permits or parking fees are required at this county park. It is open year round and is about 900 feet above sea level. So the only thing preventing you from visiting in the winter might be snow.
What to see and do:
The day we visited this park it was 40 degrees, foggy and cold, but the reward was that we had the park to ourselves. We parked in the lower parking lot and after looking at the trail legend, decided to hike the 1.7-mile loop, which passes all three waterfalls.
The first waterfall Lower McDowell Falls is a very short walk from the parking lot and through the picnic area. This is a small waterfall, less than 10 feet tall and just down from the first footbridge. It is easy to over look because it is not on the main trail.
We crossed the first large wooden footbridge and followed the main trail through the lush green forest. Moss covers everything that doesn’t move, but this is typical for a temperate rain forest in Oregon. Lichen drapes from the big leaf maples; licorice ferns, sword ferns and Oregon grape are abundant. After approximately 0.2 miles, we came to another large footbridge at the base of Royal Terrace Falls. Here, Falls Creek roars over a large basalt formation and drops 119 feet. Don’t cross the creek.
Instead go back to the trail and hike up the rocky staircase to a fenced viewpoint at the top of Royal Terrace Falls. After enjoying the view, cross over the creek at this point and continue along the canyon rim trail, keeping to the right as alternative trails appear to the left. There are sweeping views along the rim trail of the big leaf maple, hemlock and doug fir forest. Soon you will cross over a logging road, but continue on the trail to the upper parking lot.
The trail crosses the upper parking lot and takes you down to McDowell Creek and the Majestic Falls. A large wooden porch-like viewing deck provides the opportunity for a close-up view of the 39-foot Majestic Falls, the surrounding fern covered canyon and the massive staircase that was built to access the area. I’m not sure which is the most spectacular: the falls, the basalt canyon or the tiered staircase. All three are amazing sights. The trail continues down the staircase and along McDowell Creek to a crystal clear pool and a very small waterfall. There isn’t a well-maintained path to get close to the pool and falls and they are small, but quite lovely non-the-less. The trail continues through the canyon and along the creek to another picnic area with tables and the middle parking lot.
We crossed over another footbridge, avoided the short trails on the right and continued on the main trail that led back to the base of Royal Terrace Falls, finishing the 1.7-mile loop. For a longer hike, I would recommend turning around at this point and going back the way you came, reversing the loop. The view is always different going the other way and this would make for a nice 3.4-mile hike.
There are three very nice picnic areas at each parking lot and crystal clear pools to wade in on a hot summer day. The trails are easy, making it great for families. Dogs are allowed in the park on a leash. The first parking lot (also called “lower parking lot”) has barbeques and bathrooms.
If you have a cell phone that has camera capabilities, I would recommend taking a photo of the trail legend so that you can refer to it as you hike. It is quite handy! This lovely little park, similar to Silver Creek Falls but on a smaller scale, is a relatively short drive from Salem and well worth the trip.