Willamette Mission Park
Willamette River ferry
No elevation gain
Open all year
Use: hikers, horses, bicycles
Map: brochure at trailhead
This riverside loop through Willamette Mission State Park not only visits the nation’s largest black cottonwood tree and the site of a historic 1834 settlement, it also includes a free ferry ride across the Willamette River and back.
To find the park, drive Interstate 5 north of Salem 9 miles to Brooks exit 263. Then head west on Brooklake Road for 1.8 miles, turn right onto Wheatland Road for 2.4 miles, and turn left at the Willamette Mission State Park sign. Follow the entrance road 1.8 miles, keeping left at all junctions, pay a $5-per-car fee at an entry booth, and park at the Filbert Grove Day Use Area—a picnic area set in an old hazelnut orchard. Some years the trees still produce a bumper crop of nuts that you can gather for free in autumn.
Equestrians and bicyclists have their own, separate loop trails through this park. A detailed map of the routes is at the equestrian trailhead, on the left just before the Filbert Grove parking area.
The hiking trail starts beside the restrooms at the far end of the Filbert Grove parking loop. Walk 0.2 mile to the riverbank and turn right on a paved bike path between the bank’s cottonwood trees and a grassy field. Follow this promenade a mile to the Wheatland Ferry landing.
This is the oldest ferry landing in Oregon, dating to 1844 when mules winched a log barge across the river with ropes. The present steel vessel uses an overhead cable and electric engines. Pedestrians ride free, but car drivers pay about $2. The ferry runs from 5:30am to 9:45pm every day except Christmas and Thanksgiving—and about 30 or 40 days in winter when it closes for high water or repairs (call 503-588-7979 or check www.co.marion.or.us/PW/ferries for information).
The gravelly shore beside the landing is perfect for skipping rocks and watching the river. Children delight in finding tadpoles, frogs, and crawdads here. Look in the wet sand for the palm-sized tracks of great blue herons and the little hand-shaped tracks of raccoons. It’s also fun to explore the riverbank beyond the landing; a path continues 0.4 mile before petering out.
To return to the loop, hike 300 yards back from the landing on the bike path and turn left onto a broad trail. This path leads through the woods to the shore of marshy Mission Lake. Before a flood changed the course of the Willamette River in 1861, this oxbow lake was the main channel. A framework across the lake depicts the mission built on the old riverbank by Methodist minister Jason Lee in 1834. In 1840, weary of the river’s floods and the swampy environment, Lee moved operations to Chemeketa (now Salem), where he founded the Oregon Institute, which later became Willamette University. At the same time Lee gave up on teaching Indians and turned his attention to the children of white settlers.
After passing a monument near the mission site, the trail enters a developed picnic area in an old walnut orchard. Keep left at all junctions for half a mile to the trail’s end at a road. A sign here points out the nation’s largest black cottonwood—155 feet tall and over 26 feet in circumference. Walk along the road to return to your car, turning left at the first stop sign and right at the next.