The heart and the brains of the valley
written by James Sinks
It’s entirely possible that somebody stuffed the ballot box.
Corvallis—the home of Oregon State University, with miles of tree-lined bike and walking paths, a scenic Willamette riverfront, a downtown that’s straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, and smiles on pretty much everybody—was voted the second-friendliest college town in the United States, according to the folks at CollegeDeals.net.
The winner, allegedly? Ithaca, New York. And, well, as anybody who’s tried to drive a car in New York state will tell you, that survey result sort of stretches credulity.
The CollegeDeals folks also include Corvallis in their national ranking of the smartest college towns, thanks to a high rate of locals with degrees. The upshot of it all: The city is livable, nerdy and nice.
How nice? The staff is even uncommonly friendly at the Angry Beaver Grill, according to reviewers online.
The Benton County seat, Corvallis also is routinely but undeservedly overshadowed by other towns, which is nothing particularly new. Born in the 1840s at the confluence of the Willamette and Marys rivers, in what was the historic range of the Central Kalapuya Indians, the farming community was originally dubbed Marysville. But because of feared confusion with Marysville, California, town founder Joseph C. Avery changed the Oregon moniker. The name “Corvallis” combines the Latin words for heart and valley.
Today, the city in the heart of the valley is home to 59,864 friendly people and it attracts thousands more on fall Saturdays when the hometown Beavers play football. The city is also a regular quick pitstop for tourists headed to or from the central coast.
But it doesn’t tend to attract the same hang-around-for-a-few-days tourist buzz as other Willamette Valley communities, even though the place is surrounded by stunning all-weather viewpoints including 4,097-foot Marys Peak, the highest spot in the coast range. From the top on clear days, you can watch the sun disappear over the Pacific, 70 miles away. The waning light show is worthy of the original Kalapuya name for the mountain, Chateemanwi, a “place of spiritual power.”
This time of year, it’s safe to expect snow, so bring snowshoes if you plan to channel your inner Jack Kerouac, who advised wisely that you “won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.”
No matter how you want to remember the trip, Corvallis is waiting to entertain your brain and your taste buds, with outdoor art, booze, boutiques and bookstores, farm-to-table restaurants and nerdy date-night opportunities.
Chances are, it won’t even take an entire weekend to see why everybody keeps smiling.
THE SEA TRAIL • CIDER • SCIENCE
Wintertime temperatures in Corvallis aren’t crazy cold, with daytimes typically in the 40s, but it’s a smart plan to think like a beaver and pack to be warm and waterproof. You’ll definitely want to get outside.
Hikers and mountain bikers welcomed the news in 2021 when, after years of planning and negotiations with private landowners, the 62-mile Corvallis-to-the-Sea Trail officially opened. The route starts at Shawala Point Park in Corvallis and winds west through the Coast Range to Ona Beach near Newport. The hike takes several muddy days, but the first segment will whisk you down 9 miles of paved and gravel paths, and offer a chance to loosen your legs if you brought bikes along with your warm clothes.
If you’d rather trek among trees on foot, several trail options are accessible through Peavy Arboretum, a university forestry study site just north of town. Along some of the well-groomed paths you can soak up knowledge from interpretive signs, unless your partner grimaces when you stop to read them. (Pro tip: Snap photos with your phone so you can read them later.)
Just up the road, you can try to get back into his or her good graces at the sustainable and salmon-safe Airlie Winery. Tucked against a coastal fir forest and with a photo-backdrop-ready pond and dock, the woman-owned and operated winery has racked up awards for its small batch pinots and whites including its popular Seven blend. They also have snacks.
Wine isn’t the only boozy game in town. Dreamed up in 2010 by two (apple) sauced childhood friends, 2 Towns Ciderhouse is based in Corvallis even though the duo-city reference is to both Corvallis and Eugene. One of the partners attended Oregon State; the other went to the University of Oregon.
At the tasting room, your taste buds can explore the core of 2 Towns’ business with craft ciders on tap—Pineapple cider is a mainstay—plus another 14 rotating options from other cideries.
With a little luck, you can also digest some lessons. Check the university calendar to see if there’s a Science Pub happening at a local watering hole during your stay. Past topics include ocean-based energy development, raising Christmas trees, and “Why Scientists and Social Justice Warriors Need Star Trek.” It’s free, but registration is suggested.
From the department of “Why Everybody Needs a Trip to Corvallis,” end the day at SNUGbar, in the basement of Magenta, a downtown Asian Street food restaurant. Under the red-hued lights, check out your date, the eclectic food and dessert selections, and the old vault of the Benton County National Bank, which has been repurposed as a walk-in fridge. The place almost feels like something out of Star Trek, only with curry, coconut creme caramel flan and cosmopolitans.
PHILOMATH • COFFEE ROBOTS • WILDLIFE REFUGE
Philomath College closed almost a century ago, but the community that shared its name has more staying power—and these days, new energy. Five miles from Corvallis, Philomath was long a traditional mill town, but high tech and renewable-focused start-ups are helping to mix things up.
The food scene is also evolving. In addition to burger-type fare, you can now find one of the state’s best gluten-free restaurants, Eats-and-Treats BBQ. In the growing season, there’s organic farm-to-table hotspot Gathering Together Farm.
For breakfast, near the brick former college building (which now houses a history museum), don’t miss The Dizzy Hen and its dynamic menu that includes vegan hash with curried lentil cake, beet omelets, and pork ragu with grits. And drinks.
Afterward, order your Philomath Timber Towne coffee via a delivery robot, which is all the rage in Benton County. Food delivery robots also zigzag the Oregon State campus, and will bring coffee in Adair Village, north of Corvallis. Happily, the robots aren’t planning world domination, at least not yet. We think.
Ten miles to the south is the 5,325-acre William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge, which is free to visit for you, for herds of elk, and for thousands of wintering waterfowl including dusky Canada geese and swans. When created in 1964, the property pieced together several farms, and it remains home to several historic clapboard barns.
Among the trail options is an all-weather, mud-free choice: an accessible boardwalk that snakes a quarter mile over wetlands to a platform that’s perfect for taking flocks of photos of flocks. That’s an appropriate activity seeing as Finley was a photographer as well as a conservationist. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Finley’s nature images helped persuade President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907 to create the first national refuge west of the Mississippi, at Three Arch Rocks on the Oregon coast.
To warm your fingers and liver, cabin-themed Long Timber Brewing Co. in nearby Monroe welcomes you with hot (and cold) drinks and fireplaces inside and out. Opened in 2019 by the owners of the local Hull-Oakes Lumber Co., the brewery celebrates the valley’s logging heritage and is filled with memorabilia such as a 64-foot-long bandsaw blade hanging above the bar. The blade was still in use a month before the restaurant opened, said co-owner Todd Nystrom.
Up a nearby driveway with a white metal goat on a signpost, you’ll find the world’s original goat yoga farm, launched in 2016 by Lainey Morse after a disappointing health diagnosis and a divorce. After a flurry of international attention, she wondered if her No Regrets Farm & Sanctuary would be a passing fad. But the visitors are still coming, and she’s licensed the business brand to farms across the country.
“Once people come, it’s just more meaningful than they anticipated,” she said, walking her six-acre property in the town of Bellfountain. “It’s not a cash cow, and it’s not a petting zoo. It’s a type of therapy.”
On warm days, visitors hang outdoors with the herd for yoga sessions or goat happy hour, where you bring your own beverages and mingle with the star attractions, including black-and-white pygmies Ansel and Adams. When it’s cool and wet, the sessions move to the circa-1890 barn, where it’s not warm but it’s dry, and the signs are validating. Says one: “You’ve goat this.”
Back in Corvallis, if the rooftop deck is open, which typically happens come early spring, grab drinks overlooking the city at Sky High Brewing. Or, for a more formal finale, there’s warm-destination-inspired fare at del Alma Restaurant and Bar, with a menu featuring flavors of the Caribbean, Latin America and Spain, and no robots.
DOWNTOWN • ALLEY ART • BOOKS + BREWS
A meander in downtown Corvallis is like walking in an art gallery. Even the posts along the Second Street sidewalks are a series of flowing bronze sculptures called Waterdance. In the morning, the imagery might help conjure craving for a different satisfying liquid, and happily rich espresso awaits at Tried and True Coffee, one of the many retail and food sellers that are still thriving in the picturesque district.
If it’s the kind of day when you want to break a sweat before breakfast, or if you have energetic kids and they have you climbing the walls, get vertical at Valley Rock Gym, where climbing shoe rentals are free for first-time visitors. They also offer yoga, without goats.
Downtown offers a drove of early dining options whether you’re interested in breakfast, lunch or all of the above. Pick pastries or quiche from the case at New Morning Bakery or fresh sourdough loaves and treats at Wild Yeast Bakery. Ready for lunch? A trip to Corvallis isn’t complete without a slice of pie from American Dream pizza, which even made the itinerary for then-presidential candidate Barack Obama when he was campaigning in 2008.
Stroll the riverfront—or rent a kayak if it’s warm and the Willamette River allows it. Then, you can combine boutique and window shopping with the Alley Art Walking Tour. A guide to downtown murals and whimsical sculptures is downloadable from local nonprofit The Arts Center, which also runs a gallery on Madison Avenue. For art of the edible sort, and your nose will be happy too, step into the charming Burst’s Chocolate shop, a downtown mainstay since 1938.
In 2021, the Benton County Historical Society achieved a long-sought goal with the opening of the Corvallis Museum. For $5 you can prowl the architecturally striking, angular and airy two-floor downtown exhibit hall, with galleries filled with mementoes and potentially-partner-pleasing interpretive signs. The nonprofit also runs the sister museum in Philomath.
Hunting for a final stop that perfectly captures Corvallis’ nerdy and nice vibe? It might be at the unassuming Bière Library, a Belgian downtown restaurant with an exhaustive beer, cider and cocktail list. Amid stacks of books between the tables, the effusive staff will bring you comfort food such as paprika chips, warm Belgian salad with mustard vinaigrette, and an assortment of crepes including one dubbed “Old Man and the Brie.”
While you wait, sip your beverage approvingly with a random book, in the glow of either the faux fireplace in the corner or the neon “#NerdAlert” sign on the wall.
American Dream Pizza
Del Alma Restaurant and Bar
Long Timber Brewing Co.
Oregon State robots
Sky High Brewing
Tried & True Coffee
Courtyard by Marriott Corvallis
2 Towns Ciderhouse
Alley Art Walk
Corvallis Science Pub
No Regrets Farm & Sanctuary
Valley Rock Gym
William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge