Finding Fall In & Around Eugene, Oregon

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Photo © Eugene Cascades & Coast

This autumn, brighten your weekend and feed your soul with a trip to Eugene, Oregon, and its environs to the east. Along with the harvest, you’ll encounter dramatic fall foliage, the brilliant hues of red, purple, orange and gold set amid bustling communities, ancient lava beds, scenic hot springs, historic covered bridges and much more.

HARVEST TIME

Start your journey in the heart of downtown Eugene, where every Saturday, April through mid-November, visitors can shop for fresh, local produce at the Lane County Farmers Market (lanecountyfarmersmarket.org). Then, browse the dozens of craft booths across the street at the Eugene Saturday Market (eugenesaturdaymarket.org), one of Oregon’s oldest continuously running outdoor markets.

For more farm-fresh foods, head a few blocks northeast to the Provisions Market Hall (provisionsmarkethall.com), located in the 5th Street Market (5stmarket.com), a collection of upscale shops, restaurants and cafés. Sister to Marché, the city’s popular French-inspired farm-to-table bistro, Provisions is filled with local produce and food products as well as flavorful ready-to-eat dishes like soup, pizza and salad.

Next, for a farm-to-glass experience at a handful of the city’s excellent urban wineries, breweries and cideries, check out Eugene’s “fermentation district” in and around the Whiteaker neighborhood (called “The Whit” by locals). Worth a visit—each one in staggering distance to the others—are Territorial Vineyards & Wine Company (territorialvineyards.com), Oregon Wine LAB (oregonwinelab.com), Ninkasi Brewing Company (ninkasibrewing.com), Hop Valley Brewing (hopvalleybrewing.com) and WildCraft Ciderworks (wildcraftciderworks.com).

Then, if time permits, head up to Skinner Butte, elevation 682 feet, for wide-angle views of downtown Eugene in all its autumn glory.

FALL FOR LAVA BEDS,
WATERFALLS & HOT SPRINGS

When you’re done in Eugene, head east on Highway 126 about 60 miles to Belknap Springs. This route follows the crystal-clear waters of the McKenzie River, all the way to where the lush Willamette Valley meets the peaks of the western Cascades.

For some truly stunning fall color, veer off onto Highway 242, located less than two miles west of Belknap Springs, to make the twisty, 23-mile trek through dense forest to the Dee Wright Observatory. Built in 1935 with lava rock, the observatory sits in the middle of a barren volcanic landscape. Climb to the top of the open tower to see panoramic views of the mountain peaks, including the Three Sisters.

On the way back to Belknap Springs, stop for an easy hike at Proxy Falls. This colorful, 1.5-mile dirt trail loops through lava bed and woodlands for views of the upper and lower sections of Proxy Falls, where one stream cascades into two separate shimmering veils dropping more than 200 feet.

Or, to experience the autumn foliage from the water, check out High County Expeditions (highcountryexpeditions.com), a Belknap Springs-based outdoor recreation company that offers scenic whitewater rafting and guided fishing tours on the McKenzie River.

End your day with a soak at one of two spring-fed swimming pools at Belknap Hot Springs (belknaphotsprings.com), a rustic yet cozy lodge located on the banks of the McKenzie.

CRUISE THE COLORFUL AUFDERHEIDE SCENIC BYWAY

Ready to experience some of the most dramatic fall color in the state? About 10 miles west of Belknap Hot Springs, turn left onto the Aufderheide Scenic Byway.

Part of the West Cascades Scenic Byway that links Highway 126 with Highway 58, the Aufderheide is a 60-mile-long rambling, two-lane paved road that bisects the heart of the Willamette National Forest. The road is open to both cars and bikes. If driving, be sure to budget at least two hours travel time, not including stops, as its many delights are best enjoyed at a slower pace.

At peak color, the foliage along the byway—including brilliant big leaf maples and vine maples set against dark green Douglas firs—is so dazzling, sections of the road appear to glow yellow-gold.

Before heading out, it’s well worth stopping at the nearby McKenzie River Ranger Station to pick up a free audio CD tour of the Aufderheide that’s filled with entertaining anecdotes, geography tidbits and historical details. At the end of the drive, which terminates in the town of Westfir, simply return the CD to the Middle Fork Ranger Station.

As you continue south, keep an eye out for the 1930s Box Canyon Guard Station, located midway along the Aufderheide. The building and its small, adjacent meadow, which is home to willow and alder trees as well as a habitat for great grey owls, is a nice place to stop and explore.

Another place to stretch your legs is Constitution Grove. This flat, 0.5-mile interpretive trail meanders through a group of old-growth Douglas fir trees dotted with colorful deciduous trees. The grove was named by the US Forest Service in 1987 in celebration of the Constitution’s 200th anniversary.

When you reach the end of the byway, look for Office Covered Bridge on your right. This 180-foot covered bridge is the longest in Oregon and spans the North Fork of the Middle Fork of the Willamette River. If time permits, take a few minutes to drive over the bridge or stop to stroll along its one-of-a-kind covered pedestrian walkway.

UNDERCOVER IN COTTAGE GROVE

To experience harvest time on a working farm, plan to visit Northern Lights Christmas Tree Farm (northernlightschristmastreefarm.com) in the rural community of Pleasant Hill, located north on Highway 58 from Westfir. Every year in October, the farm welcomes visitors to shop for pumpkins, pick fall flowers, sample fresh apple cider and tour their corn maze.

Then continue following those fall colors another 20 miles to Cottage Grove. This authentic former gold rush town, situated on the Willamette River, is home to lovely autumn foliage and the largest concentration of covered bridges in the region, all seven of which are connected by the Covered Bridges Scenic Bikeway.

Beginning in downtown Cottage Grove, the bikeway is a popular 36-mile multi-use path that, along with Row River Road, hugs the northeast side of Dorena Lake. This is where you’ll find more stunning fall color, especially between Currin Bridge and Dorena Bridge. There are also several parking areas along the road where you can access the trail.