Willamette Valley TourBy Greg Weekes
The Willamette Valley is not only Oregon’s food basket; it supplies the wine as well. An ideal destination for couples looking for a romantic spot, this long, broad valley stretches more than 100 miles from the Columbia River south to Eugene. It’s hemmed in by two mountain ranges, and together they create a climate that’s just about ideal for agriculture—a long growing season, warm summer days, mild winters and rain at the right times. The result: a bounty of berries, veggies, hazelnuts and Christmas trees, for starters.
With more than 500 wineries, this also is the state’s leading wine region. Pinot noir is the most celebrated of the cool-climate grape varieties the valley is known for, but Willamette wineries also produce Pinot gris, Pinot blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc and sparkling wine. Touring wineries isn’t the only thing to do, though; the lushly scenic countryside is a flat-out delight to drive.
Portland is your base. This scenic tour covers the northern portion of the valley as far south as Salem before heading east to Silver Falls State Park for a look at some spectacular waterfalls, then passes through a couple of quirky little towns on the way back to Portland.
Day 1Get an early start today. From downtown Portland, access I-5 and head south to exit 294 (SR 99W). You’re still within the greater Portland metro area so the surroundings are a little congested, but suburban sprawl is soon left behind as you head into the heart of Willamette wine country—fewer shopping centers, more rolling green hills.
Stay on 99W as far as McMinnville . You’re in Yamhill County, a corner of the northern Willamette Valley that was the final destination for many 19th-century pioneers making the westward trek on the Oregon Tail. Forestry and farming were the traditional livelihoods of these settlers, but in just the last decade or so new kids have joined the block: vintners producing premium Pinot noir wines.
But first it’s time for breakfast. Most everything on the menu at the Crescent Cafe (526 N.E. Third St., 4 blocks east of Baker Street/SR 99W) is made from local or organic ingredients; try the chicken hash or the caramelized banana pancakes. Molasses cornmeal bread makes terrific toast, and you can purchase a loaf to go.
There’s a wealth of Yamhill County wineries you can tour; here are two suggestions. Anne Amie Vineyards (6580 N.E. Mineral Springs Rd. in Carlton) hugs the steep hillsides of the Chehalem Mountains. The tasting room is open daily 10-5, Mar.-Dec.; Thurs.-Mon. 10-5 and by appointment, rest of year; phone (503) 864-2991. Sokol Blosser Winery (2 miles south of Dundee off SR 99W; watch for the blue sign) has picnic areas and a big deck from which to enjoy the view. The tasting room is open daily 10-4. Tours of the vineyards are offered daily; to make reservations phone (503) 864-2282 or (800) 582-6668.
South from McMinnville, SR 99W winds through farmland that is a checkerboard of green from spring through fall. The low mountains in the distance to the right are part of the Coast Range; the mountains to the left form the more extensive Cascade range. Amity is one of the most charming of the small towns along the way.
At the junction with SR 22, just north of Rickreall, there are a couple of choices. You can take SR 22 east to Salem. You can take SR 22 west a quarter-mile to the junction for Dallas and then follow the road about 5 miles to this bustling mill town that was once known as “Prune City, USA.” Delbert Hunter Arboretum and Botanic Garden in Dallas City Park, where native Oregon plants are showcased in different settings, is a scenic spot to spend an hour.
Or if the valley scenery has you sufficiently enthralled, continue south on SR 99W as far as Corvallis. On a sunny summer afternoon the views of hills, fields, farmland and orchards are delightfully pleasant. At Corvallis you can either backtrack to SR 22 or take SR 34 east to I-5, then I-5 north.
Whatever route you decide on, you’ll end up in Salem . Oregon’s capital sits astride the Willamette River, which runs the length of the valley. Wind down the afternoon strolling around Riverfront Park, an attractive green space with lots of paved walkways.
For dinner, throw on some nicer duds and head over to Bentley's Grill (291 Liberty St. S.E.), located just a few blocks from Riverfront Park. Here you'll find well-prepared steaks, fresh seafood, a few rotisserie items and artisan pizzas straight from the kitchen's brick oven. The warm décor and upscale atmosphere make this restaurant one of Salem's finest. If you can pull your eyes away from the centerpiece of this spacious restaurant—a large, copper-vented fire pit—you may see a dessert that strikes your fancy. Delicious cakes (the Konditorei cheesecake with berry compote is popular) come from a local Viennese-style bakery. Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Gris wines from Oregon growers are part of the impressive wine list.
Day 2This is going to be an active day, so fuel up at Elmer's (3950 Market St. N.E., at the corner of Lancaster Drive), a regional chain committed to honoring the culinary legacy of the Pacific Northwest—meaning they use local ingredients whenever possible. Blueberry pancakes or an omelet with chipotle bacon, jack cheese, salsa and green onions and topped with avocado and sour cream are both good bets. Your coffee cup will be refilled often, and the waitresses are unfailingly cheerful.
From Salem, proceed east on SR 22. After about 5 miles take exit 7 and get on SR 214 (Silver Falls Highway) heading for Silver Falls State Park. You’ll want to stop at pullouts and take pictures of the panoramic views along the route. The two-lane road winds up, over and around hills and passes lots of Christmas tree farms made up of precise rows of evergreens.
Silver Falls State Park is a stunner. This is the natural splendor of the Oregon outdoors on full display. The highlight here is the Trail of Ten Falls, an 8-mile hiking trail that follows the north and south forks of Silver Creek in a lush forest of second-growth Douglas fir and western hemlock, salal (a shrub with leathery leaves and dark blue berries) and sword ferns. If you’re not up for the entire hike, 177-foot South Falls is a short walk from the main parking area and can be viewed from several points along a canyon rim walking path. You can walk behind the falls, too.
From Silver Falls State Park continue north on SR 214 toward Silverton. This is yet another beautiful stretch of Oregon countryside—undulating hills, stands of conifers, more tree farms. If all this natural beauty speaks to your inner gardener, stop at the Oregon Garden , where more than 20 specialty gardens feature everything from native Northwest trees and plants to orchids and roses. The lovely water garden, a circular design that incorporates crisscrossing paths and a bridge, also provides a habitat for wildlife. The landscape diversity means there’s something to see in every season.
Silverton got its start in 1854, when westward-bound pioneers built a sawmill on Silver Creek. Water power drove the timber industry on which many western Oregon communities depended for their livelihood. Metal piping was another early industry, and metal street and sidewalk fixtures in town still bear the stamp “Eastman Brothers Metal Works.”
You can drive through the Gallon House Bridge (north of town on Gallon House County Road), an 84-foot-long covered bridge built in 1916. According to local lore, the name refers to the fact that Silverton citizens had to leave their dry town to pick up a little moonshine during the pre-Prohibition era.
Stretch your legs walking around the compact downtown area, where big oaks shelter stately old homes. There’s a thriving arts community here; check out the works on display at the Borland Gallery (303 Coolidge St. next to Coolidge-McClaine City Park). It’s open Mon.-Fri. 9-noon and Sat.-Sun. noon-4. Shoppers can browse the gift and antique shops along First Street.
Silverton is also known for its murals. The mural movement began in the early 1990s when a local artist painted a depiction of Norman Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” (Freedom of Speech, Freedom from Fear, Freedom of Worship and Freedom from Want) on a building at the corner of Second and E. Main streets. Since then more than a dozen murals have turned downtown buildings into an outdoor art museum. Take a peek at the “Largest Camera in the World” (499 N. Water St.) and the nostalgically romanticized “Gallon House Bridge” (corner of Lewis and S. Water streets).
When hunger strikes, try the Silver Grille , a casual bistro with a changing menu that takes advantage of whatever the Willamette Valley has to offer. That means savory creations like bruschetta with wild mushroom pâté, apple chutney and white cheddar; a roasted beet salad; and maple bacon-glazed meatloaf served with seasonal veggies. There’s live music the first Friday of the month. Seating is limited, so reservations are suggested.
Day 3From Silverton continue north on SR 214. You’re on the homestretch back to Portland, but several small towns en route are worth a stop. The Bavarian-style storefronts in Mount Angel, 4 miles north, are appealing evidence of its German heritage. The quaint factor is upped in summer, when oversize hanging baskets filled with flowers line downtown streets.
The Glockenspiel at the corner of Charles and Garfield streets is a prime photo op. Rising 49 feet, it has seven figures representing Mount Angel’s Native American, German and Swiss forebears: a Kalapuya Indian brave; Mathias Butsch, an early community leader; Sister Bernadine Wachter, first prioress of the Benedictine Convent; German settlers Robert and Katrina Zollner; Prior Adelhelm Odermatt, who established a Benedictine monastery here in 1882; Papa Oom Pah, a rosy-cheeked, tuba-playing Oktoberfest mascot; and two Bavarian children who sing “Edelweiss.” Bells ring as the figures dance daily at 11, 1, 4 and 7 p.m., and crowds gathered to watch the performances have been known to temporarily hold up traffic.
The Mount Angel Abbey in nearby St. Benedict was founded in 1882 by Swiss Benedictine monks. It stands imposingly atop a 300-foot bluff, a vantage point that offers a wide view of the surrounding countryside. The museum in the monastery is worth a look if only to check out what is reputedly the world’s largest porcine hairball (it was produced by a hog) on display along with liturgical robes, Civil War memorabilia and natural history exhibits. The abbey is open daily 8:30-5. The museum is open Tues.-Sun. 10-5.
Mount Angel’s Oktoberfest is the state’s biggest folk festival. The 4-day celebration begins on the second Thursday after Labor Day, around the time of the local hop harvest (Oktoberfest is a traditional German harvest festival). It’s good old-fashioned family fun: live music, street dances, chalets offering all kinds of ethnic food, an arts and crafts show, wiener dog races and a traditional Biergarten and Weingarten.
North of Mount Angel the views of Mount Hood become more frequent. In late summer, roadside fields of daisies splash the landscape with a carpet of bright yellow. Stay on SR 214 as far as the junction with SR 99E (just before the town of Woodburn), then take 99E north. Between Woodburn and Canby are plant nurseries, fruit orchards and fields of hops. The hop plant’s female flower cone is used to flavor beer, and the Willamette Valley is an important hop-growing area. This herbaceous perennial is a vigorous climber, so hop fields are equipped with wire netting on which the plants can be trained and supported.
Dahlia lovers in particular and flower lovers in general will want to pay a visit to Swan Island Dahlias in Canby, one of the city's popular travel sites. From SR 99E turn left on Ivy Street (there’s a 7-Eleven on the right), then left on 2nd Ave., then right on Holly Street to N.W. 22nd Ave.; the farm is about half a mile down on the left. Fields of dahlias are open to the public daily August through mid-September, when the blooms are at their peak. There’s also a show garden at the beginning of the path leading into the flower fields. In addition to glorious flowers, the annual Dahlia Festival (last weekend in August and the following Labor Day weekend) offers food booths, floral arranging demonstrations and growing tips. For details phone (503) 266-7711 or (800) 410-6540.
North of Canby the scenery changes from farmland to forest. Rock cliffs line the highway, which follows the winding Willamette. Stay on 99E as far as Oregon City , where there are more building murals. This was the end of the line for the Oregon Trail, the great overland route that funneled a procession of 19th-century pioneers westward. Today it's a must-see piece of history to add to your list of things to do this weekend.
From Oregon City follow the signs for SR 43 (get on I-205 south, then stay in the right lane and take exit 8 for Lake Oswego/SR 43). SR 43 continues to Lake Oswego, a tony Portland suburb. Finding a place to park in downtown Lake Oswego can be a bit of a challenge, but you’ll be rewarded with window shopping in a very pretty landscaped setting. Have a leisurely late lunch at St. Honoré Boulangerie (315 First St.) where the patron saint of bakers, St. Honoré, watches over the handcrafted French breads and delicious pastries. The lovely lakeside location makes this bakery especially appealing.
From downtown Lake Oswego continue north on SR 43 (Riverside Drive). The leafy, lovely drive follows the river. Back in the big city, keep it simple—stroll along the Westside Riverwalk watching pleasure boats sail past the Hawthorne, Morrison and Burnside bridges. Then pop into Voodoo Doughnut (3 blocks west of Naito Parkway and a block south of Burnside Street at 22 S.W. 3rd Ave.) and get a pink box of goodies to go. Take your treats to downtown Portland’s open-air living room, Pioneer Courthouse Square (the large paved plaza bordered by Morrison and Yamhill streets, Broadway and 6th Avenue), find a spot to sit and listen to the soothing sound of the waterfall fountain while you munch away.
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Oregon levies no sales tax. The Portland area has a lodging tax of 11.5 percent and a rental car tax of 17 percent.
Adventist Medical Center, (503) 257-2500; Legacy Emanuel Medical Center, (503) 413-2200; Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center, (503) 413-7711; OHSU Hospital, (503) 494-8311.
877 S.W. Taylor St. Portland, OR 97205. Phone:(503)275-8355 or (888)503-3291
Cheap airline flights can be found from cities all over the country.
Several rental car agencies serve the Portland area. Hertz, (503) 528-7900 (airport), (503) 249-5727 (downtown) or (800) 654-3080, offers discounts to AAA members.
The Amtrak passenger train terminal is at 800 N.W. Sixth Ave.; phone (800) 872-7245.
Cabs must be hired by phone or at taxi stations, although a few will answer a hail from the street in the downtown business district. Companies include Broadway Cab Co., (503) 333-3333; and Radio Cab, (503) 227-1212. Fares are metered. Most taxi services charge $3-$5 for one person for the first .1 mile then $2.60 for each additional mile and a $1 fee for each additional passenger.
Transportation by bus, streetcar or light-rail is available in Portland.