Crossing over the California border to explore Oregon has been a goal of mine since I settled in San Francisco three years ago. My knowledge of the Pacific Northwest was limited to travel magazines and the few tasty beers I could get my hands on in the Midwest. A six-hour drive up the Sacramento Valley and past Mount Shasta now puts me it touch with towering forests filled with damp fir trees, sparking lakes, and a brewery in every town. My wife and I plotted an aggressive seven-day road trip through Crater Lake, Bend, the Willamette Valley and Portland. We decided to focus on life’s essential ingredients: beer, wine, food, and communing with nature.
After plunking down $500 to repair the ninety-nine Saturn we set off on a Sunday morning. Just over the state line we made a brief stop in Ashland, OR. Thousands of tourists invade this city annually for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, but I knew it as the home of Caldera Brewing and Standing Stone Brewery. Caldera wasn’t open so I had to settle for some bottles at the beer store, but I lined up a row of tasters at Standing Stone. I was hoping for a few seasonal selections but arrived in-between taps. The standard lineup was solid but nothing enticed me enough for a full pint. The disappointments were nothing a little blue cheese at Rogue Creamery couldn’t make up for in nearby Medford. The creamery is not affiliated with Rogue Brewery, but you wouldn’t know it by their beer selection. Since we arrived just before closing we bought some cheese for the road and headed for the giant blue caldera in the mountains.
Crater Lake is big, beautiful and awe inspiring. Pictures can do it justice but they’ll never capture its monumentality. The water is a tropical hue and the surrounding cliffs stretch 180 degrees across the horizon. Stepping out of the car my response was simple and to the point, whoa. Only one day was allocated to traversing the park. Making the task fairly easy is a 33-mile road surrounding the lake, but we didn’t get the whole experience. Someday we’ll return and stay in the park lodge perched on a cliff overlooking the lake. Due to lackadaisical planning we stayed in Prospect, a small town time forgot located 28 miles from the park gates. It was a fine location, but a stay at the lodge would allow for a more restful contemplation of grandiosity.
Another natural curiosity worth visiting in Central Oregon lies just south of Bend, where the Newberry National Volcanic Monument covers 50,000 acres. The dirt road leading to the lava field nearly shook our car to pieces, but it was worth the calculated risk. The huge swath of rock cutting through the forest is remarkable sight and reminds visitors that Hawaii isn’t the only state with a molten past or future.
The long drive from Crater Lake and visions of apocalypse left me clamoring for a beer in Bend. Roughly 82,000 people reside in the high desert haven for outdoor enthusiasts and beer aficionados. Its home to seven breweries and three of them scored seven Great American Beer Festival Awards this year. I managed to hit 5 of 7 in a day and half: Silver Moon Brewing, Bend Brewing, 10 Barrel Brewing, McMenamins Old St. Francis Pub, and both the Deschutes Public House and brewery. At most of the locations I ordered a rack of samplers, which can leave you yearning for a full pint, but I wanted to experience the range of flavor possibilities. The afternoon of our only full day was spent on a tour of the Deschutes brewery, which I’ll post about soon. I was able to cover so much ground by staying at McMenamins Old St. Francis School in downtown. It’s a quirky renovated schoolhouse with a theater, three pubs and an opulent salt water soaking pool. If you go to Bend I highly recommend staying there. You can park the car, explore downtown, and walk to most of the breweries.
On Wednesday morning we left for a two-night stay in wine centric Willamette Valley. I’ll spare you the details since my primary focus is beer, but I will say the countryside is on par with Napa, Sonoma, and Santa Barbara. Rolling hills offer stately summits for tasting rooms that peer out over Pinot vines and on sunny days offer views of the distant Cascades. I should also mention that good beer can be found in this heavy wine region. In the town of McMinnville I had a glass of Heater Allen Bobtoberfest, which is a wonderful rendition of the German style and quickly became my favorite of the season.
A sense of urgency washed over me with only two days left at our final destination. Bloggers and travel editors call Portland the micro-brew capital of America and its hard to disagree. Depending on who you talk to there are forty some breweries within city limits and nano operations pop up every year. We stayed in the centrally located Pearl District downtown, but spent most of our time east of the Willamette River. There you’ll find Widmer Brothers Brewing, Upright Brewing, and the new Cascade Brewing Barrel House. I scurried to each location between trips to beautiful gardens that enticed my wife. Rob Widmer graciously toured us around his mammoth facility while Alex Ganum, owner of Upright Brewing, met me at his more intimate operation. My backroom tour of Cascade’s Barrel House was a more impromptu affair. The new location was quietly serving sour beer under the guise of a “soft” opening before the masses were officially invited. I nudged my way in for a sneak peak. I’ll elaborate on each of these spots in the coming weeks.
Complimenting the plethora of beer in Portland is a slew of food carts parked in clusters around the city. My favorite was the Big Egg, where I wrapped my hands around their Monte Cristo. It’s a bundle of joy containing one egg, black forest ham, Gorgonzola cheese, and a maple glaze between brioche French toast dusted with powdered sugar. Later in the evening we also enjoyed the decadent poutine from Potato Champion. Let’s just say we weren’t exactly starving on Sunday morning.
Vacations always seem to conclude bitterly. Mourning the end and facing a 10-hour drive required some comfort food. Voodoo Donuts was an obvious choice and quelled our dismay while we eased down the road with a trunk full of wine and beer. The trip was designed to merely scratch the surface and we have no regrets. If anything were eager to come back and explore the other things we heard about from friendly Oregonians. In many ways the state met my expectations; the vistas are captivating and the craft beer community is brimming with a level of dedication that results in great products. I’m going to saver my selection of beer for months to come.