Traveling the Willamette Valley’s Back Roads in Northwest Oregon
Making the trip, one milkshake at a time
By Danielle Centoni
September 18, 2018
When people think of Willamette Valley, they think of wine—and with good reason. The 150-mile-long region is home to more than 500 wineries producing dozens of varietals, most famously Pinot Noir. But for me, any visit to the Willamette Valley starts with a very different kind of purple drink: a thick, whipped-cream-topped marionberry milkshake.
It’s my family’s tradition to take the back roads for the hour-long trip into the valley from Portland, stopping at Smith Berry Barn on the way. The farm stand is well away from the main highway, requiring a stop-and-go slog on Oregon’s State Route 210 through the city of Beaverton. But it’s absolutely worth it. All of a sudden, the road transforms from a suburban thoroughfare into a bucolic country lane winding past century-old farmhouses shaded by old, exquisitely gnarled oak trees. As the beauty unfolds, the stress of the city falls away, and when the big red barn emerges from around the bend, I swear, my heart skips a beat.
Milkshakes at cute farm stands are just one of the many fringe benefits of taking the slow roads through the Willamette Valley. These two-lane asphalt ribbons are a destination all their own, meandering up and down rolling hills, bringing you to award-winning wineries, yes, but also U-pick farms and quaint small towns, with gorgeous pastoral views along the way.
Visit downtown Carlton’s cute stores and many tasting rooms. Photograph by Vinbound Marketing.
As I ogle the farm stand’s cute home goods, my husband pays for our shakes and a pint of berries to snack on in the car. If we had extra time, we’d go to nearby Mountainside Lavender Farm for lavender honey and a peek at the alpacas. But we’re anxious to get to Newberg, one of the valley’s northernmost small towns, just a pretty 20-minute drive along SR 219.
Once we hit town, we make a beeline for Storrs Smokehouse, where we grab sandwiches of tender, slow-smoked brisket on ciabatta, and pulled pork on brioche. Then, we wander down the street to Chehalem Winery’s tasting room to try its acclaimed single-vineyard Pinot Noirs.
After browsing the shops on the main drag, we venture on to McMinnville, less than 20 miles away, heading out on SR 240, rather than busy State Route 99 West. The smooth-as-silk road is picturesquely nestled between the Chehalem Mountains and the Dundee Hills, and gently unfurls past lush green pastures, grand hilltop farmhouses, and signs pointing the way to iconic wineries such as Adelsheim, Penner-Ash and ROCO (from sparkling-wine pioneer Rollin Soles).
At the fork in the road, we head south on NE Kuehne Road to the tiny, postcard-cute town of Carlton. With 22 tasting rooms, Carlton has the most such rooms per capita of any city in the U.S. It also has an abundance of picturesque old barns and historic buildings, friendly locals, cool murals, old-fashioned inns and boutiques devoted to all things made by hand—think jewelry (Farmhouse Romance), art (Wallow Gallery), chocolate (Honest Chocolates) and even artisan jam (Republic of Jam).
We’re tempted to stop in at year-old Carlton & Coast Tavern for one of the 31 microbrews on tap and street tacos, but The Atticus Hotel in McMinnville awaits. Opened this spring, the full-service boutique hotel is perfectly situated just steps from both the city’s historic Third Street shops and the new Granary District artisan enclave, with its tasting rooms, breweries and shops. The most luxe option for miles, the hotel is also the one that most fervently celebrates this old farming town. Everything has been made locally whenever possible, from the warm walnut trim and plush sofas to the custom-scented soap.
Smash burgers (single, veggie and double) and a Jabroni from Bless Your Heart Burgers. Photograph by Alan Weiner Photography.
We drop our bags and hit the balcony to discuss dinner. McMinnville has perhaps the best dining scene in the area, making it very hard to decide. The venerable Nick’s for Italian? Spanish at La Rambla? Or upscale plates at The Barberry? We’re so smitten with the hotel, we don’t want to leave, so we head downstairs to Bless Your Heart Burgers, the new outpost of chef John Gorham’s original joint in Portland.
After tucking into juicy smashed burgers, slushy Negronis and “Down n Dirty” fries, topped with grilled onions, peppers and mushrooms and drizzled with beer cheese sauce, we walk off our meal, peeking into storefronts and taking mental notes for the next day.
We’ll stop at Flag & Wire Coffee for house-roasted espresso, then grab a breakfast sandwich or hash at Community Plate, before heading south to sip the exceptional Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs at Bethel Heights near Salem. Of course, we’ve plotted out a circuitous route to get there. If we travel down SR 18 before cutting across on the “Bellevue Highway,” we’ll hit three farm stands: Farmer John’s, Bernard’s and Blue Raeven, which sell fruit, jams, nuts, pies, and even chocolates made by the Brigittine monks nearby. The only problem? Two of the three have fresh berry shakes. If I manage to save any room for wine, it’ll be a miracle.
Corral Creek vineyards, which supplies grapes for Chehalem Winery. Photograph by Andrea Johnson Photography.
Portland is about a three-hour drive south from Seattle; and Newberg, one of the northernmost points in the Willamette Valley, is about a 45-minute (24-mile) drive farther to the southwest.
Scenic Drive Staff Favorites
“My favorite scenic drives are always going down the Oregon coast. Lots of places to stop, but also a lot of gorgeous views!” Gina Mills assistant art director
Visitors are invited to take the self-guided Art Harvest Studio Tour (artharveststudiotour.org) of some 30 artist studios located throughout Yamhill County—including in the towns of McMinnville, Carlton and Newberg—on October 5–7 and 12–14.
Where to stay
Atticus Hotel, McMinnville, 375 NE Ford St.; 503.472.1975;
Where to eat & taste
Adelsheim Vineyard, Newberg, 16800 NE Calkins Lane; 503.538.3652
The Barberry, McMinnville, 645 NE Third St., No. 100; 503.857.0457
Bethel Heights Vineyard, Salem, 6060 Bethel Heights Road NW; 503.581.2262
Bless Your Heart Burgers, McMinnville, 530 NE Fourth St.; 503.883.9160
Chehalem Winery tasting room, Newberg, 106 S Center St.; 503.538.4700
Nick’s Italian Café, McMinnville, 521 NE Third St.; 503.434.471;
La Rambla, McMinnville, 238 NE Third St.; 503.435.2126;
ROCO Winery, Newberg, 13260 NE Red Hills Road; 503.538.7625;
Storrs Smokehouse, Newberg, 310 E First St.; 503.538.8080;
What to do
Bernards Farm, McMinnville,18755 SW State Route 18; 503.472.4933
Blue Raeven Farmstand, Amity, 20650 State Route 99W; 503.835.0740
Farmer John’s Produce and Nursery, McMinnville, 15000 SW Oldsville Road; 503.474.3514; Facebook, “Farmer John’s Produce & Nursery”
Farmhouse Romance Boutique, Carlton, 128-B W Main St.; 503.894.5631
Granary District, McMinnville, East Alpine Street (between Fifth and Eighth); 503.386.1298
Honest Chocolates, Carlton, 217 E Main St.; 503.852.0097
Mountainside Lavender Farm, Hillsboro, 17805 SW Hillsboro Hwy.; 503.936.6744
Republic of Jam, Carlton, 211 W Main St.; 503.395.5261
Smith Berry Barn, Hillsboro, 24500 SW Scholls Ferry Road; 503.628.2172
Wallow Gallery, Carlton, 125 W Main St.; 503.785.9951