With an abundance of flowers and fruits, and a blossoming beverage industry, this portion of northwestern Oregon appeals to all the senses.
By Rhonda Ostertag
Oregon’s Willamette Valley (pronounced Will-AM-ette), the destination of many people who took the Oregon Trail, has the same romantic appeal to travelers in modern-day prairie schooners as it did to the original pioneers. It is a lush, abundant, land of plenty. But even better, in this high-speed age of technology, the valley resets human clocks with sentimental charm, calm, and renewal — commodities we all can use.
Cradled between the lower coastal mountains to the west and the Cascade Mountains to the east, the Willamette River Valley lies in the northwest part of the state. The region is threaded by Interstate 5 and state routes 99W and 99E, with ferries and bridges crossing the Willamette River to link rural travel. Portland is at the northernmost tip, while Salem, Eugene, and Corvallis are all jump-off points to discovery.
The sleepy Willamette River is an official canoe trail. It is also the site of stern-wheeler tours, dragon boat races, and splashing good fun.
The state tourism bureau has created several designated scenic drives so that valley travelers can best enjoy the sites. Washington County’s Vineyard and Valley Loop (in West Portland), Silver Falls Tour Loop (in the Silverton-Salem area), Benton County Loop (out of Corvallis), and the covered bridge tours in Albany and Cottage Grove immerse you in the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the valley, while introducing both quiet and superb attractions. Travel Oregon (see page 66) has information and brochures.
This valley is fertile in part because of the Missoula Floods, which occurred thousands of years ago and deposited rich soil from eastern Washington. In some places, the soil in the valley is 1/2-mile deep. The productive lands that lured pioneer farmers to risk the overland journey continue to live up to their promise. The cornucopia of edibles is a given, but the Willamette Valley also unfurls a crazy quilt of color, with bountiful blooms ablaze from April through September.
Starting in March, you can visit the headquarters of commercial growers of daffodils and tulips (Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm). In later months come the irises (Schreiner’s Iris Gardens), peonies (Adelman Peony Gardens), heirloom roses (Heirloom Roses), and dahlias (Frey’s Dahlias, Swan Island Dahlias). The growers open their fields or demonstration gardens so that visitors can tour; attend events; learn flower arranging; and buy bulbs, bushes, and cut flowers. Discovering the inventive names for the many varieties alone is worth a look. Private fields broaden the spectrum.
Fields of mint; acres of grass and other seed crops; nurseries for shrubs and trees; and, of course, Christmas trees further layer the quilt. So, too, do the picturesque blooms of fruit orchards and berry vines, the cherry trees at the capital mall in Salem, the wild camas and blackberry vines in uncultivated expanses, not to mention the rhododendrons, azaleas, and dogwoods in public parks. For photographers, the land is a changing harvest of texture and color.
The Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm and Schreiner’s Iris Gardens offer plenty of parking for motorhomes. But it’s still best to phone ahead to learn when the parking lots are less crowded and what vehicle size restrictions may apply. Overall, when possible, visiting the places listed here by passenger vehicle is easier.
Fruits, Veggies, And Nuts
The valley is prolific in serving up fruits, vegetables, berries, nuts, and grapes. It’s a head-spinning assortment of the familiar and not-so-familiar; you’ll likely ask yourself, “Who knew there were so many kinds?” The full flavors fresh from the ground, straight off the vine, or plucked from the tree will take your tastebuds to new places. Some varieties are so plump and juicy, they never reach market, as premium ice cream and jam companies compete for them. But they are great for the dinner plate.
Farms where you pick your own fruit, as well as farmstands, farmers’ markets, and honor-system roadside tables invite you aside to grab tomatoes for a salad, fill a picnic hamper, or spoon into a fruit-drenched shortcake. Few pleasures of summer compete with biting into a peach and having its juices drip down your arm.
At farmstands you can talk with the growers to glean tips on cooking, storing, and eating. Recipes often are available, and home-baked breads, brittles, and pies are standards at most farmstands and markets.
The valley is especially known for its hazelnuts and walnuts. At Willamette Mission State Park, northwest of Salem, and at Dorris Ranch Lane County Park in Springfield, you can walk among hazelnut (filbert) trees. Oregon’s state nut is the hazelnut. The Willamette Valley produces 99 percent of the nation’s crop.
To find out what is being harvested, and when, check ads in the local papers and visit Web sites. For info about locations in the Salem area, go to www.oregontrailfarms.com. Since Salem is at the center of the valley, it’s a good place to access virtually all that grows here.
When visiting you-pick farms, it’s advisable to phone ahead to learn about vehicle access and produce availability. Sometimes parking is in rough-mowed fields, and for many, the turn into or out of the property can be narrow and sharp, with roadside ditches to either side. Some of the bigger stands, such as E.Z. Orchards and Willamette Valley Fruit Company (in Salem) and Thistledown Farm (in Junction City) offer better parking and access. Farmers markets are typically in town, at shopping malls, or at fairgrounds or community centers.
Wine And Brew
Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and vegetation, would feel right at home in the Willamette Valley. The valley’s dry, rolling hills are ideal for grapes, with some wineries producing award-winning Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. Literally hundreds of wineries make their home here, with many offering tours and tasting rooms for the public. Events throughout the year pair food and music with the grape. Memorial Day weekend and Thanksgiving weekend are traditional times for wine-country-wide events.
Brochures available at most visitors centers list winery locations. You also can download Oregon Wine Region touring maps at www.oregonwine.org; or, go to www.willamettewines.com/brochure for a list. The Web sites and brochures include directions, phone numbers, hours, specialties, and visitor facilities. Alternatively, you always can enlist a tour company to do the driving. For a list of those, check www.willamettewines.com/tours/plan-your-visit.
If your fermentation of choice is created by yeast and hops (hops are the tall greens you see growing around the valley between telephone-pole stakes), check out the Willamette Valley microbreweries. Portland is considered by some in the beer scene as the microbrewery capital of the world and includes “Beervana” among its nicknames. At brewery stops, you can tour the process; sample dark, light, fruity, edgy, and gluten-free ales; and enjoy the easy camaraderie of a pub setting.
To locate breweries, and to learn about local beer festivals, visit the Oregon Brewers Guild Web site at www.oregonbeer.org. On the last full weekend in July, Portland’s Waterfront Park hosts the Oregon Brewers Festival, featuring the region’s best crafted brews; more information is available at www.oregonbrewfest.com. For a tour company–led microbrewery outing in Portland, see www.ecotours-of-oregon.com.
The valley is perfect for a picnic basket, a fishing pole, and lazy afternoons. Farmland, oak-savannah foothills, and the Willamette River and its tributaries sponsor relaxation.
Silver Falls State Park, on the Silver Falls Tour Loop, is home to 10 major waterfalls and once was considered for national park status. It is the largest state park in Oregon. Waterfall viewing can be enjoyed from the Trail of Ten Falls, as well as from roadside turnouts. The park’s campground is one of several serving valley travelers.
The Willamette Valley also boasts 30 covered bridges; for a map, visit www.oregon.com/covered_bridges. In addition, you can expand your bird-watching skills and enjoy the outdoors at Willamette Valley National Wildlife Refuge areas such as Baskett Slough, west of Salem; Ankeny, between Salem and Albany; and William L. Finley, south of Corvallis. The Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge, west of Tualatin, is another option. The valley is the traditional winter ground for the dusky Canada goose, a subspecies of the Canada goose that arrives in the tens of thousands in fall, streaking the sky, feeding in fields, and plying the impound waters. Tundra swans, herons, egrets, ducks, shorebirds, and songbirds likewise visit the refuges.
All in all, the Willamette Valley is a perfect spot to relax, taste the local harvest, and reset your clock. You may just stay awhile.
Armitage Park Campground (Lane County Park)
90064 Coburg Road
Eugene, OR 97408
Champoeg State Heritage Area
7679 Champoeg Road N.E.
St. Paul, OR 97137
(800) 452-5687 (reservations)
Fishermen’s Bend BLM Campground
27300 N. Santiam Highway
Mill City, OR 97360
(877) 444-6777 (reservations)
Silver Falls State Park
20024 Silver Falls Hwy. S.E.
Sublimity, OR 97385
(503) 873-8681, ext. 31
(800) 452-5687 (reservations)
The Blue Ox RV Park, C12365 *
4000 Blue Ox Drive S.E.
Albany, OR 97322
Casey’s Riverside RV Park, C9560 *
46443 Westfir Road
Westfir, OR 97492
Phoenix RV Park, C7818 *
4130 Silverton Road N.E.
Salem, OR 97305
Portland-Woodburn RV Park, C9159 *
115 N. Arney Road
Woodburn, OR 97071
Premier RV Resorts, C8582 *
33022 Van Duyn Road
Eugene, OR 97408
4700 Salem-Dallas Hwy. 22
Salem, OR 97304
River Bend Resort, C11663 *
23650 Peoria Road
Harrisburg, OR 97446
Salem Campground & RVs, C2092 *
3700 Hagers Grove Road S.E.
Salem, OR 97301
Silver Spur RV Park, C10959 *
12622 Silverton Road N.E.
Silverton, OR 97381
Willamette Wine Country RV Park
16205 S.E. Kreder Road
Dayton, OR 97114-7029
* FMCA Member Campground