Visitors who are just discovering Eugene should understand what its first white settler saw in the place. Frontiersmen had been passing through the area for several years, but it was Mary Skinner who told her husband, Eugene, that this would be a good place to settle. They built a cabin on the butte and raised their family here.
What did Mary Skinner see? Access. She thought the area held great promise, not for what it was, but for what could be reached from there. The mountains to the east, the ocean to the west, trading posts to the north, and fertile forests to the south. It was a perfect place to reach all the other possible places.
Eugene has always thought of itself as a base camp. When the Southern Pacific Railroad built a spur from Portland that met the Eastern Railway line in Eugene, the theme emerged a second time. Eugene marketed itself in 1915 — and this is no joke — as “The City of Radiation,” complete with an eerie green and yellow glow behind it.
Oregon22 visitors:Want to go for a hike in or near Eugene? Here’s what locals recommended
Visitors don’t care about our history. (Residents barely care about our history.) What can be reached from here? Draw three circles, defined by modes of transportation. I will pick four points (north, east, south, and west) that you can reach by foot (or by bus), on a bike, and then in a quick car ride, always getting you back to base camp by nightfall.
Walking from Kesey Square downtown, you should first visit the replica of the Skinner’s cabin to the north, noting they raised five children in there. To the east, take in two metallic courthouses — one for law, then another for basketball — because both introduced architectural ambition to Eugene.
To the south, the namesake of one of those courthouses left his ranch to become a dog park. U.S. Senator Wayne Morse was also the only vote against the Vietnam War. (Skepticism ages well here.) To the west, gaze upon two local business empires. Aaron Jones built and innovated sawmills. Jerry Orem built a hardware store to beat all comers.
Start again from the center, but venture several miles now in each direction. Time your visit north to the few open hours for Country Bakery off Peoria Road in Halsey. Any other time, you’ll be in the middle nowhere, which is notable in itself. Heading east (and up), find the bronze monument Ken Kesey commissioned atop Mt. Pisgah.
The better view is from the south. From Spencer Butte, you can see how forests engulf the city. You’ll see a large blue expanse to the west. Head there next, to the Fern Ridge Reservoir. Managing water flow is vital to the region’s progress, as we’ll see on the next loop.
Readers recommend:15 things Eugene locals say Oregon22 visitors should check out in, around the city
One more time around the circle, this time planning a day trip, but nothing more. Point yourself north to Oregon’s other university town, Corvallis, but remember how there was nothing but delicious cinnamon buns halfway between? Oregon leaves empty spaces empty.
Heading east from Eugene, follow the McKenzie River past a dam or two, up to the Blue Pool. Pointed south, Cottage Grove has plenty to offer — covered bridges, movie trivia, counterculture history and a terrific bookstore.
It’s all ocean an hour west of here, but don’t expect a warm welcome. The Devil’s Churn is aptly named. Visit Sea Lion Caves. You don’t often go to a zoo and find that it’s you stuck in the cage.
If you can’t resist testing the limits of a long day trip, you can reach Portland, Bend, Ashland, or a whale-watching cruise, each in half a day. Whichever direction you choose, Mary Skinner’s advice is the same. Be home before dark.
Don Kahle ([email protected]) writes a column each Wednesday and Sunday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at www.dksez.com.