World famous for its pinot noir but also rich in bountiful agriculture, arts, culture, history and stunning natural beauty, the Willamette Valley offers an astonishing number of popular and back-road delights any time of year. With more than 750 vineyards and 550 wineries to sample from, the wine scene here is definitely a year-round affair. Visiting during the quieter cellar season, November through March, affords a chance to get up close and personal with the land and the winemakers without the crowds you may find in the busier months. Looking for hot springs, friendly brewpubs, historic sites and a century-old carousel? It’s all here, too. Here’s how to nosh, sip, play and find rejuvenation this winter in the many cities and small towns that make up the beautiful Willamette Valley.
Sipping and Soaking in the South Willamette Valley
Take a leisurely drive along the 34-mile/55-kilometer McKenzie River Scenic Byway, which follows the banks of that river east of Eugene. Travel south along the Aufderheide Scenic Byway to Terwilliger Hot Springs, a wooded retreat in the Willamette National Forest with six shallow soaking pools to choose from. (The Aufderheide Scenic Byway is not maintained for snow and ice between November and April, so sections may not be passable. Call 541-822-3381 for conditions.) The springs are clothing optional and alcohol is not allowed, so bring plenty of water and spend the time soaking up the beauty of the lagoon, with Rider Creek waterfall spilling into it. (A $7 day pass is required.) Fuel up with a locally sourced burger or sandwich at McKenzie General Store, one of the many stops along the self-guided South Willamette Valley Food Trail (call ahead in the winter to confirm businesses are open). Though indisputably famous for its wineries, the Willamette Valley has developed a reputation for other libations, too. To explore the robust craft-beer culture, you can sip your way down the Eugene Ale Trail, which includes hoppy stops at 22 craft breweries, including Good Food Awards champ Ninkasi Brewing Company (with a restaurant due to open in the Whiteaker neighborhood in early 2020) and World Beer Cup winner Oakshire Brewing. For a taste of the region’s growing craft-distillery culture, check out the Eugene Distillery Trail with seven tasting rooms, including national award-winning Swallowtail Spirits.
For more fabulous hot springs in the Willamette Valley, visit OregonWineCountry.org.
Family Fun Tour of the Central Valley
A quick jaunt off Interstate-5, the friendly towns of the central valley feel like a step back in time. Catch a movie in Albany’s restored historic Pix Theatre, and tour the Albany Historic Carousel & Museum to view a collection of hand-carved and painted magical creatures. In Corvallis watch the pies being hand-tossed at American Dream Pizza, and let the kids play on the “dinosaur bones” at Avery Park and Natural Area. Or for more of a workout, lace up your boots and hike to the highest point in the Coast range at Marys Peak, a moderate 5.2-mile out-and-back. (Note: A Northwest Forest Pass is required to park here. Also bring plenty of water and snacks, layered clothing and waterproof shoes when hiking in the cooler months.) In nearby Brownsville, look for the signs along the Oregon Film Trail noting where the 1986 classic “Stand By Me” was filmed (and make sure to watch it again for posterity). At Oregon State Parks’ Thompson’s Mills State Heritage Site, check out a 150-year-old, water-powered grain mill. In Lebanon book tickets to hop aboard the antique Santiam Excursion Trains for a two-hour round-trip ride that rolls through farmland and forest ranges with views of the Santiam River. In Salem spend a rainy afternoon letting the kids get messy at Gilbert House Children’s Museum, create handmade art at a Salem Art Association family workshop or splash down the waterslides at the Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center indoor waterpark.
North Valley Wine Lover’s Hot Spots
The north valley’s smaller highways and mellow back roads guide visitors on a charming tour of off-the-beaten-path epicurean experiences. In the spring, summer and fall, these world-class tasting rooms and restaurants are often quite busy. In the winter, the pace is slower and you can enjoy a more tranquil atmosphere, as long as you don’t mind a bit of soggy ground (bring an umbrella or raincoat and wear boots or waterproof shoes). Start by exploring the verdant vineyards of Newberg, Dundee, Carlton and Yamhill, where you can drill down into the Willamette Valley AVA to explore the subregions of Dundee Hills, Ribbon Ridge, Yamhill-Carlton and McMinnville. Many hold special cellar-season events; for instance, Coeur de Terre Vineyard in McMinnville invites visitors to enjoy live acoustic music at their fireside music series. To taste the gourmet cuisine that thrives alongside the wine industry, try Dundee Bistro, Joel Palmer House in Dayton and McMinnville’s The Barberry. In Amity a stop at The Brigittine Monks Gourmet Confectionery will sweeten your trip with hand-dipped truffles and artisan fudge. In the town of Independence, stop at Rogue Farms Tasting Room and then float across the Willamette River on the cable-operated ferry to the community of Buena Vista.
If You Go:
The Willamette Valley is home to some of the state’s most tantalizing winter events, including Christmas in the Garden at the Oregon Garden in December (with its light display, German beer garden, snowless tubing and indoor ice-skating rink); and the Oregon Truffle Festival in January and February (with special dinners, foraging walks and truffle-dog competitions in the lush forest). Consider making your trip to the Willamette Valley a car-free getaway so you can sit back and enjoy the ride. Many businesses aren’t open during the winter months, so call ahead to be sure.
South Willamette Valley
McKenzie River, Eugene-Springfield
Central Willamette Valley
Albany, Corvallis, Brownsville, Lebanon, Salem
North Willamette Valley
Newberg, Dundee, Carlton, Yamhill, McMinnville, Amity, Dayton