Finding small-town charm
Stretching from the Coastal Range into parts of the Cascade Mountains and covering nearly 50 miles of I-5, the Salem, Oregon, area has dozens of award-winning wineries, countless waterfall hikes and numerous must-visit historical sites. Towns like Aurora, Independence and Detroit are well-known in this area, but there are a handful of smaller towns you may have never heard of but need to visit.
The Mid-Willamette Valley is situated in one of the richest agricultural areas in the country, and Brooks, Oregon, is no exception.
Stop and smell the peonies each spring at Brooks Gardens Peonies. Explore three acres of iris gardens or wander into the peony fields, where more than 300 varieties of peonies bloom.
Go apple picking at Beilke Family Farm from August to November. The nine-acre, u-pick orchard features 15 varieties of apples throughout the season.
Wander through fifteen different museums at Powerland Heritage Park from April to September. From a functional blacksmith shop to large steam engines and classic cars, the museums feature a diverse collection of antique machinery and demonstrate life during Oregon’s formative years.
Distance from downtown Salem: 9 miles
Butteville and St. Paul
The town of St. Paul, Oregon, comes alive each summer for its nationally known rodeo. But the town of just under 400 people, as well as the bordering town of Butteville, Oregon, also offers breathtaking gardens, award-winning wines and some of the state’s most prominent historical locations.
Champoeg State Heritage Area is popular for its access to the scenic Willamette River, year-round camping in its yurts, cabins and tent areas and family-friendly hiking trails. In 1843, French Prairie settlers met at the park to vote on what resulted in the formation of the state’s first provisional government – making Oregon the first state on the West Coast and earning the park a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
Newell Pioneer Village, located within Champoeg State Heritage Area, offers tours of four historic buildings, including the home of famous pioneer Robert Newell. The tours are available on weekends in the spring, summer and fall. Head to Butteville Store, considered to be the oldest continuously-operated store in the state, to catch live music or treat yourself to a hand-dipped ice cream cone.
Adjacent from the park sits the gorgeous farmlands and tasting room of Lady Hill Winery. The winery is a nod to the family’s long lineage of female family members, who have farmed the property since the 1850s.
A visit to the area would not be complete without stopping by a local farm stand or garden. In the spring, the Cecil & Molly Smith Garden flourishes with more than 600 varieties of rhododendrons and azaleas complemented by trees, shrubs and wildflowers. French Prairie Gardens is a one-stop-shop for seasonal produce, fresh-baked treats, flowers and agritourism events throughout most of the year.
Distance from downtown Salem: 22 miles
Falls City, Oregon, is home to less than 1,000 people and several hidden gems.
Falls City Falls, the waterfall the town is named after, is located directly outside of the town center on the Little Luckiamute River. From the parking lot, a short walk will take you to a view of the falls.
Mountain biking enthusiasts will want to visit Black Rock. This world-class mountain biking area is divided into six trails, rated according to skill set. Additionally, there is a skills development area that has wooden skinnies, ladders and jumps.
Fuel up afterwards at The Bread Board, an artisan bakery known for its handmade bread (made in the largest wood-fired bread oven in the state) and thin crust pizzas. The bakery is open on select Fridays and Saturdays throughout the year.
Distance from downtown Salem: 25 miles
Gates, Mill City and Niagara
Right off Highway 22, the small towns of Mill City, Gates and Niagara are great stops on your way to Detroit Lake or over the mountains.
Set up camp at Fishermen’s Bend Recreation Site in Mill City. The full-service campground, offering tent camping, cabin rentals and RV hookups, sits on a 170-acre forested park along the North Santiam River with opportunities for kayaking, swimming, fishing and hiking.
Enjoy a downriver scenic float or whitewater trip out of Mill City with eNRG Kayaking. Founded by extreme kayak champion Sam Drevo, eNRG is one of the top paddling schools in the Northwest.
Built in 1888, the Southern Pacific Railroad moved Mill City’s historic railroad bridge to its current location in 1919. Now serving as a bike and pedestrian bridge, it is the last remaining Phoenix Column Bridge in the state.
Spanning across 34 acres, Niagara Park is known for its scenic beauty and historic location. In the late 1880s, construction of a masonry dam began at the park before being halted in 1912. Across from the park, you’ll find the Niagara Water Wheel – a popular roadside attraction.
If you’re hungry, grab a bite to eat at Giovanni’s Mountain Pizza, Rosie’s Mountain Coffee House or Poppa Al’s Famous Hamburgers – all local favorites.
Distance from downtown Salem: 32 miles
Enjoy a day at the farm, see the largest black cottonwood tree in the country or catch a ferry ride across the river in Gervais, Oregon.
Bauman’s Farm and Garden started as a small, family farm in 1895. Since then, the farm has become a go-to spot for fresh fruits and vegetables year-round. Visit the farm each fall to attend one of the area’s largest harvest festivals.
Bird watch along the Willamette River, take a horse or bicycle to the trails, cast a line off the fishing dock or enjoy the scenery while kicking back under the nation’s largest black cottonwood tree at Willamette Mission State Park. You may also spot the Willamette Mission ghost structure, a monument of the first organized religious enterprise in the state.
Just outside of the park, you’ll find the Wheatland Ferry. One of three ferries still operating on the Willamette River, the ferry transports pedestrians, bicycles and vehicles across the river year-round.
Distance from downtown Salem: 14 miles
Nestled outside of the Coastal Range is Grand Ronde, Oregon. Twenty-six Tribes and Bands, now known as the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, were relocated to the reservation in the 1850s.
Learn the story, history and culture of the Tribes at the Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center. Continue your walk through history at Fort Yamhill State Heritage Area, one of the best archaeologically preserved 19th century forts in the Northwest. The spirit of the Tribe comes alive each summer at Grand Ronde’s annual Contest Pow Wow, one of the largest in the Pacific Northwest.
Operated by the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, Spirit Mountain Casino has a Las Vegas-style casino, an impressive lineup of live entertainment and several gourmet dining experiences. Continue your stay at Spirit Mountain Lodge, which boasts a variety of accommodations.
Distance from downtown Salem: 32 miles
Jefferson and Turner
Separated by about 10 miles, Jefferson and Turner, Oregon, are two small communities that pack a big punch.
From the interstate, you’ll see Willamette Valley Vineyards and St. Innocent Winery. Perhaps one of the most well-known wineries in the valley, Willamette Valley Vineyards offers spectacular vineyard views, private winery suites, first-class wines and a food pairings menu. Down the road is St. Innocent Winery’s brand-new estate, Enchanted Way Vineyards. The nearly 48-acre property is planted with acres of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and heirloom apple trees, with an onsite tasting room.
Discover the world of Alice in Wonderland, step back in time to Old Europe or join in on an Irish jig at Enchanted Forest, an amusement park guaranteed to be unlike any other park you’ve been to. Open on select dates in the spring and summer, the park has rides, live entertainment and shopping.
Immerse yourself in nature at Frey’s Dahlias or Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge. From late summer to early fall, wonder the fields of Frey’s Dahlias that are abloom with dozens of varieties. At nearly 2,800 acres, Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge has abundant opportunities for hiking, wildlife viewing and nature photography.
Settle in for a peaceful stay at Londin Gardens Bed and Breakfast. The two-bedroom suite comes complete with a fitness room, private kitchenette and spacious backyard with a gazebo, firepit and gardens.
Distance from downtown Salem: 9 miles
Surrounded by dozens of wineries, Rickreall, Oregon, sits in close proximity to both the Eola-Amity Hills AVA and the newly-created Van Duzer Corridor AVA.
Attend Polk County’s oldest and largest flea market on the first Sunday of every month at the Polk County Fairgrounds. View a large collection of artifacts from the 19th and 20th centuries at the Polk County Museum. Continue your tour of the museum by learning what it was like to live and work on a farm in the 1800s at the Brunk Farmstead, a two-story farm house with furnishings from that era.
Distance from downtown Salem: 13 miles
Perched on a hilltop overlooking the Bavarian-inspired town of Mt. Angel, the pristine grounds of Mount Angel Abbey encompasses the town of Saint Benedict.
Home to a Benedictine monastery, guests are welcome to take a self-guided walking tour, pray with the monks, visit a free natural history museum, peruse the library’s rare book collection or grab a coffee at the gift shop.
Following a 1,500-year-old monastic tradition, the monks of Mount Angel also brew and sell artisanal beer at their onsite Benedictine Brewery and St. Michael Taproom. It is one of just three monastic breweries in the United States, using hops grown on Abbey land and water from the monks’ well.
Distance from downtown Salem: 20 miles
Although situated just 35 minutes northeast of downtown Salem, Scotts Mills isn’t a town that’s easy to stumble upon.
Set along Butte Creek, the Scotts Mills area abounds with lesser-known waterfall hikes. A one-mile trail weaving through Douglas-fir and hemlock trees will lead hikers to Upper and Lower Butte Creek Falls. Less than four miles away is the trailhead to Abiqua Falls, a 92-foot waterfall surrounded by a spectacular basalt amphitheater.
Continue your adrenaline rush at Camp Dakota, a 45-acre forested campground and adventure park. Adults and older children can partake in the camp’s zip lines, paintball and high ropes challenge course, while younger children enjoy activities such as treasure hunting and craft projects. Stay overnight in a yurt, canvas tent or teepee, or bring your own RV or tent.
Unwind with a glass of wine at Abiqua Wind Vineyard. Part of the northern Willamette Valley’s Cascade foothills, the family-owned vineyard was planted in the 1970s. Visit the winery during Memorial Day or Thanksgiving weekends or schedule a private tasting throughout the year to try the winery’s Pinot Noir, Muscat or Gewürztraminer.
Distance from downtown Salem: 22 miles
Stayton and Sublimity
Walk through a covered bridge, catch a movie at an old theater or indulge in a pastry at the local bakery in the neighboring towns of Stayton and Sublimity, Oregon.
When visiting Stayton, the Jordan Bridge, a replica of the original 1937 covered bridge, is a must-see. Make a day out of it by taking a bicycle tour of several covered bridges in the area.
Stayton has plenty of space for outdoor recreation among its 125 acres of parks. Play a round of disc golf at Pioneer Park or bring your four-legged family members to enjoy the community dog park.
Afterwards, take the entire family to catch a show at Star Cinema. Dating back to 1949, the theater shows recent films at an affordable price.
In Sublimity, you’ll want to make sure you visit Panezanellie Breadstick Shoppe. The bakery is known for its daily assortment of pastries, scones and sweet treats, as well as its overstuffed breadsticks and pizza pies.
Distance from downtown Salem: 15 miles
Nicknamed “TimberTown U.S.A.,” Willamina, Oregon, is historically known for its timber products, brick production and farming. But the town also has a thriving cultural scene, with a passion for the arts and preserving history.
Built at the turn of the century, the Wildwood Hotel is a great place to grab a bite to eat, enjoy live music or hang your hat at the end of the night. The hotel has six different rooms, with a shared kitchen and great room, and a hostel. Dine at the attached restaurant and catch a live performance from talented acts performing a variety of music.
In one of the oldest buildings in town, you’ll find Willamina Museum. The museum tells the town’s storied past through artifacts and exhibits. The Galloping Goose, a 1923 train car that used to run between Willamina and Grand Ronde, is still on display downtown. A short walk outside of the town center will take you to Willamina Cemetery, a pioneer cemetery.
For nature lovers, Willamina also offers Hampton Park. It’s a scenic spot for bird watching, exercising at the park’s wellness stations and non-motorized boating, but the park’s crown jewel is Huddleston Pond, a popular fishing hole complete with an ADA dock.
Distance from downtown Salem: 28 miles
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