Add Some Magic to Your Willamette Valley Forest Ornament Hunt

By Matt Wastradowski
Hikers looking around
Hikers in the Willamette National Forest

This year, many of you will head into the Willamette and Umpqua national forests to take part in one of the region’s best-loved traditions: the annual Willamette Valley Forest Ornament Contest! 

Two hundred Willamette Valley-themed tree ornaments—crafted by Portland’s 20 Leagues—have been placed on trails throughout four ranger districts in both national forests. Through January 1, hikers can find these ornaments and enter to win one of several prizes—including an overnight getaway in the Willamette Valley. (Learn more about the Willamette Valley Forest Ornament Contest here.)

If you’re joining this beloved tradition in 2021, we wanted to offer a few ideas for adding a touch of magic to your adventure. Here you’ll find ideas for other recreation opportunities in each of the region’s four ranger districts, along with where to eat, drink, and stay the night. With this helpful guide, we hope you come back with memories that last a lifetime—in addition to a prize-winning ornament, of course.

Finding Ornaments in the Willamette National Forest’s Sweet Home Ranger District

The Sweet Home Ranger District sits in the heart of the Willamette National Forest and is home to four seasons of fun—from wildflower hikes in spring to snowshoe outings in winter; in between, summertime swimming holes and challenging mountain bike trails draw outdoor enthusiasts from all walks of life.

We love the Sweet Home Ranger District for its ties to regional history—from hosting a historic ranch (where a herd of elk spend time in winter) to showcasing the Santiam Wagon Road (which once brought settlers into the Willamette Valley). 

Enjoy three miles of hiking trails, bridges, and viewpoints at McDowell Creek Falls in the Sweet Home Ranger District
What to do:

We know you’re spending time outdoors for the ornament contest—but, trust us, you’ll want to give yourself a little more time to explore McDowell Creek Falls. Three miles of hiking trails, bridges, and viewpoints showcase the creek, lush forest, and thundering waterfall at the heart of the park—one of the most photographed natural attractions anywhere in the Willamette Valley.

Where to eat and drink:

The Point Restaurant dishes a wide range of comfort fare—soups, salads, sandwiches, burgers, pasta, steaks, seafood, and more—making it a reliable choice for groups with a wide range of tastes. The eatery prides itself on using fresh ingredients (sourced from Oregon producers whenever possible), cutting its steaks by hand, and purchasing its burgers from nearby Miner Ranch. Whatever you do, be sure to save room for pie; the local favorite is made in-house, using recipes that have been passed down over generations.

Where to stay:

Up for an overnight outing in a quaint home that dates back to the 1940s? Foster Lake Inn & Vacation Lodge offers an escape from the hustle and bustle near the shores of scenic Foster Lake—delivering a relaxing experience. Amenities include free Wi-Fi, a coffee pot, and (in the Master Suite) a Jacuzzi tub; away from the rooms, the fun includes a comfortable common area, a small bar area and stools, and a dining table that seats up to six.

Finding Ornaments in the Willamette National Forest’s Middle Fork Ranger District

At the southern edge of the Willamette Forest sits the scenic Middle Fork Ranger District. In warmer months, the district (most easily accessed via Highway 58 from Eugene) is noted for its resplendent lakes (including Waldo Lake), mountain biking trails, and hiking opportunities. 

But even in winter, visitors find plenty to love in the old-growth forest’s lower elevations—including covered bridges and the bubbling North Fork Middle Fork Willamette River (say that five times fast!). Here’s how to make the most of your time in the area. 

What to do:
Grab a pint at 3 Legged Crane Pub and Brewhouse in Oakridge, photo courtesy of Melanie Griffin at Eugene, Cascades and Coast

Make a quick side trip to the Salt Creek Falls Observation Site and Picnic Area—which offers dramatic views of the second-tallest single-drop waterfall in Oregon. Salt Creek Falls cascades more than 275 feet, and a viewing platform offers an Instagram-worthy vantage point. The adjacent Salt Creek Sno-Park makes a fine trailhead for cross-country skiing and snowshoe paths—and also hosts a family-friendly snow play area. Whatever your preferred activity, check conditions before heading out—whether to ensure the waterfall viewpoint is accessible or to see that snowfall is heavy enough for the sno-park to open. 

The Westfir Lodge and Mountain Market, photo courtesy of Melanie Griffin at Eugene, Cascades and Coast
Where to eat and drink:

Nothing beats a filling meal and cold beer after a day in the woods—and you’ll find both at the 3 Legged Crane Pub and Brewhouse in the heart of Oakridge. The wood-paneled pub specializes in cask ales, which go through secondary fermentation in a cask and are slightly warmer, yet fuller than their kegged counterparts. As far as food goes, the fish-and-chips are a pub favorite.

Where to stay:

The Westfir Lodge and Mountain Market sit in the heart of the district, surrounded on all sides by rolling hillsides and towering forests. The lodge hosts eight well-appointed guest rooms; the Mountain Market dishes house-made pierogi, deli sandwiches, and cold beer; and the on-site Cascades Outdoor Center offers four seasons of outdoor fun—including guided hikes and snowshoe trips in winter.

Finding Ornaments in the Willamette National Forest’s McKenzie River Ranger District

The McKenzie River Ranger District of the Willamette National Forest hosts some of Oregon’s most beloved sights—from the thundering Sahalie and Koosah Falls (open year-round) to the Dee Wright Observatory (a stone structure, open June-October, that affords views of more than a dozen peaks).

Naturally, we were excited to hang ornaments along some of the ranger district’s most popular trails—including the path to Sahalie and Koosah Falls, as well as the stunningly blue Tamolitch Falls (Blue Pool). So if you’re heading into the heart of the Cascade Range, here are a few of our favorite places to explore. 

What to do:

If you’re not quite ready to sit down with dinner or check into your room quite yet, work a trip to the appropriately named Clear Lake into your day. The dramatic body of water sits surrounded by forests, lava flows, and—on a clear day—Cascade peak views; enjoy the view with a picnic lunch near the shore, or enjoy a 5.3-mile hike around the lake. If the sun is out, there are few more crystal-clear bodies of water anywhere in Oregon—and almost none as accessible.

Where to eat and drink:
Belknap Hot Springs, photo courtesy of Melanie Griffin at Eugene, Cascades and Coast

In the community of Blue River, Takoda’s Rainbow offers a variety of filling comfort food dishes; hungry diners will find plenty of sandwiches, wraps, burgers, pizza, meat dishes, down-home dinner specials, and more. Nearby, the McKenzie Station Pub serves a variety of fresh-ground burgers, hearty sandwiches, and a wide range of Pacific Northwest-inspired entrees (from grilled salmon to house-smoked tri-tip).

Where to stay:

Is there anything better than winding down in a hot spring pool after a day outdoors? We think not—so we’d recommend a night or two at Belknap Hot Springs, which hosts a pair of piping-hot pools and offers overnight accommodations along the McKenzie River. One of the pools is open to overnight guests only, creating a quieter experience, and the overnight offerings include lodge rooms and cozy cabins. 

Finding Ornaments in the Umpqua National Forest

The Umpqua National Forest’s Cottage Grove Ranger District is the northernmost of the forest’s regions, sitting at the southern edge of the Willamette Valley. This regal forest has long enchanted hikers, campers, anglers, and other outdoor enthusiasts with thick forests, crystal-clear waterways, and a quiet break from the region’s busiest destinations. Even in winter, the foothills of the Cascade Range offer much to explore; in fact, if you’re lucky, you’ll find  an ornament along a pair of trails about 40 minutes southeast of Cottage Grove.

So as you explore less-traveled trails around the southern edge of the Willamette Valley, here’s a look at how to make the most of your time.

What to do:

Cottage Grove is known as the “Covered Bridge Capital of the West”—so make time to explore the historic structures on your way in or out of town. In all, six bridges reside within an easy drive of town—including the oldest in Lane County and the only remaining covered railroad bridge west of the Mississippi River.

Don’t skip Creswell Bakery for plenty of earned pastries after your hike. Photo courtesy of Melanie Griffin at Eugene, Cascades and Coast
Where to eat and drink:

The regionally famous Creswell Bakery prides itself on crafting bread, pastry doughs, and more from scratch—so pick up a cinnamon roll, sandwich, or handheld pie for the road. And on your way home, unwind over upscale comfort food from Jack Sprats in Cottage Grove; the downtown eatery’s pub grub menu includes creative salads, filling burgers, popular sandwiches, and more—with vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free options available.

Where to stay:

The newly remodeled Cottage Grove Inn offers a wide range of rooms and suites—all featuring comfortable beds, outdoors-inspired artwork, large televisions, and more. Some even come with in-room Jacuzzis—the perfect way to rest up after a day in the woods.