Ornament Hunting in Willamette National Forest’s Sweet Home Ranger District

By Matt Wastradowski

This Nov. 25th – Dec. 31st we welcome the early excitement of winter during the Willamette Valley Ornament Contest. This year, ornaments have been placed along hiking trails throughout the Sweet Home area, which is bisected by Highway 20 and can be reached from the communities of Albany, Lebanon, and Sweet Home in the heart of the Willamette Valley.

So as you make plans to get outdoors, enjoy a bit of solitude, and look for an ornament this season, we’ve put together a guide to local lodgings, restaurants, and fun activities for extending your stay and making the most of your time.That’s when you’ll have your chance to find ornaments along beloved trails in the Sweet Home Ranger District in the Willamette National Forest. (And if you’re wondering just what a ranger district is, think of it as a geographic region within a larger area; in this case, the Sweet Home Ranger District sits near the northern edge of the Willamette National Forest—just south of Detroit Lake, north of the McKenzie River corridor, and east of Albany.)

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 and Stay Around the Sweet Home Ranger District

Hungry after a long day of searching for an ornament? We don’t blame you. You’ll find plenty of excellent restaurants spanning a variety of cuisines in Sweet Home and Albany. You’ll also find a mix of motels, RV parks, and campgrounds with year-round cabins along Highway 20 en route to the Sweet Home Ranger District.

River Bend County Park

The newest addition to the Linn County Park System sits in the midst of a regal fir forest on the banks of the South Santiam River; in addition to tent and RV sites (some of which are closed in winter), the park hosts four cabins, as well as three yurts (some a short walk from the parking area). The lodgings at River Bend County Park come with heaters, power, and beds for a comfortable stay in all seasons; the cabins even offer riverside views.

Foster Lake RV Resort

Just across Highway 20 from its namesake reservoir, Foster Lake RV Resort hosts year-round offerings that include log cabins (with electric heaters) and fully furnished suites adorned with Western-inspired bric-a-brac.

The teal waters Foster Lake flow beneath banks that are heavily wooded with evergreen trees.

Foster Lake Inn & Vacation Lodge

Stay in a 1940s-era historical home just across Highway 20 from Foster Lake. Home to a handful of themed rooms, Foster Lake Inn & Vacation Lodge offers private bathrooms, Wi-Fi, a common seating area, and more.

The Point Restaurant and Lounge

Everyone in your group will find something to love at The Point Restaurant and Lounge, which dishes sandwiches, burgers, comfort food fare, pasta, steaks, seafood, and a full breakfast menu. Ingredients are sourced from Oregon growers and producers whenever possible, adding a touch of freshness to every meal.

Dos Mundos

Casa De Reyes

Enjoy your favorite family-style Mexican dishes at Casa De Reyes. The eatery's menu includes tostadas, burritos, flautas, and a few less-common dishes (like molcajete—a Mexican stew crafted with fresh vegetables).

Brick & Mortar Cafe

Albany may sit an hour or more west of some trails within the Sweet Home Ranger District, but — so if your travels bring you to the city, Brick & Mortar Café is always worth a stop in downtown. The brick-walled eatery specializes in thoughtfully prepared breakfast and lunch dishes—with excellent bloody marys, a filling chicken-and-waffles entrée, and hearty omelets.

Where to Play Around the Sweet Home Ranger District

We’ve put together a few ideas in the area and in Albany—which sits to the west and offers fun for the whole family.

Historic Carousel & Museum

Albany may sit an hour or more west of some trails within the Sweet Home Ranger District, but it’ll likely be much closer to where you stay for the night. So if your ornament contest is a family affair, make time for the Historic Carousel & Museum in downtown Albany. There, kids of all ages can ride 41 animals on the carousel, which dates back to 1909; those hand-carved and hand-painted creatures include a seven-foot-tall giraffe, cats, zebras, unicorns, and even dragons.

Albany historic carousel