The verdant hills and rambling creeks of the Willamette Valley set the stage for this pocket of communities west of Salem. Long an abundant homeland for native tribes and later a productive farming and logging locale, this region’s lush landscape is still a powerful draw. It all feels a bit like a local’s secret, where winding roads lead to tucked-away trailheads, wineries and other discoveries that the guidebook writers have yet to find.
Dallas spent much of the 19th and 20th centuries as a railroad and lumber town, where logs from the surrounding forests were sent down Rickreall Creek to a waiting sawmill. A lumber company founded here grew into Willamette Industries, one of the largest forest-products companies in the world. Today peaceful Rickreall Creek flows through the city and Dallas City Park, which occupies the site of the old mill. In the park’s Delbert Hunter Arboretum and Botanic Garden, paths wind along the creek and among a living museum of native plants.
North of Dallas, Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge preserves some of the disappearing native ecosystem of the Willamette Valley, a nutrient-rich mix of marsh and grasslands. The 2,492-acre refuge is a magnet for migrating waterfowl, particularly the dusky Canada goose, which arrives each winter from Alaska’s Copper River Delta. Trails lead to a viewpoint atop Baskett Butte, through grasslands and along ponds busy with waterfowl. You can get a quick look from a viewpoint along OR-22.
Grapes also thrive in the Willamette Valley, of course. Several wineries and tasting rooms are scattered through the countryside around Dallas and nearby Rickreall. At Namasté Vineyards, the terrace of its Dallas tasting room looks out over row after row of its vines.
West of Dallas, vineyards and farm fields give way to forest. At Black Rock Mountain Bike Area near Falls City, local mountain bikers have carved out a network of free-ride trails that have earned the coveted “Epic Ride” designation from the International Mountain Bike Association. With hand-built skinnies, berms, gap jumps and other features, many of the trails are best suited for experienced riders; be sure to start at the “Basic Training” skill-development area.
Northwest of Dallas, sawmills have long fueled the town of Willamina, just north of the OR-22 and OR-18 junction. Among the artifacts at the Willamina Museum is a collection of miniatures of a Willamina logging mill, brick factory and downtown scene from the 1900s. The Wildwood Hotel provides a historic and delightfully quirky downtown lodging option. North of town, Willamina Creek Road leads to Blackwell Park, where the creek bends through a grove of oaks and pools into inviting swimming holes.
Grand Ronde is the name of both a small unincorporated settlement 8 miles west of Willamina and the much larger Grand Ronde Community, a 16-square-mile area owned by the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. The Fort Yamhill State Heritage Area tells a bit of the history: In the 1850s, the U.S. government forced the local Yamhill Kalapuya people and two dozen other Western Oregon tribes off their land and onto a Grand Ronde reservation. It built Fort Yamhill to protect against tensions between settlers and natives. When tribal members began leaving the reservation in the early 1900s, they established the “new” Grand Ronde as a center of support services for nearby logging operations.
The Chachalu Tribal Museum and Cultural Center tells a deeper story, celebrating the heritage of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. The tribes also own and operate the popular Spirit Mountain Casino and Spirit Mountain Lodge.