Top Sights and Tastes of Oregon’s Willamette Valley
Home to more than 500 wineries, the Willamette Valley has always been a destination for wine connoisseurs, but the area is revered for more than its pinot. With a hilly landscape that borders the Cascades and an abundance of esteemed restaurants, Oregon’s renowned wine country is spreading its wings and building a bold, new reputation. Spanning 150 miles through the Pacific Northwest, the Willamette Valley deserves more than just a day trip. Whether you’re looking to bike through wine country, experience the local culinary delights or traverse the Cascades by foot, the Willamette region has plenty for a multi-day getaway.
It’s no secret that Willamette Valley’s vineyards are an attraction in themselves. Visitors flock from out of state — and out of the country — just to tour the vineyards and sample the complex flavors of Willamette-grown pinot.
There are a number of ways to experience this famous wine region, particularly for those who are looking for a unique experience. Abandon your car for a few hours in exchange for one of the area’s alternative means of transportation, whether it be by train, bike or horseback. With a light rail and transit buses operating throughout McMinnville and Yamhill County, a simple map is all you need to get around.
For the more adventurous crowd, Equestrian Wine Tours offers guided wine tasting on horseback, as well as horse-drawn carriage rides through the countryside. Active travelers can rent bikes at Tommy’s Bicycle Shop in Yamhill Country and forge their own itinerary or join a group excursion through Lifecycle Adventures (pictured above) For a more relaxed experience, join one of the many wine tour operators based out of Portland, such as Grape Escape Winery Tours or EcoTours of Oregon.
For outdoor enthusiasts favoring epic views over tasty pours, there are plenty of options to get outside and explore. Just outside of Salem, Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge is a great spot for bird watching while the Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge is home to more than 2,700 acres of observation areas and exhibits. About 23 miles east of Salem, Silver Falls State Park (pictured above) is a must for visitors who want to explore the foothills of the Cascades. Just south of Silver Falls is Shellburg Falls Trailhead – an easy 3-mile roundtrip full of cattle pastures and scenic waterfalls. If you thought the views couldn’t get any better, join one of the Willamette Valley hot air balloon tours with Vista Balloon Adventures for a chance to see volcanoes, the Willamette River and more from above. In the warmer months — or when the weather behaves — the coastal crowd can head west to Pacific City for some beachcombing and longboard surfing. Home to Cape Kiwanda and Sand Lake Recreation Area, there’s plenty to keep you busy, whether its exploring tide pools by foot or speeding along the coastline on an ATV. If you have some spare time, travel down the Three Capes Scenic Loop for some of the most unrivaled views the Oregon coast has to offer. In the winter months, Willamette Pass Resort and Hoodoo Ski Area offer downhill skiing, snowboarding, Nordic skiing and terrain parks for travelers and locals looking to spend time in the snow. Hoodoo’s Autobahn Tubing park is another thrilling option for families and adventure seekers alike.
It’s true — nothing complements quality wine as much as delicious, local bounty. With a number of award-winning restaurants, wineries that offer full-service dining experiences and a handful of culinary festivals, there’s no place to eat like in the Willamette Valley.
Gathering Together Farm just West of Corvallis is a farm-to-table restaurant serving Northwest-style cuisine inspired by French and Italian traditions. The ever-changing menu and on-site farm are great for those who would like a walking tour of the farm before dinner. The Joel Palmer House (pictured above) in Dayton is another great option, known for its extensive selection of wild mushrooms, while the Marche restaurant in downtown Eugene serves great farm-inspired cuisine by award-winning chef Stephanie Pearl Kimmel.
For a truly exclusive experience, have dinner at one the wineries themselves. Terra Vina Wines in Wilsonville and Willamette Valley Vineyards in Turner both have full-service restaurants with menus that showcase the local bounty and complement the individual wines.
If you’d like to get behind the scenes, the Oregon Truffle Festival and Corvallis Culinary Week take place each winter, offering an inside look at the region’s diverse food scene. Whether it’s sampling a chef’s platter from participating restaurants or attending workshops on mushroom foraging, your taste buds are sure to have a party. Aspiring chefs also can take classes at Willamette Valley Kitchen Co. — a local kitchen store and cooking school that offers a wide array of classes throughout the year.
–Written by Maggy Lehmicke, last updated in September 2022.