Are you visiting the Willamette Valley for the first time? Below is a list of “Insider Tips” for things to see and do in Oregon Wine Country.
When I want to escape the crowds/tourists, my favorite place to visit is the Willamette National Forest. Home to thousands of miles of trails and designated wilderness areas, it’s the best place to get in touch with nature and the unspoiled beauty of Oregon.
If this is a romantic trip, I recommend a vineyard for kissing with a view. Oregon has got lots of beautiful ones, but here are seven in particular with some of wine country’s prettiest views.
The best place to walk the dog is Minto Brown Island Park in Salem. Minto-Brown is more than 1,200 acres of natural area and trails along the Willamette River, including a 30-acre off-leash dog area.
Museums are wonderful, but if you are traveling with kids, you’ll want to visit The Wings + Waves Waterpark in McMinnville. This air and space themed waterpark lets visitors rush through a three-story waterslide that starts on the rooftop in a real Boeing 747 jumbo-jet and twists its way to a splash finish at the bottom.
Food of Oregon’s Willamette Valley
If you are looking for typical Willamette Valley cuisine, I recommend Frankie’s Restaurant in Albany, where Chef Cody Utzman reimagines old favorites with a focus on farm-to-table dining. You can get great steaks, seafood, burgers and pasta, all of it sourced locally and paired with local beers, wine, and craft cocktails. www.frankies-oregon.com
The best place to go for coffee & a breakfast treat is The Broken Yolk in Corvallis, a quirky café just blocks from the Willamette River, where you can get a great breakfast with farm-fresh eggs and homemade strawberry jam. www.broken-yolk.com If you dare, the cinnamon rolls are delicious!
Looking for cheap food in the Willamette Valley? Go to American Dream Pizza in Corvallis for absolutely delicious pizza by the slice or the whole pie. Pair it with a local beer and you’ll be in heaven.
For an expensive, yet quality meal, go to The Joel Palmer House, where the focus is on Oregon wine and local ingredients, especially wild-foraged mushrooms and truffles. (The family behind Joel Palmer House, the Czarneckis, are renowned for their expertise in all things mushroom- and truffle-centric, and are also the producers of Oregon Truffle Oil Co.) The Joel Palmer House was named the Oregon Restaurant of the Year in the Oregon Wine A-list competition for its devotion to Oregon wine and food pairings.
Seeing a lot of farms? The Willamette Valley is known for being the most fertile spot in the state. To the pioneers who trekked the Oregon Trail in the 1840s and 50s, it was known as the Promised Land—a place where anything and everything would grow. Today you’ll still find country roads dotted with farmstands and lined with berry fields, hop farms, hazelnut orchards and vineyards. You can pick your own produce, eat at a catered dinner in the fields, or tour a farm loop. Visit the Oregon Wine Country website for a few of my favorite stops.
When you come to the Willamette Valley, get your picture taken in front of the Oregon State Capitol. The public gardens are lined with cherry trees and roses, and you can get a shot of the majestic capitol building—bonus points if you get a selfie with the famous Golden Pioneer on top of the capitol dome.
The best vantage points are taken by walking to the top of the Dundee Hills. These famously fertile hills in the northwest corner of the Willamette Valley are the birthplace of Oregon Pinot noir, and they’re also incredibly gorgeous. Try Winter’s Hill Vineyard for a Dundee Hills spot that also has a walking trail on the estate. http://wintershillwine.com. My sorority sister Elizabeth Chambers makes some great pinot wines at http://www.elizabethchamberscellar.com/ (Tell her Nancy sent you!)
McMenamin’s Hotel Oregon in downtown McMinnville offers great views and is the best place to experience the UFO Festival. Sip one of their handcrafted ales on the rooftop bar and look out over the valley all the way to the Coast Range. In the spring, the hotel is the center for all things extra-terrestrial—the annual UFO Festival celebrates McMinnville’s claim to fame as site of one of the most credible UFO sightings ever. From an extra-terrestrial parade to nationally-known speakers, the festival is serious fun for true believers and skeptics alike.
In the Willamette Valley outdoor lovers will want to go wine-tasting by horseback with Equestrian Wine Tours in the Dundee Hills. Cycle the Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway, a route that takes cyclists past vineyards, hop farms, and historic towns. Canoe or kayak the Willamette Water Trail, a beautiful flatwater paddling route or hike the Trail of Ten Falls at Silver Falls State Park, a stunning hike that takes you over, under and behind 10 waterfalls.
Looking for a little exercise? Ride the Ruth Bascom Trail, one of Eugene’s premier trails by the Willamette River. This easy ride stretches for 12 miles along the river and leads riders through a handful of popular parks. Stop for a beer at Falling Sky Brewing after your bike ride.
After a day of adventure, The Allison Inn and Spa is the best place to go for a spa treatment.
The Allison Inn & Spa has been consistently recognized as the best hotel in Oregon and one of the best in the country. Relax in the award-winning spa with treatments inspired by the surrounding wine country.
In the spring you should attend the Wooden Shoe Tulip Festival. Every year during March and April, visitors can stroll through 40 acres of gorgeous tulips, with view of Mt. Hood in the distance.
In the summer you should attend the International Pinot Noir Festival. This celebration of the Willamette Valley’s signature varietal is an unforgettable weekend of wine and food, held in the heart of the Willamette Valley.
Come to The Oregon Truffle Festival in the winter. The Oregon Truffle Festival is an annual celebration of Oregon’s native wild truffles featuring foraging excursions, truffle dog training seminars, cooking classes, and food and wine pairing dinners. It’s the ultimate experience for foodies, and it happens each year in January, when Oregon’s moist, temperate climate creates the perfect conditions for wild truffles.
Insider Tip: Check out the often over-looked Albany Historic Carousel & Museum in downtown Albany. The Albany Carousel is one part museum, one part art studio, and one hundred percent magical. Dedicated volunteers are hand-carving and painting 52 incredibly-detailed carousel animals that are destined to populate a historic carousel mechanism. Visitors to the studio can chat with the carvers and artists as they use old-world methods to bring the menagerie of animals to life, and also admire historic carousel creatures dating back to the 1880s. www.albanycarousel.com For additional insider tips follow @Nancydbrown on Twitter and @oregonwinetrav.
I’ll bet you didn’t know that the Willamette Valley grows 99% of the U.S. hazelnut crop. Stop at Dorris Ranch outside Eugene, site of the first commercial hazelnut orchard—now a living history museum.
Midway between Albany and Eugene you can visit the tiny town of Brownsville, Oregon—filming site of the movie “Stand By Me,” and visit filming locations from the movie. After you’re done, have lunch at Kirk’s Ferry—a neighborhood pub built on the site of a trading post dating to the 1840s.
If You Go
I took a week and drove from San Francisco, California to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. To learn more about Oregon’s Wine Country visit http://www.oregonwinecountry.org. I was a guest of Willamette Valley Oregon Wine Country while researching additional travel stories. Article and photos are my own, as are my opinions.