It all began with two photographs taken on May 11, 1950, about 9 miles southwest of McMinnville in Sheridan. Evelyn Trent was feeding the animals behind her farmhouse when she spotted a disc-like object silently floating in the evening sky. Rushing inside, she alerted her husband, Paul, who grabbed their Kodak Roamer camera and quickly snapped a pair of pictures before the metallic thing sped beyond the horizon. Eventually, the images — considered among the most famous in the growing field known as “ufology” — ignited an international debate and media frenzy.
The notoriety lives on. Each year in May, McMenamins Hotel Oregon in McMinnville becomes ground zero for believers as it hosts the annual UFO Fest (May 14-16, 2020), which draws galactic travelers of all sorts for a quirky celebration.
Fun for families from every planet, the outer-space shindig features vendors, costume contests, movie screenings, expert speakers and a parade. “Literally thousands of people come out and just line the streets,” says Tim Hills, McMenamins historian and founder of this spectacle, second in popularity only to its counterpart in Roswell, New Mexico. “The local schools and business owners create their own floats. There are marching bands. We have live music and dancing — an Alien Ball, which is crazy fun.” Attendees can also sip their way through miles of stellar wine country or participate in the Close Encounters of the 3rd Vine ticketed wine-tasting event to kick off the festival.
The 2020 festival marks the event’s 21st anniversary, which draws more than 18,000 curiosity seekers for the weekend.
Is There Truth Out There?
It’s not just Oregon’s UFO lore driving the unexplained-phenomena craze. Other instances — such as crop circles and misfortune involving livestock — deepen the sense of mystery. Because many Bigfoot sightings coincide with atmospheric anomalies such as luminous orbs or shimmering portals, there are even theories that Oregon’s beloved cryptid is a being from another world or dimension.
Oregonians filed 110 accounts to the National UFO Reporting Center in 2019, and the state consistently ranks in the top for sightings in the country, suggesting there’s more than just pranksters behind this unique, underground culture. Skeptics are quick to point to top-secret armed forces maneuvers or weather balloons, while UFO enthusiasts stand by these cases as proof of cosmic communication or sinister experimentation.
That begs the question: Why is Oregon such a hot spot for ufology culture? Maybe it’s the vast expanses of remote wilderness. Between shifting sand dunes, rugged craters and heat-cracked deserts, Oregon’s more desolate landscapes evoke visions of the moon, and the reddish hues in the Painted Hills are certainly Martian-esque. If the aliens are homesick, who can really blame them for stopping by?
Though many questions remain, close encounters are an undeniable aspect of Oregon’s history. By gathering evidence and testimony, organizations like the Oregon Mutual UFO Network serve as record keepers for these phenomena.
The peaceful Willamette Valley community isn’t the only destination that attracts these enigmatic visitors. Whether you’re a believer or not, you can use these stories as a road map for your own investigations.
Near Pendleton — June 24, 1947
Private pilot Kenneth Arnold was flying past Mt. Rainier when he noticed a string of nine UFOs moving in a diagonal pattern in the rural skies. Using onboard instruments and his own acumen, he pegged their speed to be at least 1,200 miles per hour. The next day, when he landed in the Eastern Oregon town of Pendleton for an airshow, he shared his tale with the local newspaper, using the term “flying saucer” — which exploded onto national headlines and marked the beginning of the modern UFO era.
Gold Beach — May 24, 1949
Nearly one year before the 1950 sighting in Sheridan, five anglers were fishing near the mouth of the Rogue River on Oregon’s Southern Coast, where they witnessed a shiny plate-shaped object in the air — both unaided and with binoculars. Two of the group worked in aeronautics and estimated it was a mile away and soaring at 5,000 feet.
Redmond — September 24, 1959
In the high desert of Central Oregon, early-rising residents of Redmond were surprised when a radiant mass drifted into the airspace outside of town, shooting tongues of multicolored flame. The space race against the Soviet Union was still underway, as was Cold War paranoia. The incident received an aggressive military response: Six F-102 jets were scrambled to intercept the intruder. According to an FAA report filed by an administrator at the Redmond Airport, radar tracking showed the craft jumping extreme distances and elevations almost instantaneously. The final reading registered 52,000 feet — much higher than a passenger plane’s cruising altitude.
St. Helens — March 17, 1981
During the early hours of a chilled, foggy March morning, St. Helens police officers observed a massive, orange, glowing ball of light slowly moving up the Columbia River toward Portland from their quiet community just north of the big city. At first they figured it was an airplane, but the odd revving, screeching noises and blinding brightness swiftly changed their minds. The department contacted authorities at the Portland International Airport, which reportedly confirmed the UFO’s presence on radar, only to call back five minutes later and reverse their previous statement. As day broke, a bank of fog obscured the officers’ visual contact. They then picked up a sound as if it had zoomed up and away.
Hubbard — July 23, 1998
Oregon farms often create corn mazes and artistic designs that are visible from the air. But in the summer of 1998, when a passing plane spotted intricate shapes in a wheat field near Hubbard in Oregon’s rural Willamette Valley, nobody could come up with any obvious human explanations. In what became one of the most intensely scrutinized crop circles in the United States, no initial entry paths led to the approximately 250-by-170-foot composition. Upon closer inspection, several people claimed to feel ill due to residual electromagnetic energy. Local anecdotes surfaced claiming the plot had hosted these strange formations since as early as the 1920s, and more were discovered there in subsequent years.
Silvies Valley Ranch — July 2019
Things got even weirder in July 2019, when ranchers at the far-flung Silvies Valley Ranch — 30 miles south of John Day in the rugged hills of Eastern Oregon — encountered the remains of five Hereford bulls on the property. There were no tracks or signs of trauma, other than missing body parts that were removed with surgical precision. Suffice it to say, the animals were a few cuts short of a full brisket, a feature that aligned with several bizarre occurrences elsewhere.
Are these events and others mere coincidence? You may find answers — or at least fellow believers — at the UFO Festival.
If you join the invasion:
Due to the amount of people who converge in McMinnville for UFO Fest, it’s important to make lodging reservations ahead of time if you plan to stay overnight. Downtown accommodations such as the Atticus Hotel or 3rd Street Flats are close to the action, while various motels and B&Bs are available around the city.
McMenamins Grand Lodge in Forest Grove (25 miles north of McMinnville) is a former Masonic and Eastern Star property that artfully preserves its arcane aura for guests. At 1882 Grille, Red Hills Kitchen, Peirano & Daughters and Golden Valley Brewery and Restaurant, you’ll find delicious cuisine made with Oregon’s bounty. Attendees can also sip their way through miles of stellar wine country.
Find more wacky detours in the Willamette Valley and still more quirky road-trip ideas through Oregon.