The Oregon Department of Transportation has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to take some of the twists and turns out of U.S. Highway 20 and make it a swifter, safer passage through the Coast Range between the mid-Willamette Valley and the Pacific Ocean.
Now, for a tiny fraction of the cost, ODOT is hoping to steer a few of the thousands of motorists who make that trip each day onto an alternate route: Oregon Highway 34.
In late April, a 72-mile stretch of the state highway between Tangent and Waldport won official recognition from Oregon’s transportation and tourism commissions as the Marys Peak to Pacific Scenic Byway. The route also includes a pair of 10-mile spurs that invite travelers to make side trips to Marys Peak and Alsea Falls.
It’s a considerably slower drive than the comparable stretch of U.S. 20 (the two routes briefly come together as one, occupying the same asphalt from Corvallis to Philomath before diverging to follow different paths through the mountains).
But then, that’s precisely the point of a scenic byway.
“For me, it’s about slowing down and enjoying some of the scenery along the way,” said Christina Rehklau, who’s helping to promote the route in her role as executive director of Visit Corvallis, the city’s tourism bureau.
“You get to see some of those landscapes you wouldn’t ordinarily see,” she added. “It’s a little slower pace, and quite frankly a lot of us could benefit from unplugging once in awhile.”
All about the journey
Many longtime mid-valley residents may have a hard time thinking of Highway 34 as a scenic drive.
Most people heading from this area to the coast choose U.S. 20 because it’s a faster road and leads to Newport, a bustling town of 10,000 with a busy commercial fishing port, two aquariums, a historic lighthouse and a thriving tourist district with motels, restaurants and shops. Highway 34, in addition to being slower, deposits travelers at Waldport, a sleepy coastal community of about 2,000, with few of the obvious attractions of its larger neighbor to the north.
Similarly, the eastern end of the route is not the most inviting stretch of road. The 10-mile segment between Interstate 5 and Corvallis is a busy four-lane commuter corridor better known for its heavy traffic than its scenic wonders.
But proponents of scenic byway status hope the new designation will help travelers, including the most jaded locals, see this particular patch of pavement with fresh eyes.
The official proposal for the Marys Peak to Pacific Scenic Byway pitched the route as a tour through a “unique and active working landscape” that includes fertile farm fields, productive timberlands and rural communities as well as areas of outstanding natural beauty.
Starting from the interstate and heading west, the route begins near Tangent in Linn County, “the grass seed capital of the world,” with expansive fields of fescue and ryegrass on either side of the road.
Crossing the Willamette River, the highway passes through Corvallis and narrows from four lanes to two. At Philomath, 34 parts company with 20 and veers southwest, entering a hilly region of oak trees, country houses and Christmas tree farms before climbing into the mountains.
A turnoff to the north will take the curious traveler to the summit of 4,097-foot Marys Peak, the highest point in the Oregon Coast Range. The mountain is home to a Forest Service campground, several picnic areas, hiking trails and sweeping views from snowcapped Cascade peaks to the gleaming Pacific.
From the mountain’s shoulder, Highway 34 plunges down into the Alsea River Valley and its namesake town, an independent-minded community of about 200 souls. Logging is an important industry here, and the surrounding hills are a patchwork of fresh clear-cuts, regenerating second-growth forests and stands of mature timber.
The route’s other spur takes off from the heart of town on a 10-mile jaunt to the Bureau of Land Management’s Alsea Falls Recreation Area. There are walking paths to the namesake waterfall and nearby Green Peak Falls, as well as day-use areas for picnicking and a campground for overnight stays. There’s also a network of dedicated mountain bike paths that’s rapidly becoming a destination in its own right.
From Alsea on, the highway stays close beside the Alsea River, a productive fishing stream where anglers cast for salmon, steelhead and cutthroat trout. The road parallels the river’s sweeping curves, passing small farms and gliding beneath towering fir, cedar, maple and alder trees. Numerous boat launches dot this stretch of road, along with a handful of campgrounds.
The Alsea’s estuary begins at Tidewater, an unincorporated community with an RV park and marina. Here the river becomes wide and sluggish, bordered by grassy tidal marshes that suddenly open up into lovely Alsea Bay at Waldport, the byway’s western end point.
Though often overlooked by coastal tourists speeding north or south on U.S. 101, Waldport has its own distinct brand of quiet charm. An interpretive center at the foot of the graceful Alsea Bay Bridge tells the story of Oregon’s renowned coastal bridge network, and the Port of Alsea operates a public dock. Crabbing, clamming and fishing are popular activities in the bay, and miles of uncrowded beaches invite visitors to put their toes in the sand.
Behind the byway
There are few things more American than getting behind the wheel and going for a drive, and the National Scenic Byways Program was established in 1991 to recognize, preserve and enhance some of the country’s most distinctive motor routes.
Today, more than 150 roads around the country have been officially designated by the secretary of transportation as National Scenic Byways or All-American Roads.
Oregon has 10 of these nationally recognized touring routes — more than any other state except Colorado — including the Historic Columbia Gorge Highway and the entire 363-mile length of U.S. 101 along the Oregon coast.
In addition, Oregon has nine state scenic byways, including the newly designated stretch of Highway 34, as well as 10 lengths of road recognized as official tour routes.
Why so many?
“Because we’re not Kansas,” quipped Amanda Pietz, a program implementation and analysis manager with ODOT.
The fact is, she explained, Oregon is blessed with an abundance of jaw-droppingly lovely drives across an immense variety of landscapes, and the scenic byways program is simply a way of calling attention to them.
“Oregon is a pretty diverse and beautiful state,” Pietz added. “There’s the ocean, the mountains, the desert — there are so many different zones.”
Scenic byway status does not impose any additional government regulations on property owners along the route, Pietz noted, other than restrictions on the placement of billboards (which are already banned along many parts of state highways).
But the designation does come with some perks.
The main benefits are promotional: ODOT provides funding and staff assistance to develop a unique logo for each byway, print it onto directional signs and place the signs along the route. And Travel Oregon produces a route description for inclusion in the state’s official scenic byway driving guide, an 86-page brochure packed with detailed maps and color photos.
“It’s actually Travel Oregon’s top-requested publication, both nationally and internationally,” Pietz said. “It gets a wide distribution.”
The next step will be to mark the route itself. There will be entrance signs at both ends, at Exit 228 on I-5 and the byway’s western terminus at U.S. 101 in Waldport, as well as wayfinding markers at various points along the route and signs marking the turnoffs to Marys Peak and Alsea Falls.
Work on the byway’s logo — which depicts the Alsea Bay Bridge and the flower-studded summit of Marys Peak — has just wrapped up, and the signs should be in place by early next year.
“Our hope is by next June to have those up,” Pietz said.
The potential return on these modest investments is significant, proponents say.
A study commissioned by the Oregon Tourism Commission found that people who travel on scenic byways spend an average of $104 a day at local businesses.
According to the corridor management plan for the Marys Peak to Pacific Scenic Byway, some 5,000 to 7,000 vehicles a day travel Highway 34 between Philomath and Waldport, while the average daily traffic count through downtown Philomath is 13,300 cars.
But the potential market is much bigger than that. The same document noted that an estimated 3.6 million people live within 100 miles of the intersection of Highway 34 and Interstate 5 and that more than 30 million tourists visit Oregon every year.
Visit Corvallis has already started promoting the new route regionally in partnership with the Willamette Valley Visitor Association, and Rehklau is preparing to start work on a website. There are also plans to put up interpretive signs at points of interest along the way and create a smartphone app to steer drivers on a self-guided tour.
And even though full-size billboards are not allowed within the route’s public right of way, private businesses that cater to travelers — from service stations and motels to restaurants and tourist attractions — can apply to ODOT for blue or brown highway markers pointing motorists in their direction.
How we got here
In Oregon, recommendations for scenic byway status must come from local residents. The idea to promote a valley-to-coast route along Highway 34 dates back to 2007, when a committee was formed to pursue a byway designation.
The main impetus for the effort came from Philomath and Waldport, two communities that tend to get overlooked by visitors but wanted a slice of the tourism pie.
After making some initial progress, however, the initiative stalled, lying dormant for several years. Then, in early 2016, the effort got a jumpstart when Waldport City Manager Kerry Kemp reached out to his counterpart in Philomath, Chris Workman, and they formed a new committee.
Originally, plans for the Marys Peak to Pacific Scenic Byway called for a shorter route, from Philomath to Waldport, but that changed at the group’s very first meeting, held at Philomath City Hall.
“We had everybody at the table and we pulled out a map of the Oregon scenic byways, and they all hit I-5 and either go east or west,” Workman recalled. “I said, ‘We really need to get over to I-5.’”
In hindsight, he acknowledged, the decision seems like a no-brainer.
“Maybe Philomath to I-5 isn’t the most scenic part of Highway 34, but we thought it was an important connectivity piece,” Workman said.
The decision was also important because it expanded the route’s geographic reach from Lincoln and Benton counties to include Linn County as well. Waldport and Lincoln County contributed money toward the effort, and the Oregon Cascades West Council of Governments — an umbrella agency that coordinates some government and nonprofit functions among the three participating counties — contributed staff time for planning and public outreach.
Other partners soon began to get on board. Eventually, a total of 21 local governments, state and federal agencies, tourism bureaus, economic development groups and other organizations got involved.
At first, Workman recalled, there was some pushback against the idea from some quarters, especially along some of the route’s more rural reaches, where people worried about safety issues arising from additional traffic on the highway. But for the most part, he said, those concerns were laid to rest after talking things through in community meetings.
“Overall, there’s been nothing but support,” he said.
Susan Woodruff, a former Waldport city councilor who is now in her eighth year as the town’s mayor, has been involved in the push for scenic byway status since the effort’s beginnings in 2007. She, too, heard some grumbling early on from some residents of her quiet coastal community, but like Workman, she said those voices have largely subsided.
In any case, both believe the advantages of the scenic byway designation far outweigh any drawbacks.
“Waldport has not had the strongest tourism element to its economy, compared to some of the other coastal cities,” Woodruff said.
“I often say to people who are not happy about attracting tourists, you know, there are so many of you who first came here as a tourist and decided this was where you wanted to live — so don’t knock it.”
“It puts us on a tourism map,” Workman agreed. “I don’t think most people, even here in town, think of Philomath as a tourism destination, but with it being part of the scenic byway, it adds that additional reason for people to come through town and see what Philomath has to offer.”