Ornament Hunting in the Willamette National Forest’s Detroit Ranger District

By Matt Wastradowski

Due to wildfire damage, the Detroit Ranger District was unable to take part in our Willamette Valley Ornament Contest. But this fall and winter, ornaments will be hidden on trails throughout the recovering ranger district in the Willamette National Forest. (Wondering what a ranger district is? It’s more or less a designated geographic region within a larger national forest; in this case, the Detroit Ranger District sits at the northern edge of the Willamette National Forest, mostly along the Santiam Canyon in the West Cascades, and is bisected by Highway 22.)

So if you want to find an ornament in the Detroit Ranger District, we’ve compiled a guide that encourages you to linger a little longer, support local businesses, and revel in the region’s regrowth.

What to Know About the Willamette Valley Ornament Contest

Trail difficulty

We’ve hidden trails on wheelchair-accessible trails, family-friendly footpaths, and strenuous hikes all over the Willamette Valley. Please check to make sure your chosen trail is suitable for your experience level and abilities; if it sounds easier or tougher than you’d like, we have another 20 or so trails you can choose from throughout the Willamette and Umpqua national forests.

Weather forecasts

Snow isn’t unheard of in late November and December throughout the West Cascades. Before setting out, check the latest forecast via the National Weather Service, and keep updated on road conditions through the Oregon Department of Transportation’s TripCheck website (which features traffic webcams, road closures, and alerts on an easy-to-use map). Bonus points for calling the Cottage Grove Ranger District a day or two before leaving—just to make sure your chosen trail is passable and in good condition.

One ornament per household

We hate to be a wet blanket, especially because we understand the joyous moment that comes with finding ornaments along your chosen trail. But please only take one ornament per household so other families can enjoy the same thrill. Every ornament on a given trail features the same design, so you’re not missing much by grabbing just one.

Where to Eat, Drink & Stay Around the Detroit Ranger District

Is there anything more magical than a winter weekend in the woods? We think not, which is why we’ve rounded up some popular eateries and lodging locations in case you’d like to extend your ornament search into an overnight or weekend-long outing.

Just remember that restaurants in the Detroit Lake area may keep reduced hours (sometimes on weekends only) in winter—or close for the season. We’ve done our best to recommend eateries that should be open when you arrive, but please double-check before visiting. If your desired eateries are closed, you might be able to grab provisions at Mountain High Grocery.

Breitenbush Hot Springs

Rest, relaxation, and soul-enriching experiences are the hallmarks of a stay at Breitenbush Hot Springs, which hosts a variety of lodging options (including a Forest Shelter, made of stone and wood, and a yurt that's heated by geothermal power) at its off-the-grid resort. Stays include full access to the resort's hot springs and three vegetarian meals per day; also note that Breitenbush promotes itself as a "digital detox" destination with no cell service or internet access.

Snow blankets the trees and banks on both sides of a stream near Detroit Lake.

Detroit Lake State Recreation Area

Near the edge of Detroit, The Lodge at Detroit Lake hosts a handful of vintage-inspired, well-kept rooms that sleep up to four and include kitchenettes, 42" flat-screen televisions, hot water, comfortable beds, and Wi-Fi. If you own an RV, take advantage of the 107 full-hookup sites at Detroit Lake State Recreation Area; the campground sits in a forest near the shore of its namesake lake and affords outstanding views of Mount Jefferson—as well as flush toilets and hot showers.

Mill City Grill

Filling portions and popular meat-and-potato dishes dominate the menu at the friendly Mill City Grill. Breakfast classics are served all day, while lunch and dinner selections include sandwiches, burgers, and beloved dinner entrées—steaks, pork chops, pot roast, and more.

Connor's BBQ at Detroit Lake

Like much of the Detroit area, Connor's BBQ at Detroit Lake was forced to close by the 2020 wildfires. The restaurant is back, however, and is making up for lost time with an extensive menu that includes hickory-smoked chicken and ribs, pulled pork, pizza, charbroiled burgers, street tacos, and other filling favorites.

Photo by Fatima Akram, Unsplash

Giovanni's Mountain Pizza

Perhaps the best-loved pies in the Santiam Canyon are dished at Giovanni's Mountain Pizza, less than a half-hour west of Detroit in the community of Mill City. Pizzas are piled high with all your favorite toppings; choose among popular combinations, or build your own. Calzones, spaghetti, and sub sandwiches round out the menu.

Where to Play Around the Detroit Ranger District

Detroit Lake and the broader Santiam Canyon are popular summertime destinations—but slow considerably in winter. Take advantage of the quiet season with hot spring soaks, scenic drives, and more.

Breitenbush Hot Springs

If the thought of an overnight digital detox gives you pause, why not spend a few hours in the soaking pools at Breitenbush Hot Springs, open to the general public from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.? Day passes are available for a fee and include access to the resort's many experiences. Just note that clothing is optional in soaking areas.

Drive (some of) the West Cascades Scenic Byway:

One of the most scenic drives in the Detroit area is the West Cascades Scenic Byway, a 220-mile route that runs north-south as it skirts the western slopes of the Cascade Range. Excellent views of crystal-clear rivers, snow-capped mountains, wildlife, and more abound around seemingly every bend in the highway. Detroit sits near the middle of the byway, making it an excellent home base for a day trip in the woods.

Cut your own Christmas tree

Once you’ve found your ornament, find a good home for it by harvesting your own Christmas tree in the Willamette National Forest. Our helpful guide offers tips for planning your trip, acquiring a permit, and having fun while seeking out the perfect tree.

A man and a dog stand in a snowy forest with a Christmas tree permit in the foreground of the image.