Highway 18 may be a utility corridor carrying motorists from the mid-Willamette Valley to the Oregon Coast and back, but there are lots of gems to discover, especially if you divert onto Old 18. If you take this less-traveled road, you’ll find, among other things, that the natural resource industry of the old order is holding its place alongside the next-gen resource based industry. Oregon’s agricultural transformation from timber to grape is nowhere more evident than here.
Travelling southwest from Portland, you’ll find Highway18 starting just to the west of Dayton where it diverts from Highway 99W towards McMinnville. Just beyond that intersection you’ll see one of the many vineyards that now populate the northwestern corner of the Willamette Valley.
Your first stop might be an easy choice if you, or someone with you, happens to love airplanes, jets, and the lore of aviation. Hard to miss at about milepost 48 are the huge 747 jet and the Evergreen Aviation Museum, straddled by the Space Museum and Waterpark. You could spend all day here, gawking at the amazing collection of military and general aviation attractions, including the sprawling Spruce Goose, built by Howard Hughes. It only flew once, in 1947, and now rests as the star attraction at the museum. There’s a lot more to see including a B-17, jet fighters, a replica of the Wright Brothers 1903 Flyer, and a whole museum dedicated to space flight.
Just west of the museum around milepost 49, you can choose to stay on the main highway, or take the leisurely route through downtown McMinnville. Merchants have responded to the thriving wine economy with a renovated downtown, dubbed “Oregon’s Favorite Main Street.” Wine bars, coffee shops, wine cellars, fine dining and its farmers market populate the tree-lined venue.
This area is a dense cluster of wineries. There are countless wineries such as Terra Vina, Biggio Hamina and Anne Aime offering tastings of the region’s renown Pinot noir. At about milepost 41, the more leisurely “Old 18” begins on the fine terroir that underlies Yamhill Valley Vineyards.
The ancient Ice Age Missoula Floods—the same event that carved the Columbia Gorge—deposited fine grape growing soil here on perfect south-facing slopes. The “Glacial Erratic Rock” is a monument to this deluge on a slope just west of Yamhill Valley Vineyards. (There’s a sign post on the old highway.) These huge boulders from the Rocky Mountains were deposited by the floods, creating gentle hills, superb soil and now, great Pinot noir.
Established in 1983 on some of those glacially-formed hills, Yamhill Valley Vineyards claims the distinction of being the oldest vineyard in the McMinnville AVA (McMinnville American Viticultural Area). The tasting room is open year-round.
Back on the main highway at about milepost 35 is where the old meets the new. Here, the road less travelled is the Old 18 into Sheridan and Willamina heading out past the agricultural precursors to the wine industry. The wood product industry drives the economy here. Pacific Wood Products, Mid Valley Forest Products, Hampton Lumber Sales and Boise Cascade are the familiar names in these communities. Willamina bills itself as “Timber Town USA”. It’s a bustling small community that reflects the era of Oregon’s once-iconic timber industry.
Back on the main route, you’ll cross the lazy South Yamhill River a few times as you make your way towards the Oregon Coast. These parts are home to the Grande Ronde Native Americans. In the mid-1800s, they were overwhelmed by European-American settlers and fought a long battle to regain their legitimacy in the eyes of the federal government. They won that battle and one symbol of the tribe’s economic recovery is the Spirit Mountain Casino at about milepost 23.
Deep in the Oregon Coast Range, the land rises and timber surrounds. The highway passes through the twelve-mile scenic Van Duzer Corridor, named in honor of the first chairman of the Oregon State Parks Commission. At milepost 9 or so, you can stop at the Henry B. Van Duzer State Park and get a feel for old growth Douglas fir along the banks of the Salmon River here.
You could also stop in at Charlie Knight’s Tackle Box at milepost 6 or so, and hear Charlie tell tales of what it was like in the “old days.” His family pioneered the area back in the 1850s, and he’s seen quite a few changes. After a stint in the world of high finance, Knight returned to his roots and now earns his way as a shopkeeper and wood carver. If you stop in, he is never short of stories about Oregon’s Coast Range and the fall catch on the Salmon River.
The coast isn’t very far away now. You can smell it. The small community of Rose Lodge pops up at about milepost 5, Otis is at milepost 3 and the end of this ride is where Highway 18 meets US101. Lincoln City and the ocean are just a few miles from here and the beginning of another awesome adventure.
WILLAMETTE VALLEY, HIGHWAY 18
WHERE TO STAY
Black Walnut Inn
The Inn at Red Hills
Third Street Flats
The Allison Inn
WHAT TO DO
Evergreen Aviation Museum
Spirit Mountain Casino
McMinnville Farmers’ Market
Van Duzer State Park
WHERE TO DRINK
Yamhill Valley Vineyards
R. Stuart & Co. Wine Bar
The Back Room, Nick’s
Panther Creek Cellars
Grain Station Brew Works
Golden Valley Brewery
WHAT TO EAT
Nick’s Italian Café
Jory at The Allison
Walnut City Kitchen
Red Fox Bakery
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