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Adventure in History on Two Scenic Willamette Valley Byways

By Jen Sotolongo

The Willamette Valley features some of the most scenic and historic spots in Oregon. Whether you enjoy multi-sport adventures or stepping back in time, the West Cascades and Over the River and through the Woods Scenic Byways make for enchanting road trips and will undoubtedly lead you down an exciting path.

West Cascade Scenic Byway

Follow the Cascade Mountains past several of Oregon's most breathtaking rivers on the West Cascade Scenic Byway. With options for water sports, hiking, trail running, fly fishing, and mountain biking, this 220-mile road trip will whet any adventure-seeker's appetite.

Starting in Estacada (just outside the Portland metro area), the trip begins on OR-224 alongside the emerald waters of the Clackamas River, a designated Wild and Scenic River.

Famed for whitewater kayaking and fly fishing, hikers or trail runners can also opt for exploring the Clackamas River Trail (and finding a swimming hole in which to cool off on a hot summer day). Several campgrounds line the road, providing a quiet place to stay the night. (Be sure to check with the Mt. Hood National Forest about possible camping restrictions and campground closures that may be in effect.)

Just past the Ripplebrook Ranger Station, the byway continues along FR-46, passing several alpine lakes located in the shadows of Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson. Toward the end of the road, you'll come upon Breitenbush Hot Springs, where you can opt for a soak at the natural hot springs resort or stretch your legs on the 2.5-mile South Breitenbush National Recreation Trail. Just keep in mind that reservations are always required at Breitenbush.

The end of the road pops out at Detroit Lake, a popular recreation spot for boaters and anglers. Stay the night at the Detroit Lake State Recreation Area to catch Mt. Jefferson reflected in the lake at sunset. (Just be sure to check the official Detroit Lake State Recreation Area website for the latest on possible restrictions and closures.) From there, continue east along OR-22, keeping an eye out for views of Mt. Jefferson, Three-Fingered Jack, and Mt. Washington.

At the junction with OR-126, head south toward the beautiful McKenzie River, also a designated Wild and Scenic River. Be sure to take the time for a quick hike, and view Sahalie Falls and the sapphire blue waters of Tamolitch Pool. End the day with a relaxing stay at Belknap Hot Springs, where you can camp or sleep in the lodge.

The last stretch follows FR-19 to the town of Westfir. Also known as Aufderheide Drive, a popular route for road cyclists, this leg follows the Wild and Scenic West Fork Willamette River as it winds through a canyon. Stop for a photo op at the Office Covered Bridge, Oregon's longest at 180 feet. If you're still pining for adventure, continue on to nearby Oakridge for some of the state's best mountain biking trails.

Over the River and Through the Woods Scenic Byway

Starting in the fertile lands of the Willamette Valley, this scenic byway passes some of Oregon's oldest towns and through five unique ecosystems. Great any time of year, you can play in the rivers and camp during the summer months or bring the snow gear during the winter.

The 66-mile Over the River and Through the Woods Scenic Byway starts in Brownsville, the state's third-oldest settlement. Famed for serving as a filming location for the movie Stand by Me, Brownsville managed to preserve its historic structures. Walking down Main Street is like stepping a century back in time. During the winter months, keep an eye out for the tundra swans and bald eagles that winter in the grassy fields just outside of town. Don't miss the Crawfordsville Covered Bridge, built in 1932, in the nearby town of the same name.

The massive trees in the Cascade foothills attracted loggers to the town of Sweet Home in the 1950s. Pop into the East Linn Museum to learn more about the region's logging history.

The byway continues east onto Highway 20, where you'll happen up on Foster Reservoir, a popular spot for anglers in search of trout and kokanee salmon. Below the dam, fishing enthusiasts can try for spring chinook and summer steelhead. Plan to stay the night at Cascadia State Park, complete with shaded campsites, access to swimming holes, and home to the Cascadia Caves, one of the oldest known archaeological sites on the West Coast. (Keep in mind that you may encounter camping or day-use restrictions at Cascadia State Park; check with Oregon State Parks before visiting for the latest information on Cascadia State Park.)

From Cascadia, the route parallels the South Santiam River and climbs up Tombstone Pass. This section largely follows the route of the Historic Santiam Wagon Road, which led settlers from the Willamette Valley to the pasturelands of Central Oregon and onto the gold mines in Eastern Oregon and Idaho. The road is also notably famous for being part of the first transcontinental auto race in 1905, which took racers from New York City to Portland.

The final section of the byway ventures past the Menagerie Wilderness, a popular area for rock climbers, thanks to the unique rock spires that jut out from the ground. A few nearby trails will take you through old growth forests, which includes trees over 500 years old. As you reach Route 126, you can continue on the Scenic Byway tour by following the McKenzie-Santiam Pass or the West Cascades National Scenic Byway described above.

Your adventure begins with the official Willamette Valley Travel Guide. Request your complimentary printed guide or download a digital guide today.

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