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Salem, Oregon

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Did You Know … ?

  • Willamette University was the first institution of higher learning west of the Rockies (1842).
  • The city’s name Salem is an Anglicized form of the Hebrew word shalom, meaning peace.
  • A.C. Gilbert, creator of the erector set for kids, was born in Salem.
  • The Spruce Goose, a wooden plane with the world’s longest wingspan (320 feet), flew only once.
  • The Oregon Trail, for those who actually went to Oregon, ended in Willamette Valley.

At the Oregon Trail’s end

Salem, Oregon’s capital, is a small city of not much more than 150,000, set on the Willamette River in the northwest part of the state and an hour from the Pacific Ocean.

Its neighborhood, the Willamette Valley, between the Cascade and Coast mountain ranges, is well known as one of the Pacific Northwest’s wine regions. But, for those who prefer the suds, Oregon is noted for its craft beers, and Salem represents that culture well with breweries and tasting rooms.

Salem sits in a rich agricultural valley where, besides the grapes and hops, harvests include fresh produce that makes its way to the bakeries and finest restaurants in Salem and the surrounding towns.

The earliest European settlers in Willamette Valley were trappers and farmers, and some trappers turned to farming, too. The valley’s population grew as the Oregon Trail delivered more settlers looking for tillable land.

Tourists see evidence of those earlier years in historic districts in Salem and nearby towns. Most noteworthy among these sites, the Old Aurora Colony northeast of Salem was settled in 1856 as a German Christian communal society. Now a historic district, it encompasses more than 20 authentic colony buildings and has become the top spot to buy antiques in Oregon. Five of the buildings comprise the Old Aurora Colony Museum.

Fast forward to the 21st century and Oregon’s capital is rich with cultural attractions — art galleries, theater, concerts and a wide variety of festivals and special events that include the state fair.

Finally, Salem is in a region of natural beauty, which is often protected in wildlife refuges, nature preserves and parks. These settings invite the active visitor to birding, boating, camping, cycling, fishing, hiking, rafting and wildlife viewing. Humans in the area also have dreamed up a unique way to experience quite a bit of the area’s natural variety in a short period — a race tellingly named the Detroit Lake Mud Run.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Camp out at the Champoeg State Heritage Area on the banks of the Willamette River. Or, stay in a cabin and do your hiking in Silver Falls State Park.
  • See Willamette Valley from the air in a hot-air balloon or a helicopter.
  • Choose a festival built around local libations, such as the Hop and Heritage Festival in Independence or the Mount Angel Oktoberfest, both in the fall, or Salem’s Wine and Jazz Fest in early summer. Then, there is First Taste Oregon, in January in Salem, formerly Oregon Wine, Food and Brew Fest but art and entertainment are in this mix, too.
  • Register to compete in the Detroit Lake Mud Run in autumn. The six-mile course will take you through mud and water, on or around rocks, hills and stumps — and ruin your clothes.
  • Take a workshop in, say, glassblowing or jewelry making at the Willamette Art Center. Or, use the center’s ceramic studio for a project of your own.
  • Make your way through the forested Black Rock Mountain Bike Area, west of Salem, on a mountain bike. The Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway is another alternative.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Make a day of it, driving to several of the Willamette Valley wineries for tastings and some shopping, too. There are at least a dozen wineries within 30 minutes of downtown. Also, get to Cubanisimo Vineyards when the facility offers its monthly salsa lesson — as well as a tasting.
  • Get married at the Gordon House in Silverton, the only Frank Lloyd Wright house in Oregon and now an event site.
  • Take advantage of Oregon’s focus on craft beers, and sample the goods at one or more of the area’s local breweries.
  • For foodies, head to the farmers’ markets, taste cheeses at Willamette Valley Cheese Company or choose a food-focused festival. Several in the fall make pumpkins the star: Pumpkin Patch in Salem, Wooden Shoe Pumpkin Fest in Woodburn and Bauman’s Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off at Gervais.
  • Make the trip to the Evergreen Aviation Educational Museum in McMinnville to see the Spruce Goose, constructed by millionaire Howard Hughes and once the world’s largest airplane. Stick around for other vintage aircraft at the museum and the town’s historic district rich with more than 50 preserved buildings.
  • Enter the watermelon-seed-spitting contest at the Oregon State Fair in late summer.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Watch movies outdoors at Salem’s Riverfront Park and Independence’s Riverview Park.
  • Be a culture vulture. Make the rounds of a few galleries by day and head to the Historic Elsinore Theatre or Pentacle Theatre by night. One of the more amusing galleries, literally, is the NW Comic Gallery, with comic books and original comic art.
  • Attend the Bach Festival at the Mount Angel Abbey, a midsummer event that helps support the still-active abbey.
  • This is the West. Come to a rodeo. Choices include the St. Paul Rodeo, as well as the Santiam Canyon Stampede in Sublimity, both in July.
  • Take the kids to A.C. Gilbert’s Discovery Village, an interactive children’s museum. The site is named for the man who created the erector set, a toy that combined the educational with fun.
  • Take a walking tour of the historic downtown area of Salem. Also, join a tour of the Oregon State Capitol. For more history, include the Old Aurora Colony Museum and the Willamette Heritage Center at the Mill on your rounds.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult Travel Salem at