A first-timer's guide to the Willamette Valley, Oregon


If you’re not from Oregon and the Willamette Valley rings a bell, chances are you may know a bit about wine.

Stretching from just south of Portland clear down to just south of Eugene, this region has been known as a hub for wine tourism for decades. While plenty of people travel to the Willamette Valley specifically to go wine tasting, this lush region offers so much more, from easy-to-reach hiking trails to quirky attractions sure to keep kids and grown-ups amused in equal measure.

To help you plan your time and budget your trip, here’s our guide to everything you need to know about the Willamette Valley.

Willamette Valley is a year-round destination © LeslieBrienza / Getty Images

When should I go to the Willamette Valley?

The Willamette Valley really shines during the summer months, when long, hot days give way to light-sweater weather at night. This is the time of year when festivals abound and sun-starved Oregonians come out in droves, eager to take advantage of the gorgeous – but fleeting – good weather of July and August. If you’re coming for wine tasting, summer is a particularly fantastic time to be in the area, when grapes are on the vine and Willamette Valley wineries open up their view-blessed terraces.

However, Willamette Valley truly is a year-round destination. Fall is a beautiful time to visit, when area orchards and wineries are busy with the harvest. The Thanksgiving weekend is bustling in the northern part of the valley, when area wineries coordinate special events and releases. Winter slows things down a bit, with many wineries closing for the season, but you won’t have to compete much to secure a hotel reservation. Snowfall is rare, and when it does come down it’s typically only for a couple of days in the height of winter. The spring brings with it a mix of rain and sunshine, which results in vibrant rainbows and colorful blooms.

Want to explore more of Oregon? Here’s our seasonal guide

How much time should I spend in the Willamette Valley?

Many people visit the region on a day trip from Portland, and it’s easy enough to hit up a few wineries and spend time taking in pastoral views along the way in just one day. Just make sure you go with a guide or have a designated driver.

However, with two or three days in the Willamette Valley, you’ll be able to do some hiking or wine tasting and take in a few area attractions, without feeling rushed. The region is somewhat spread out, so it’s often easiest to just concentrate on one area at a time.

Pick the right route for you with our guide to hiking in Oregon

Is it easy to get in and around the Willamette Valley?

Yes, it’s easy to get to the Willamette Valley, and getting around isn’t a problem as long as you have a car. The closest major airport is in Portland (PDX), but you can also fly into Eugene (EUG) in the southern part of the valley. It just tends to be a bit more expensive to get to (and you’ll likely end up with a layover in Portland anyway. Amtrak trains also service the Willamette Valley area, with stations in Portland, Salem, Albany, and Eugene. No matter how you get to the area, you’ll need a car (or a bicycle, if you’re a hardcore cyclist) to get around, as public transportation is lacking once you get outside of larger cities such as Eugene.

A cascading waterfall plunges into a pool. People on the hiking trail behind it are like tiny specks in comparison
Head to Silver State Falls to follow a hiking route that takes you to 10 waterfalls © John Elk / Getty Images

What are the best things to do in the Willamette Valley?

1. Go wine tasing

If there’s one thing the Willamette Valley is known for, it’s wine tasting. Pinot in particular takes center stage here, and the city of McMinnville – one of the region’s main hubs for wine lovers – hosts an annual International Pinot Noir Celebration every summer. Other big wine destinations include Carlton, Newberg, Yamhill and Dundee, all within day-tripping distance of Portland.

2. Hike at least one of Oregon’s top trails

Of course, you don’t have to imbibe to have fun in the Willamette Valley. The region is perfect for hiking (this is Oregon, after all), with loads of popular hikes. If you can only choose one, make it the Trail of Ten Falls in Silver Falls State Park. As the name suggests, this 7.2-mile loop trail takes you past (and, in some cases, behind) a total of 10 gorgeous waterfalls. For a shorter, accessible alternative, opt for a walk along the mile-long North Rim Trail, which leads to a viewpoint overlooking towering North Falls.

3. Learn about psychiatry and mental health

Perhaps the most undeservedly overlooked attraction in the Willamette Valley is Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health housed in the stately Oregon State Hospital, a psychiatric hospital dating to the Victorian era. Through a few rooms of interactive exhibits, the museum tells the story of psychiatry, and of the historic hospital itself. There’s also an exhibit about the film rendition of Oregon author Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which was filmed at the hospital in 1975.

4. Explore the whimsy of local theme parks

Not far from Salem, the Enchanted Forest, a delightfully peculiar amusement park just off Interstate 5. While the rides aren’t anything special, the Enchanted Forest’s Storybook Lane, with its giant recreations of scenes from Humpty Dumpty and Alice in Wonderland, and it’s ever-so quaint “Old European Village” strike the perfect balance between weird and whimsical. If that sounds right up your alley, you may want to consider a visit to the Albany Historic Carousel & Museum, which features a lovingly restored vintage carousel and a museum full of merry-go-round ephemera.

Adults and children sit under a colorful tie-dyed canopy watching a musician perform on a sunny day
Oregon Country Fair is a wonderful family-friendly music and arts festival held each summer © Bob Pool / Shutterstock 

My favorite thing to do in the Willamette Valley

Every summer, a patch of marshy forest on the outskirts of Veneta, not far from Eugene, is transformed into a magical wonderland, where vaudeville entertainers on stilts parade alongside puppets the height of small houses and hundreds of artists from across the Pacific Northwest descend for a weekend to sell their handmade delights. It’s called the Oregon Country Fair, but despite its folksy name, this arts and entertainment festival feels more like a living time capsule of the flower power era. 

Over the course of this three-day celebration, which has been running annually since 1969, you can indulge in food from around the world, shop for crafts ranging from kaleidoscopes to — fittingly — tie-dye t-shirts, and check out a jampacked schedule of live music performances across 17 stages. There’s even a massive sauna. What you won’t find is advertising, mass-produced soft drinks, or alcohol. Because while there’s plenty for adults, especially if you’re into food and music, Fair (as it’s affectionately known) is especially delightful for little ones. I should know: I first attended when I was 6 or 7 years old and still remember the thrill of wandering through the event with a pipe-cleaner tiara on my head and a sparkly unicorn painted on my face.

How much money do I need to visit the Willamette Valley?

Accommodation costs vary widely in the Willamette Valley and the amount you’ll need to budget depends largely on whether you’re checking out urban areas or dedicating your trip to fine wine and haute cuisine. Here’s what to expect:

  • Basic chain hotel room for two: $120­–180
  • Room in a winery bed and breakfast: $250–500
  • Wine tasting for two: $40
  • Coffee: $3
  • Glass of wine: $8­­–15
  • Sandwich or burrito: $10
  • Dinner for two at an upscale restaurant: $80–200

How much should I tip?

Although people working in the service industry in Oregon earn at least minimum wage, tipping 20% is customary at restaurants and wineries. Bring cash to tip hotel housekeeping — aim for at least $5 per day.

Traveling to Oregon on a budget? Plan your finances with our money-saving tips

What should I pack?  

Rain is a possibility no matter when you visit the Willamette Valley, so it’s smart to pack a water-resistant jacket and shoes that can withstand a bit of rain. Most Oregonians are proud owners of waterproof jackets with hoods, so you won’t see umbrellas here too much. However, plenty of people do use them (including — contrary to popular belief — born-and-raised Oregonians) so it’s never a bad idea to pack one if you don’t own good rain gear.

Do Willamette Valley wineries have dress codes?

No, Willamette Valley wineries don’t typically have address codes. In fact, one of the region’s biggest plusses for many visitors is that it’s way less formal than other wine-producing areas. People might dress up a little for an afternoon of wine tasting, but you’re more likely to see sneakers than heels in Willamette Valley tasting rooms. So dress comfortably. As long as you don’t roll up in a bikini or a burlap sack, nobody will bat an eye at your outfit.



Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top