Salem, Oregon's capital city, is well-located: It's an hour south of Portland, an hour from the beach and less than an hour from the Cascade Mountains. One of the state's oldest cities, Salem also sits in the midst of a rich agricultural valley and is the home of Willamette University, the oldest institution of higher learning in the West. Downtown, modern stores and malls sit next to well-preserved historic structures, which also house unique shops.

Visit the State Capitol (the gold pioneer statue on top of the building is lit by solar power); the Italianate Bush House; Bush's Pasture Park (which contains an art gallery); the historic Deepwood Estate and Gardens; and the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, the second-largest art museum in the state. The city also maintains plenty of bicycle trails and footpaths in a wooded setting. Salem hosts the Oregon State Fair every August and September. Nearby Silver Falls State Park is the largest in Oregon and has 10 waterfalls, as well as good places to ride bikes or walk. Just east of Salem in Silverton is The Oregon Garden. It's also home to the Gordon House, the only Frank Lloyd Wright-designed residence in Oregon.

There aren't many old-growth forests left in Oregon—loggers have felled more than 95% of them—but you can get a glimpse of the previous grandeur in the Opal Creek Wilderness, about 40 mi/65 km northeast of Salem, off Highway 22. You can drive right up to the border of the wilderness and then walk in on a flat, easy-grade road that seems to extend about 200 years back in time. The trees are astoundingly tall, the water astonishingly clear and the pools in the creek are truly the color of opals. Cabins can be rented at Jawbone Flats, a fomer mining town about a 2-mi/3-km walk into the preserve.

If you have time for a day trip and have an interest in aviation, visit the Evergreen Aviation Educational Museum in McMinnville. The museum is home to the Spruce Goose, the huge wooden plane constructed by millionaire Howard Hughes. Other vintage aircraft are also on display. McMinnville has more than 50 preserved buildings in its historic district—worth a look. Sample the local wines, too.

If you are traveling with young children, take an easy day trip to the Enchanted Forest (7 mi/11 km south of Salem), a park with storybook characters that lives up to its name. This charming, unique and non-commercial family-run amusement park has a bobsled roller coaster, a truly terrifying haunted house and a log flume with the largest drop (40 ft) in the Pacific Northwest. Rides for little ones and concrete sculptures of beloved fairy tale creatures such as Snow White and Humpty Dumpty make this park especially interesting for the 10 and under set.

Older kids are more likely to enjoy the adjacent amusement park Thrillville. The Skycoaster is the most adrenaline-pumping ride in the place, but there are a number of more down-to-earth rides as well.

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