Landscape photographer Peter Marbach was running to the Face Rock State Scenic Viewpoint, camera equipment in tow, hoping he wouldn’t miss this shot. He had just driven six hours from Portland to Bandon, on the Southern Oregon coast, to capture the sun as it dipped below the Pacific Ocean.
“I had been stealthily watching the weather, and it looked good on the coast,” Marbach recalled. “In the wintertime, the light is better, it’s clearer. I took a chance that it was going to work.”
It was low tide, the sand reflecting the orange and blue tints of the sky as Marbach finally saw what he had been waiting for: A sunburst was peeking through massive sea stacks that dotted the beach, creating a silhouette against the sunset.
“I just thought, ‘Oh yes!”
This picture is now part of an exhibit at the Oregon Historical Society Museum in downtown Portland, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Oregon State Parks.
The project began in 2018 after historical society executive director Kerry Tymchuk his organization needed to be a part of the centennial celebration in 2022.
“The state parks are such an iconic part of Oregon, we have one of the strongest state park systems in the country, and draw millions of people from all over every year,” he said.
Tymchuk called Marbach, who had been doing landscape photography for 25 years, and had done previous exhibits for the society.
The exhibit, called “A Century of Wonder: 100 Years of Oregon State Parks,” opened to the public earlier this year. It’s essentially a road map of Oregon, featuring Marbach’s photos of state parks, from the Wallowa Mountains in Eastern Oregon to the crashing waves at Shore Acres State Park in Coos Bay.
Some pictures feature people enjoying the parks; other images are meditations on the natural beauty of the landscape, such as the bird’s eye view of the beach at Neahkahnie-Manzanita State Park.
“The exhibit has been very popular,” said Tymchuk. “People talk about what their favorite state parks are, whether they’ve been to that one or need to go to that one.”
Marbach said he hopes people will not just enjoy his photographs of the state parks, but give them a visit as well.
“I started this project during COVID, and I think it was keeping me sane. The parks are places of healing, they keep you calm and keep you inspired.”
Oregon State Parks early days
This idea of parks as places to enjoy natural beauty and as a getaway from busy life in the city is modern. Oregon’s state parks were not always considered a destination in and of themselves.
In the 1920s, the state parks system began as a service for the highway system, to help develop the state and also provide passing motorists with places to rest or have a meal with their families.
The first state park was created when homesteader Sarah Helmick donated five acres of land to the newly formed highway commission, now Sarah Helmick Recreation Site near Corvallis.
Under the leadership of park superintendent Sam Boardman, the amount of land in the state parks system grew from 6,444 acres in 1929 to more than 57,000 acres in 1950.
“Sam Boardman believed that natural areas should be changed as little as possible, they should be kept as shrines to nature,” said Chris Havel, associate director of Oregon State Parks.
This philosophy has evolved over the decades, as people’s ideas of what state parks should be have changed.
“There’s this sort of split personality between the vision of a park as a natural place and a historic place that touches us deeply, but there’s also the idea of it as a practical place that we can use without having wilderness skills,” Havel said.
In the past, the biggest issue affecting the parks was funding. When the parks system was established, the state government used money from a gas tax to pay for the expenses of maintaining the parks. In 1980, this funding was abolished, and now the parks system has to balance its budget between normal upkeep and challenges posed by climate change.
Issues facing Oregon State Parks today
“One of my favorite photos is of Collier State Park,” said Havel. “In the picture, you’ll see what looks like burned trees.”
For this picture, the society asked Marbach to capture an artistic representation of the impact wildfires had on state parks. In 2020, the Two Four Two fire burned 400 acres of Collier Memorial State Park. Months after the fire, Marbach came to Collier, and saw something other than fire damage.
“There was one small grove of aspen trees where the fire had come in and just licked the bottom of the trees, it didn’t burn them. In the background there’s a little bit of green, so there’s this juxtaposition of destruction, and life holding on,” Marbach said.
Havel said he saw this same sentiment in Marbach’s photo.
“What happened to Collier showed us that this kind of trauma that happens to a park can end up being an opportunity for change and rebirth,” Havel said.
Through his photos, Marbach said he wants people to get out and enjoy these parks, and to appreciate them as they are.
“I think it’s very easy to take these things for granted, that these parks are always going to be there and available,” he said. It’s not just important to remember the state parks as they were in the past, said Havel, but also important to believe in them as a vital resource that needs to be maintained.
“The centennial is not just a pat on the back for Oregonians for supporting a state park system over time, It’s also a chance to reflect on what parks mean to us, to make sure they endure for another century,” Havel said.
What’s next for Marbach?
2026 marks the 100th anniversary of Highway 101, the highway that straddles the Oregon Coast from the border of Northern California to Washington.
“My thought was to send Peter along Highway 101 over the next year, and get pictures of the people, the places, the views,” said Tymchuk.
Marbach said he can’t wait to start driving.
“Highway 101 is one of the most beautiful stretches in all of Oregon, so I’m very much looking forward to that.”
“A Century of Wonder” is open at the Oregon Historical Society Museum until Oct. 16.