US Road Trip: Oregon

Did you miss the San Francisco hippy scene in the 1960s? If you want to experience what the alternative lifestyle is about then you can still head up the US West Coast to northern Oregon state. The main city of Portland deserves to be covered separately. It’s a river city that has a very pleasant community atmosphere and is regarded as the most bicycle-friendly city in the USA. The surrounds could easily fill a month of holidays.

Mt Hood
The main freeway from Los Angeles, California to Vancouver, Canada is the I-5. Through the windscreen a series of snow-capped volcanic cones appear as distance markers. The largest in Northern Oregon is Mt Hood (3429m). It’s worth turning towards it, not least because it becomes more imposing as you draw close – and you get very close indeed.

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Drive towards the incredible Mt Hood

Right at the base of the ski slopes of the mountain at 1800 metres stands the legendary Timberline Lodge. It featured in Stanley Kubrick’s classic film The Shining and dates back to a make-work project during the depression with heavy rough-hewn furniture throughout. It’s just one of Oregon’s special places to stay. Besides offering ski in/ski out throughout an extended season it’s also the perfect base for hikes in the surrounding National Park.

Columbia River
From Mt Hood it’s only an hour’s drive down to the town of Hood River on the Columbia River, one of America’s main waterways. Our goal was a further 30 minutes upstream. The Dalles has the atmosphere of a frontier town and that was enhanced by the paddlewheeler the American Empress being tied up at the town dock. We only needed the theme from Maverick or Show Boat playing.

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The grand 'American Empress'

The Columbia River was the last stage of the Oregon Trail, the route American settlers made their way across the ranges to the coast. It’s a wide, navigable river that has carved out a magnificent valley best seen from a riverboat. A quick look over the impressive four-deck vessel revealed that it provides an atmosphere of elegance for its voyages along the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Like the American Queen her Mississippi sister ship, the Empress can be booked here.

Willamette Valley’s Hidden Wonders
For decades only aviation enthusiasts recalled the 8-engine Spruce Goose, the largest aircraft ever built, that was the brainchild of reclusive tycoon Howard Hughes. It only ever made one short test flight in 1947 then was kept in storage by Hughes till his death in 1976.

The Spruce Goose is now on display in a giant hangar at the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville. The adjoining waterpark uses a 747 as a waterslide. A number of once top-secret military aircraft and the space museum within the complex certainly require more than a few hours to see.

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The mighty Spruce Goose on display at the Evergreen Aviation Museum

For most of North America, however, Willamette Valley means Oregon’s wine industry and organic farm produce. While the latter may be of little use to the traveller (though the cherries in season are well worth seeking out) the wines are very good. In fact the whole state is a drinker’s delight with around 450 wineries and over 200 craft breweries

If retro appeals to you it’s worth seeking out the Vintages Trailer Resort. Staying in a caravan park – or RV park in American parlance – may not be on your plans but the Vintages may change your mind. It has 16 vintage caravans including the remarkable polished-aluminium Airstreams dating from 1947 to 1965. All have been connected to plumbing so you have a private bathroom with toilet.

Stepping into our Airstream we found it had a lava lamp and a record player with just three records: Johnny Cash, Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead. After we took the supplied bicycles for a neighbourhood spin and then cooked dinner on our George Foreman BBQ it was time to settle back and simply appreciate the macramé curtains and our private wifi network from the comfort of our queen-sized bed. 

Oregon Coast
Most driving itineraries up the Oregon Coast allow for a stopover at Cannon Beach. That’s logical because it’s a typical US seaside resort with lots of quaint white houses and cute guest houses plus a lolly shop that Willy Wonka could only fantasise about. All its taffy and chocolates are made on site – as they have been for generations – including a sea foam, sea salt, chocolate honeycomb that lives in my memory.

We stayed in the Cannon Beach Hotel and slept in a four-poster bed. Our bathroom had both a clawfoot bathtub and a waterfall shower. It was like a slice of the Hamptons shipped to the other side of the continent. Everything was perfect – except for one small detail.

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Take a stroll along Cannon Beach

Our hotel boasted that it was only a short walk to Haystack Rock and the beach. It was. And the beach was beautiful, with happy couples and families sunbathing. However, as we approached the water’s edge it was like walking towards an open fridge. The blast of cold air was only exceeded by the frostbite induced by the first waves to hit our feet. Much of the West Coast is lapped by currents that flow down from Alaska so even when the air temperature is in the mid 30s the water temperature is struggling into double digits.

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Enjoy the beautiful views of Indian Beach

We went for a coast hike instead, walking through the giant Douglas fir trees of Ecola State Park down to Indian Beach. The scenery throughout was awe inspiring.

Astoria
If you are driving up the Oregon Coast it’s tempting to cut inland towards Portland before you reach the mouth of the Columbia River at Astoria, an historic fishing port. That would be a mistake because Astoria is one of the most beguiling towns in the USA. But you’ll only discover that if you stop and explore – from the main road it looks like every other town.

We stayed at the Cannery Pier Hotel, almost underneath the huge Astoria Megler Bridge that links the town with Washington State on the other side of the mighty river. As we arrived at the front desk they asked if we’d like to relax first and joint in the free drinks for happy hour. Several Oregon wines later we were very relaxed, had checked in and walked into town along the riverside boardwalk. We had to walk past a couple of elderly drunks sharing a bottle in a paper bag. One asked us “are you having a good evening?” and when I replied with trepidation that we were he replied “me too. Namaste.” The charming Nepalese greeting took us both by surprise.

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Stroll into town along the boardwalk

The dinner menu at the Astoria Coffee House and Bistro reveled in the area’s local seafood. While the ceviche was just okay a tuna poke with sashimi tuna, mango and avocado was outstanding. The cioppino, a sort of bouillabaisse, with Dunganess crab, mussels, prawns and salmon cooked with thyme, basil and fire-roasted tomatoes was wonderfully memorable. We were starting to accept that Astoria isn’t typical small-town America.

As we roamed the small town centre after dinner we passed the Sweet Relief Marijuana Dispensary before discovering that most shops in town sold either antiques and bric a brac or locally produced artworks. Another couple who were window shopping were two men in their 60s unselfconsciously holding hands.

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Sit back and relax at one of Oregon's beautiful wineries

The following morning we went to the top of the mountain to visit the frieze-laden Astoria column. It appears to have been built in 1926 with the express purpose of inducing heart attacks for those who elect to climb the 164-step circular staircase to the summit viewing platform. It’s Astoria so it has to be quirky: the shop downstairs sells pre-made paper planes to throw off and watch as they catch the wind swirling around the summit.

Astoria was once a rough fishing community. Now it’s perhaps the most beguiling regional artistic community I’ve ever found.

But that’s rather like Oregon itself. It’s a green state with a very strong sense of community. It rewards leisurely exploration.

Have you ever done a road trip through the USA? Let us know below.