Over the River, Through the Woods, to the Pacific Ocean

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written by Peter Murphy photos by Eugene Pavlov


Nestled in the western slopes of the Cascades, Highway 20 emerges from the Willamette National Forest like a serpentine asphalt stream leading up to Cascadia, where American Indian lore takes the form of petroglyphs at the Cascadia Cave in Cascadia State Park. This road trip to the Oregon Coast is as much about the journey as the destination.

The Molalla and Santiam Kalapuya traveled here as many as 8,000 years ago, and left their mark at the cave. Today, time has taken its toll on the site, but it remains an interesting destination. White settlers found this trail and used it extensively, eventually transforming it into the Santiam Wagon Road and subsequently the eastern leg of Highway 20.

Traveling west on Highway 20, part of which is the “Over the River and Through the Woods” Scenic Byway, you’ll find an array of Oregon communities that rely on the state’s natural resources to draw visitors and locals.

It was the “Steelhead Strength and Fitness” center that caught my attention in Sweet Home. The $9 haircut shop, Rio Theatre and the “Don’t Tread On Me” flag told me more about this town. Sweet Home has been on the front line of natural resource issues for generations. Wood products mills are chief among them.

Farther downhill, you’ll motor beyond the Happy Acres Horse and Pony Farm, past the Straw Palace, which, of course, stores stacks of bales. Then there are a couple of Linn County Parks that signal your arrival in Lebanon, a small city that harkens back to the past.

The next few miles carry you across acres of green shoots. The waves of green morph into gold as the seasons change. Often, you’ll see sheep feeding in the pastoral areas. Grasses, grains and livestock grow profusely in the rich soil of the Willamette Valley, with much of its bounty finding its way into dining rooms (and bars) across Oregon. These lands provide the majority of the grains for the Oregon craft brew industry.

Crossing over the interstate and across the river leads you into the industrial and commercial center of the Willamette Valley—Albany. The Kalapuya tribes were the first to settle here, where the river by their name and the Willamette River meet. The European settlers came in the 1840s. Albany solidified its place as a trading post with the arrival of the railroad and remains a busy commercial center for farmers, growers and ranchers.

Highway 20 follows the Willamette River here and into Corvallis. This town has long prospered from Oregon State University, a land grant college.

To the west, the highway changes character, but the story remains natural resources: timber, wood products, fishing and camping. The highway cuts near the Siuslaw National Forest, across two Coast Range passes and along Marys River and Little Elk Creek. There are a few campgrounds along the highway, and even more as you head inland uphill and into the trees.

“Life along the highway is like a step back in time,” observed Randy Quetschke, owner of the nearby historic Burnt Woods Store. The Burnt Woods Store itself dates back to the 1920s.

History along Highway 20 in the Coast Range points to some bleak times, though. The Chitwood Bridge is a standing memorial to the vibrant logging industry that once was an economic engine. Before the demise of the old-growth logging industry, Chitwood had a town store, post office, homes, the dance hall and more. Little, beyond the bridge, is left.

The railroad tracks that run parallel to the highway through the Coast Range carries products along this route that terminates in Toledo, on the shore of upper Yaquina Bay. Like many of the towns along this stretch of Highway 20, this was and remains tied to natural resources.

The Oregon Coast is the westernmost point on Highway 20. Any farther and you’ll need a dory or a stand-up paddleboard for transportation. As the largest port on the central coast, Newport has a special character. Just ask the folks at Rogue Ales and Spirits, who founded their craft brewery here to match the blue collar nature of the bayfront. Newport, with its diversity of seafarers, artisans and scientists is a perfect location for the upstart craft brewery. “We Oregonians are by definition rogue,” said Rogue Ales president Brett Joyce. At its facility, there are more than forty varieties of brews from which to choose as you gaze out over Yaquina Bay.

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