During college I spent my summers working in a factory in Salem, Oregon, canning beets and green beans. The money was good and the union hours great: I got off work at 3 pm and had afternoons free. After cleaning up, I’d borrow my Mom’s metallic-red Pontiac Grand Prix and go for a drive. After college, I moved away permanently, but those summer afternoons spent exploring the lush farmlands and quaint towns of the Willamette Valley remain among my fondest memories.
The Willamette (“wi-LA-met”) Valley is loosely defined as the broad plain surrounding the Willamette River in western Oregon. It stretches from Portland 150 miles south to Eugene and is 60 miles wide, bounded by mountain ranges on either side: the snow-covered peaks of the Cascades on the east (including the not-so-dormant volcano Mt. Hood), and the Coast Range on the west.
Formed by floodwaters as the last Ice Age receded, it has rich soil and a mild climate, and so was favored by farmers and settlers who began arriving via the Oregon Trail in 1845.
For more than a century, the valley remained primarily an agricultural and logging area.
Today, vineyards and Christmas tree farms have replaced many of the fields of lettuce and beans, but the valley remains picturesque. Roadside stands sell flowers and fresh produce. Small towns have refocused, many now geared toward visitors and the arts, their historic buildings and homes discovered anew.
The best way to explore is to rent a car in Portland and head south along I-5. A good first stop is the charming 19th-century commune of Aurora; take Exit 278. Founded as an agricultural and social commune, it's now just a friendly tourist town, with antiques shops lining its main street, along with cafes and a museum.
Exploring the Surrounding Areas
A little farther south, pull off at Woodburn, a historic farming town where you can arrange a hot-air balloon ride (pacificpeaksballoons.com). If you time your visit in the spring, don't miss the Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm and its acres of bright blooms. (The tulip festival runs from the end of March until the first of May: woodenshoe.com.) South along Route 214 you'll find the hamlet of Mt. Angel, with its beautiful Mt. Angel Abbey founded by Benedictine monks more than a century ago. (If it's October, join their lively annual Oktoberfest: oktoberfest.org.)
A bit to the east lies Silverton, an old logging town with charming neighborhoods of well-tended period homes. Coolidge Street has a nice collection of bungalows. Don't miss Frank Lloyd Wright's Gordon House (thegordonhouse.org), a Usonian example that was moved to its current site next to the Oregon Garden in 2002. With over 20 specialty gardens to study and enjoy, that's worth a stop too (oregongarden.org). Maybe you'll choose to spend the night in their rustic (but upscale) lodge (moonstonehotels.com/oregongarden-resort.htm).
A short drive west on Highway 213 brings you to Salem, the capital of Oregon. The city has a vibrant, historic downtown. Check out the Reed Opera House, now filled with specialty shops, and the nearby 1926 Elsinore Theatre, whose magnificent Tudor-Gothic interior was recently restored. Just south of downtown, drive through Fairmont Hills, a neighborhood of tree-lined boulevards and early-20th-century homes. Get the best steak in town at The Best Little Road House (bestlittleroadhouse.com). Also worth touring is the marble State Capitol built in 1938, with murals in its Rotunda.
Thirty miles south of Salem on I-5 is Albany, a well-preserved community of more than 700 historic homes and buildings. Their annual house tour, on the last weekend in July, is great, but so is a stroll around the neighborhoods. I especially like the Monteith Historic District, which has a good selection of Craftsman and Victorian-period houses (albanyhistorictours.zoomshare.com).
Ten miles farther south, Corvallis is home to Oregon State University. Take time to see the campus, which boasts historic buildings of the early 20th century and more than 3,000 trees. A drive 45 minutes south brings you to Eugene, the second largest city in Oregon. Home of the University of Oregon, it prides itself on its countercultural atmosphere (Ken Kesey had a big influence here). Stroll around downtown and have an organic lunch, perhaps at the deli at Sundance Natural Foods (sundancenaturalfoods.com). Then take a drive through the College Hill neighborhood on the southern edge of downtown; many of its historic houses are on National Register.
On the return drive, take Route 99 West for a scenic alternative; it winds through rolling farmland and fields of hops back north to Portland. There are more than 30 wineries in the area; find a handy locater map at willamettewines.com. Aviation buffs will want to check out Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose, housed in The Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, just south of Portland (sprucegoose.org). Here I always take a short detour to the tiny town of Amity, where I can't resist the fudge at the Brigittine Monks' monastery (brigittine.org).
I recommend taking a long weekend for the trip. Don't forget an umbrella, even in the summer!