Your Guide to the Great Oaks Food Trail

By Matt Wastradowski

The Great Oaks Food Trail, comprising the farmlands of Polk County, has a rich agricultural history that dates back generations. In fact, while the region was known for growing a variety of crops, in the 1930s it was dubbed the “Hop Center of the World” and was once the United States’ largest hop-producing county. (No wonder we were at the forefront of the craft beer boom that blossomed in the late ‘90s and early 2000s.)

Even today, you’ll see hop plants dotting the region—but the self-guided Great Oaks Food Trail brings together the region’s best growers, eateries, markets, and more to offer a one-of-a-kind introduction to the region’s agricultural past and present. So if you’re interested in hitting the road and enjoying a taste of Polk County, here’s how to make the most of your time along the Great Oaks Food Trail.

Two people holding hops grown in the Willamette Valley
A fresh look at hops grown in the Willamette Valley, photo by Joshua Rainey

What is the Great Oaks Food Trail?

The Great Oaks Food Trail is a self-guided tour that covers the farms, markets, eateries, breweries, vintners, and producers of Polk County. While the region was historically known as ground zero for hop-growing in the Willamette Valley, it is today noted for growing cherries, blueberries, apples, and wine grapes. How you enjoy those crops is up to you: Pluck them fresh at U-pick farms, enjoy them in craft beers and wines, grab them at markets and farm stands for snacking later on, or savor the flavor of local ingredients at restaurants around the region.

In all, the loop is made up of 43 locally owned businesses that you can explore at your own pace—as many or as few as you’d like, whenever you’d like. The Great Oaks Food Trail gets its name from the white oak savannas that once dotted the broader Willamette Valley; today, several businesses in Polk County (such as Left Coast Estate) are working to restore the tree’s habitat and reintroduce the native species.

Entrance to Left Coast Cellars wine cavern
Left Coast Cellars wine cavern, photo by Joshua Rainey

Where is the Great Oaks Food Trail?

The Willamette Valley food trail spans Polk County, just west of Salem, in the heart of the Willamette Valley. Communities along the trail include Willamina, Amity, Dallas, Monmouth, and Independence.

Driving between Willamina (the westernmost community along the Great Oaks Food Trail) and West Salem (the easternmost community) takes about 30 minutes; driving from the trail’s northern edge in Amity to its southern border near Monmouth, meanwhile, takes about 25 minutes via Route 99W. (Learn more about exploring Route 99W in the heart of the Willamette Valley.) However you explore, we’d suggest making time for the backroads and byways off the beaten path; you never know where you’ll discover your new favorite food, beer, or wine.

What Can You Do Along the Great Oaks Food Trail?

Befitting its status as the one-time “Hop Center of the World”, it’s no surprise Polk County and the Great Oaks Food Trail are home to a variety of outstanding craft breweries. Gilgamesh Brewing, for instance, hosts two outposts in Polk County—one in Independence, the other in West Salem—and has used locally grown blueberries, hazelnuts, pumpkins, mint, and more in its various beers over the years. Also in West Salem, you’ll find Xicha Brewingthe only Latino-owned brewery in the Pacific Northwest.

Of course, you’ll find plenty of farms throughout Polk County. Make some furry friends at Wings and a Prayer Alpacas, home to roughly 60 animals; pick apples, peaches, berries, and cherries at Perryhill Farm in Dallas; and grab a variety of locally produced goods—including meat, eggs, produce, and honey—at Bare Farms near Willamina.

Rooftop dining at the Independence Hotel in Independence, OR
Rooftop dining at the Independence Hotel in Independence, OR. Photo by Joey Hamilton

And if you want to see what local restaurants do with that farm-fresh fare, stop by Territory Restaurant in Independence, Yeasty Beasty in Monmouth, West Valley Taphouse in Dallas, or other eateries that share the flavor of the Willamette Valley through inventive regional dishes. Amity Flats, MaMere’s Guest House, and The Independence Hotel all offer comfortable beds if you decide to stay the night and make your tour a multi-day outing. 

Of course, there are dozens more stops along the way, so start planning your trip through the Great Oaks Food Trail today.