As Oregon celebrates 175 years of the Oregon Trail, Peter Ellegard takes a road trip through “The Beaver State”, where he discovers fascinating history, spectacular vistas and an endless array of wineries, breweries and cuisine
Standing under a giant framework representing a covered wagon, it’s hard to imagine the hardships endured by hopeful pioneers who embarked on the gruelling five-month trek to reach this point.
This year marks the 175th anniversary of the Oregon Trail, the 2,000-mile route from Missouri that followed rivers and crossed plains and mountain ranges to the vast emptiness of what was then Oregon Country.
An estimated 200,000 settlers packed their possessions into carts to join snaking wagon trains on the trail between 1843 and the 1870s, before railways made the epic journey easier. One in ten died, mostly from accidents and disease.
In historic Oregon City, where their journeys culminated, the End of the Oregon Trail is a fascinating museum that vividly tells the stories of those who left their homes on the east coast to stake a claim on their piece of the promised land.
Married settlers were offered a square mile of free land by a government keen to populate the region, before Oregon gold strikes in the 1850s lured more emigres.
Today, Oregon – dubbed “The Beaver State” after its official state animal – is being discovered by increasing numbers of British visitors. Their journey is far easier, especially since Delta began operating direct summer-season flights between Heathrow and Portland last year.
What awaits them in this unsung part of the Pacific Northwest? A state of incredible diversity encompassing spectacular natural beauty, one of America’s top wine-growing regions, lively, walkable towns and cities boasting an outdoor culture, and craft breweries and urban wineries galore.
"Home for the night is a restored Anderson model in peacock blue that’s as old as me but wearing much better, and it’s as stylish inside as out. Another local wine beckons as I sit under the stars after a gentle cycle around the resort."
My Oregon road trip begins in downtown Portland’s uber-chic Kimpton Hotel Monaco, a beautiful 1912 building furnished in eclectic period style (my suite’s wallpaper designs feature Oregon birds and local landmarks). I join fellow guests at the nightly wine hour in the elegant lounge, sipping a local pinot noir as a singer serenades us with classics accompanied by a grand piano.
Monaco guests have free use of bikes to explore the City of Roses, as Portland is known. However, I want to discover this vibrant city’s celebrated food and drink scene and take a taxi to emerging foodie hub, the Division/Clinton neighbourhood.
There, I visit the Southeast Wine Collective, which brings local winemakers together in a metro wine production facility. I get a tour of urban winery Division Winemaking Company by co-owner and wine collective founder Kate Norris, followed by a delicious five-course tasting menu at its Oui! wine bar and restaurant. Each course is accompanied by a different maker’s wine, some made from grapes grown just 20 minutes away.
The stunning Columbia River Gorge on Portland’s doorstep is famed for its numerous waterfalls tumbling through forested glades.
I hit the road for a scenic day trip through the gorge, looping back on routes skirting lofty volcano Mount Hood, a snow-capped backdrop to Portland’s skyline.
Sadly, a forest fire last September has closed part of the Historic Columbia River Highway Scenic Byway, and several waterfalls and landslips have indefinitely put back this autumn’s planned reopening. Visiting two waterfalls still open – Latourell Falls and Bridal Veil Falls – I’m mesmerised by the cascading waters.
Conical-shaped Mount Hood looms large over the surrounding landscape, reflecting in nearby Trillium Lake where kayakers, boaters and paddle-boarders enjoy the balmy weather.
Heading into the Willamette Valley, Oregon’s Wine Country and home to more than 500 wineries, I go retro at The Vintages Trailer Resort, which has accommodation in wonderful old trailers – or caravans, as we know them.
Home for the night is a restored Anderson model in peacock blue that’s as old as me but wearing much better, and it’s as stylish inside as out. Another local wine beckons as I sit under the stars after a gentle cycle around the resort.
Just 10 minutes away in McMinnville, I’m reacquainted with an icon of history that I last saw more than 25 years ago in a dome alongside the Queen Mary on California’s Long Beach.
Built by movie tycoon Howard Hughes and flown by him just once, the eight-engine Spruce Goose flying boat has the largest wingspan of any aircraft ever built and towers over other exhibits at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum.
I stop by a couple of wineries in the Dundee Hills that offer tastings – Stoller and Domaine Serene – before continuing on to Oregon City and Southern Oregon, crossing the Cascade Mountains to reach Crater Lake national park.
The lake is America’s deepest and sits within a massive caldera that clients can circumnavigate by road, its blue waters punctuated by a small volcano island. And, after stays at three ranches, my journey ends in Central Oregon.
Known as “Beer Town USA”, Bend has more breweries per capita than anywhere else in Oregon, with 24 craft breweries out of 281 in the state and a population of less than 95,000. I try several in locations that include downtown’s Old St Francis School, a Catholic school for almost 70 years until it was converted into a hotel, with classrooms turned into guest rooms, a pub and a brewery.
My most sobering experience is at Hop in the Spa in Sisters, which claims to be America’s first beer spa. I climb into a cedar tub for a deliciously relaxing “MicroBrew Soak” in water infused with hops, herbs and minerals.
I have my own choice of music, not to mention a glass of locally brewed beer and a Bavarian pretzel, followed by an invigorating massage – using handcrafted hop oil, of course.
It’s so good, I’d walk 2,000 miles for another.
Book it: America As You Like It offers a 12-night Oregon fly-drive from £2,660pp. The price includes flights, two nights at each of the Kimpton Hotel Monaco Portland, The Vintages Trailer Resort in Dayton, Running Y Ranch Resort in Klamath Falls, Silvies Valley Ranch in Seneca, Black Butte Ranch near Sisters and the Oxford Hotel in Bend, plus 10 days’ car rental with Your Car Hire.