Editor’s note: Call destinations before you visit to make sure they’re open. Follow all COVID-19 guidelines, get vaccinated before you travel and remember to bring your face covering.
What’s better than a chance to pet a cuddly goat or alpaca, sip a glass of wine and pick up a flat of berries to go — all in the same place?
How about a leisurely bike ride along quiet back roads, taking in the malty aroma of hop farms and stopping for a brew along the way?
Or pitching a tent under the stars in a forest of Douglas fir, with world-class mountain-bike trails, hiking trails and waterways for paddling at your fingertips?
You can do it all in the Willamette Valley. Here’s where to find your bliss.
Home to two-thirds of the state’s vineyards and wineries, the Willamette Valley is a world-famous wine region for good reason. Its prized pinot noir-growing climate makes it one of the top pinot-producing areas in the world, and there’s so much more to try in the Willamette Valley AVA’s 10 wine-growing appellations, each with their distinct personalities and terroir. Visit some of the state’s pioneer wineries, like the nation’s first LEED-certified winery, Sokol Blosser in Dayton, or Penner-Ash Wine Cellars in Newberg, co-founded by one of the first women winemakers in Oregon. Established in 1934, Salem’s Honeywood Winery is Oregon’s oldest continuously operating winery. In 1966, David and Diana Lett spent their honeymoon planting grapevines at McMinnville’s The Eyrie Vineyards; then 13 years later their pinot noir later placed in the top 10 at the Wine Olympiad in Paris. Other vineyards soon followed, like Adelsheim, Amity Vineyards and Bethel Heights Vineyard. Today the Willamette Valley is home to 592 vineyards from north to south, where countless modern-day wine pioneers continue to plant grapevines and explore new means of production.
During the phased reopening of Oregon, most wineries are temporarily open to groups of six or less by appointment only. Many tasting rooms are pet-friendly and include lawn games or wide-open areas for kids to roam, so call ahead and check via the Oregon Wine Board’s interactive wine map before you go.
County: Yamhill County, Marion County
Trail of Ten Falls
What’s better than seeing a waterfall up close? Walking behind it, of course — and feeling the misty spray of the 177-foot curtain from the inside of a mossy cavern. You might even catch a rainbow if you’re lucky. Silver Falls State Park, one of Oregon’s top visitor attractions, is dubbed the crown jewel of the state park system. With paved paths and handrails for when the moss gets a bit slippery, it’s great for young children or those not looking for a strenuous trek — and the payoff is big. There are 10 spectacular falls to see along a patchwork of trails you can choose to suit your comfort, or see them all along the famous 7.2-mile Trail of Ten Falls, many of which are more than 100 feet high. Silver Falls is Oregon’s largest state park, with many backcountry trails for hiking, horse-riding and biking. It’s also one of the most popular parks in Oregon, so consider visiting early on a weekday and have a backup plan if the parking lot is full — there are many more places you can gaze at dreamy waterfalls in the Willamette Valley. Nearby The Oregon Garden showcases 80 acres of botanical beauty and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Gordon House, while a tour of charming downtown Silverton features murals of its most famous residents. Also in Marion County, the Bavarian-inspired town of Mt. Angel is known for its iconic half-timbered architecture and Woodburn earns its nickname as “Oregon’s Little Mexico” with some of the best tacos, tortas and paletas you’ll find anywhere.
County: Marion County
Oregon’s Capital City
Fun fact: The 22-foot-tall Gold Man statue atop the Oregon State Capitol in Salem is a symbol of Oregon’s pioneering spirit. There’s plenty of that to be found in Oregon’s capital city — not just the political center of the state but rich with culture, heritage and history with easy access to the Willamette River. Within minutes you can go from admiring public art to sipping a pint at a craft brew pub like Xicha Brewing — the first Latino-owned brewery in the state — and spots along the Salem Ale & Cider Trail. Here you can take a leisurely trip through the Marion Farm Loop that spans from Donald to Jefferson, stopping to nosh, nibble, sip and play as you like. The city’s parks are impressive too, with 29 miles of trails at Minto-Brown Island Park and a handcrafted carousel at Riverfront Park. Though the capitol tours are on hold right now, you can still pay homage to the city history with a walk through the 1854 Salem Pioneer Cemetery or a visit to the Willamette Heritage Center, featuring 14 historic structures and research library on a five-acre campus.
County: Marion County
Black Rock Mountain Bike Area
If it sounds hardcore, that’s because it is: Black Rock Mountain Bike Area (BRMBA) is for mountain bikers of intermediate to extreme skill levels only. This phenomenal trail system is one of two areas in the Willamette Valley recognized by the International Mountain Bicycling Association; the other is the well-known Oakridge trail system. What makes it so special? Its four areas offer both free-riding and human-built features, all with ride-arounds to help you get down safely. One of the areas is called Basic Training, to help you get acquainted with the mountain. If not everyone in your party is up for the ride, there are great places in the woods to camp out and watch the action. When you’re out adventuring in this area, find plenty of options for great food and drink along the new Great Oaks Food Trail. Check out Yeasty Beasty for craft brews and wood-fired pizza in Monmouth, artisan baked goods and patio dining at The Bread Board in Falls City, and riverside fine dining at the Independence Hotel’s Territory Restaurant. There’s plenty more to explore in Polk County.
County: Polk County
Can’t decide whether to visit the mountains or the ocean? Marys Peak, the highest point on the Oregon Coast range, gives you a bit of both. At 4,097 feet, you can see just about everything on a clear day from the observation tower at the top, from the Cascade Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Criss-crossed with 12 miles of trails, Marys Peak is also one of the top spots in the area for its wildflower blooms, which light up during summer. Consider spending a morning working up an appetite at this treasured spot, 25 miles west of Corvallis, then continue along the Marys Peak to Pacific Scenic Byway for a few hours on this gorgeous back-road route to the Coast, where you’ll pop out at Waldport. If you’re staying in the region, you won’t go hungry with stops along the self-guided Mid-Willamette Valley Food Trail, including several acclaimed breweries. Linger on the deck at a tasting room and consider booking a farm stay for the full experience. The nearby Alsea Falls Complete Loop Mountain Bike Trail is an epic spot with family-friendly trails to check out before exploring Corvallis, the home of Oregon State University.
County: Benton County
City: Corvallis, Alsea, Philomath
You don’t have to scuba dive at Clear Lake to see how crystal clear the water is, but you can if you want to. With visibility of up to 200 feet, Clear Lake is considered one of the best spots for freshwater diving in America. You can also simply look down — from the comfort of your paddleboard, kayak or canoe, or from the shore — and marvel at the remains of an ancient forest. The old-growth stumps have been here since lava scorched the forest and created the pristine lake from the McKenzie River 3,000 years ago. Today you can fish for trout, camp, hike, paddle and explore the area around Clear Lake in all of its magnificence. Mountain bikers shouldn’t miss a chance to ride the 26-mile McKenzie River Trail, which starts just north of Clear Lake and continues along the McKenzie River to the town of McKenzie Bridge. Parts of the land around the McKenzie River were burned in the 2020 Holiday Farm Fire, which scorched 173,000 acres from Blue River west to the town of Vida, both north and south of the river. Yet, sections of this beautiful area remain open and accessible to visitors. Check out 5 ways to love the McKenzie River before you visit. Many of these towns are a day trip (or overnight) from Linn County cities like Albany, Lebanon and Brownsville — but well worth it.
County: Linn County
Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway
You’re making history as you ride the Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway, the first official Scenic Bikeway in the United States. The 134-mile route is moderately difficult, but there are lots of shorter round-trip stretches that make for excellent day trips. Work up a sweat or take a leisurely pace as you pedal through the tranquil valley, with plenty of stops at coffee shops, wineries and brewpubs in friendly towns along the way. You can pitch a tent at the historic Champoeg State Heritage Area — where settlers gathered in the 1850s to hold what turned out to be a very close vote that led to the creation of the state of Oregon. Summer is the ideal time to ride, as the valley is typically dry, with the malty aroma of hop fields in full bloom. Further down the bikeway, consider a diversion near Independence for a ride on the Buena Vista ferry. The 21-mile stretch from Albany to Shedd (42 miles round-trip) is especially flat and scenic, while Armitage County Park to Coburg is a satisfying 13 miles round-trip.
Counties: Polk County, Marion County, Linn County, Lane County
After Portland and Salem, Eugene is Oregon’s third most populous city — and definitely it’s grooviest. There’s an alt-culture vibe here that has a lot to do with its rich history of music, arts and culture, as home to literary legend Ken Kesey, memorialized with a statue downtown. It’s also known as TrackTown USA thanks to its standing as the birthplace of Nike and Olympic track icon Steve Prefontaine, one of the University of Oregon’s most famous athletes. You can visit the university’s new world-class track-and-field stadium, the home of the 2022 IAAF World Athletics Championships, or run on Pre’s Trail, which winds through Alton Baker Park and past Autzen Stadium. Make sure to look all around at the new, brightly colored 20×21 murals on buildings around town. Treat yourself to top-notch food and beer at the city’s many brewpubs, then venture out along the South Willamette Valley Food Trail for tasty stops at vineyards, farms and restaurants from Veneta to the McKenzie River.
County: Lane County
Covered bridges are a sweet vestige of the past, when transport across these handbuilt bridges was essential for people going about their daily business. Lane County is home to the largest collection of remaining covered bridges in the West, many of which are open to car traffic while others are open to bicycles and pedestrians only. Spend an hour or two exploring the Cottage Grove Covered Bridge Tour Route, which takes you to many of these sweet barn-like structures, including the county’s oldest — the 90-foot-long Mosby Covered Bridge near Cottage Grove, which you can still drive across. If you have an electric vehicle, this EV route highlights all the charging stations along the way. For a pedal-powered escape, take the Covered Bridges Scenic Bikeway, the mildest ride of all the Oregon Scenic Bikeways, largely on a car-free former railroad bed. Don’t forget a stop for caffeine and a treat at Creswell Bakery, part of the South Willamette Valley Food Trail; they also make fantastic sandwiches to go for a riverside picnic.
County: Lane County
Willamette National Forest
There are so many trails in the Willamette National Forest — 1,700 miles of them, in fact — that you can spend a lifetime exploring. That’s not to mention the hidden viewpoints, alpine lakes, wildflower meadows, scenic drives and pristine waterways to discover as you make the forest your base camp for a blissful summer adventure. Stretching from Detroit Lake at the north to Waldo Lake at the south, the forest includes some of the best spots for thrill seekers, with world-class mountain bike trails and a strong network of routes for off-highway vehicles including Huckleberry Flats. The forest has four distinct ranger districts: Detroit Lake is the star of the Detroit Ranger District; the Sweet Home Ranger District may be best known for McDowell Creek Falls; the McKenzie River defines the McKenzie River Ranger District, with blue waters for rafting and fishing and the McKenzie River Trail for hiking, mountain biking and waterfalls; then the Middle Fork Ranger District stretches to Oakridge, one of only six cities in the world designated by IMBA as a gold-level “Ride Center” for mountain bikers.
Cool off with a paddle or splash in a lake, and fall asleep with a cozy campfire under the stars. Always remember to pack your Ten Essentials when exploring, leave natural areas cleaner than you found them and practice other ways to Take Care Out There.
Counties: Marion County, Linn County, Lane County