By Max Hartshorne
Located about a half an hour west of the booming city of Portland, Oregon is Washington County. It is the home of the state’s largest employer, Intel, with three gigantic facilities in Hillsboro that sprawl across the flat landscape just outside of town.
But this slice of western Oregon has another name–the Tualatin Valley–and it’s quickly becoming a tourist destination for people who are looking for top-notch wineries, trails to hike and bike, and a few world-class museums that contain fascinating relics and ‘feats of nature’ that even the Smithsonian recognizes as very important.
Bring a Raincoat
When we visited in January 2018, we expected to get wet, and we packed what anyone visiting Oregon is advised to bring–a light raincoat with a hood, and a fleece to wear underneath. We learned that this part of the world sees about 60-70 sunny days a year.
Besides the bike path, there is the 50-mile Tualatin Valley Scenic Bikeway for those who want a longer ride.
Rice Museum of Rocks
As far as museums go, we could not have chosen a better place to spend Saturday morning than the Rice Museum of Rocks and Minerals, on a private tour with the director, Julian Gray.
He said that this museum, located in a house once owned by prolific rock and fossil collectors Richard and Helen Rice, has been recognized by the Smithsonian as having significant value and importance. In 1996, the family donated the property to a charity, so the treasures could be shared with visitors.
As we moved from room to room, the impressive collection of petrified wood, slices of agate, crystals and gems unfolded, and some of them were truly beautiful. This is one of the world’s finest collections of crystals from around the world, all housed in this sprawling 1953 ranch house.
The collection includes meteorites, petrified woods, lapidary arts and even a slab of silicon showing how it is sliced up to make semiconductors at the nearby Intel factories.
Some of the art that nature creates inside these rocks is startling and definitely worth a visit.
Along with the thousands of high-paying jobs that Intel brings Hillsboro, there are other benefits. Many visitors from around the world visit the massive semiconductor factory, and it’s obvious that the local average income has gone up. There are three professional theater companies in the small town, and plenty of upscale restaurants to serve well-heeled locals.
More expansion is expected at Intel’s huge ‘fab’ centers in Hillsboro, and the company employs around 17,000 workers at its three Hillsboro campuses.
One of the hallmarks of any visit to the Northwest are the many breweries and beer enthusiasts you’ll inevitably meet along the way. One local brewery we enjoyed visiting was Waltz Brewing, located in a former car repair garage in Forest Grove.
It is at the bar where you often get the most unfiltered and detailed opinions of what the place you’re visiting is like, and what you shouldn’t miss. The cozy fireplace and rocking chairs here make Waltz a relaxing stop.
Along with a stop at Waltz Brewing, we enjoyed the local brews at several other breweries in Forest Grove, one of the newest is Ridgewalker Brewing Company.
While I’m not a fan of the highly hopped and piquant brews some of the West Coast brewers love, I am almost always able to find a milder pilsner or lager among the taps, Ridgewalker has already gained a solid following in the Tualatin Valley. Their Wickiup Wheat beer was the perfect pour for me.
What else awaited us in these flat farm fields, with rows of hazelnuts, raspberries, roses and winter wheat? We discovered the marvelously homey Helvetia Tavern in Hillsboro and felt right at home as soon as we walked in the door.
Looking up, we saw the thousands of baseball caps that have been pinned up there over the years in this rural watering hole.
I asked the bartender about those hats and he said that every nine months they take them down and dust them. Some just disintegrate up there, others hold up, and there’s a huge box of caps out back waiting to be put up.
Like the famous bras you will find up in the ceiling of the Florabama bar on the Gulf Coast, it’s an old tradition. And a hoot!
The food here is simple and delicious–who can resist the Jumbo Burger and a Southwest Chicken Salad with a local beer?
Lodgings in Forest Grove
One of my favorite things about the Northwest is the McMenamin’s chain of funky, one-of-a-kind hotels. The two brothers McMenamin have redeveloped schools, homes for the aged, and soon, an Elk’s Lodge, in 54 locations in Washington and Oregon. The chain was founded in 1983.
Brian McMenamin and his brother Michael love the Grateful Dead….so some of the hand-painted hallways and rooms in their hotels reflect the famous skull symbol the band was known for.
They have a serious love for brewpubs, hot tubs, movie and theaters, and in many of their hotels and pubs you can enjoy soaking in hot tubs, watching movies or listening to live music. Many, many concerts take place in McMenamin’s venues.
In Forest Grove, McMenamins Grand Lodge is a former Masonic home for the aged. The long hallways and impressive common areas feature unique rooms with endlessly interesting concert posters, displays and paint jobs that no hotel could possibly match.
Dark purple walls and orange trim? Rooms named for books and record albums? Sure, we love it!
Dining in Tualatin Valley
We tried a lot of local restaurants during our stay, and here is what we thought of them. Salam restaurant in Hillsboro is a casual place serving the kinds of Middle Eastern foods that make you feel comfortable. The owners are from Iran and Palestine.
We enjoyed chicken kabobs, homemade hummus, and mirza ghasemi, a Persian eggplant dip while sipping cardamom tea. Lunch for two was just $35.
In Forest Grove, we veered down south and tried a Peruvian restaurant called Yellow Llama, another inexpensive and tasty choice. Their pisco sours paired perfectly with empanadas and tiradito, their sliced version of ceviche.
Bites, in downtown Forest Grove, is another place we’d recommend. Bites offers a slew of small plates in an open seating atmosphere, with tasty treats like Donburi with lemongrass pork, Kalbi (beef short rib) tacos, and tempura avocado. I always like a place with small plates and sharing, and Bites is a great choice for this, with their Asian fusion menu.
You might be heading for Portland, or some other more familiar part of Oregon on your next trip west. A tip–consider a Tualatin Valley detour and enjoy these fine places.
Find out more about Tualatin Valley’s attractions
This story was written with assistance from the Washington County Visitors Association, but the opinions are the author’s own.