When you visit Silver Falls State Park, there almost always is a “wow” moment, when a piece of stunning natural beauty hits you right in the face.

On a cold and clear New Year’s Day morning, it was the sun flaring through the firs above South Falls as it cascaded violently into the pool almost 180 feet below.

“It looks like a wish when you blow through the weeds,” said Katie Rebman, who works in insurance in Forest Grove.

It was Rebman’s fifth visit to the park, but her first in winter.

“It’s amazing,” she said.

Indeed. And it was all free as a result of Oregon State Parks’ annual Jan. 1 “first day hikes” program, which this year included 24 hikes at 22 parks.

Temperatures were in the mid-30s, and frost was on the Silver Falls meadows. Dew and mist dropped off the trees as you plunged down the path that angles underneath the falls. Hardy folks in stocking caps and parkas with ski poles at the ready stopped along the soggy fence to snap photos of the flaring sun as it shot ribbons of light and color past the falls.

Although the air was still and dry, water was everywhere. Running headlong over the falls, coating the heavy wood fence beams, gurgling down the path at the demands of gravity and rushing down the steep hillsides in impromptu falls and rivulets. Under the falls there was so much water roiling and tumbling in waves that it filmed over camera lenses, soaked Gore-Tex hats and saturated outerwear.

“It’s nature. I love nature,” said Praxy Flores, a pediatric medical assistant from Salem.

Flores was at the falls with her niece, a teacher from Sydney, Australia. “She’s flying back tomorrow. It’s summer time there. She wanted to see Oregon … so I brought her here.”

Also part of the New Year’s Day tradition at Silver Falls is a ranger-guided hike. A crowd of 50 or so even hardier souls gathered before 10 a.m. to take a historical tour of some of the park sites, led by ranger Steve Hernandez.

Last year, Hernandez said, about six inches of snow was on the ground, and just six even HARDIER souls were on hand for the talk, which focused on the geology of the park.

Hernandez spent much of his time on the architecture of the park’s buildings, which were constructed in the mid-1930s by workers of the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of the New Deal programs aimed at getting Americans back to work during the Great Depression.

Architect Margaret Smith guided the design of the buildings, which feature heavy wooden beams in classic log cabin style, as well as rock foundations that usually feature basalt. Smith also worked on Timberline Lodge on the slopes of Mount Hood.

One structure, called the “combination building,” used sandstone instead of basalt, and one of the mysteries Hernandez and other park employees continue to ponder is where they got the sandstone. Fossil imprints can be seen on some of the sandstone outer walls.

“This is the coolest building in the park,” said Kim Maley, an interpretive ranger with the Friends of Silver Falls support group. Maley and the friends are working on grant proposals to restore the building, which has been used for special events.

Hernandez also took the tour past a pair of “historical bathrooms” and described some of the early pioneers of the area, which was known as Silver Falls City before it became a state park in 1933.

The park receives 1.5 million visitors per year, and Hernandez said efforts are under way to find ways to better manage the park.

“It’s being loved to death,” Hernandez said.

Contact reporter James Day at jim.day@gazettetimes.com or 541-758-9542. Follow at Twitter.com/jameshday or gazettetimes.com/blogs/jim-day.

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