A rustic entry leads to the Tillamook Forest Center.
If you think Tillamook, Ore., is only about the cheese—or that it’s just a pit stop on the way to some excellent beaches—you should visit the new Tillamook Forest Center. Situated on the Wilson River 22 miles east of downtown, the $10.7 million center opened in April 2006 and illuminates a dramatic piece of Oregon history: the near eradication of the region’s majestic forest in the mid-20th century.
On a sweltering August afternoon in 1933, as loggers were cutting timber in the vast, privately owned woodlands just outside town, friction between logs ignited the first in a string of catastrophic fires that ultimately blackened some 550 square miles of northwestern Oregon’s old-growth Douglas fir. The charred landscape became known as the Tillamook Burn.
Because so few viable seed cones remained, natural reforestation was impossible, and in 1948 the state passed a bond measure to fund a massive replanting. Starting in 1949, helicopters dropped 1 billion seeds; work crews that included volunteers and schoolchildren planted some 72 million additional seedlings by hand. The expensive and laborious restoration was declared complete in 1973, when Governor Tom McCall dedicated the burn area as the Tillamook State Forest. Today, as you hike through its dense thickets of fir, vine maple, salmonberries, and delicate pink bleeding hearts, you would never guess that six decades ago the lush forest was an ashen wasteland.
To visit some of the lovely beaches (and enjoy even lovelier views) in the Tillamook area, take the 40-mile Three Capes Scenic Loop heading west out of town. (800) 551-6949, oregon.gov/oprd.
The Forest Center would like to remind you. With artifacts, oral histories, hands-on exhibits, and interpretive trails, the center recounts the story of the forest. You can learn about the complex ecosystem residing within a decaying log and what life was like in a fire lookout tower in the 1950s. But the museum’s most dramatic offering is a shattering 15-minute film of a wildfire, during which the scent of smoke is released into the theater. The powerful sensory experience makes the forest outside seem both more precious and more fragile.
The museum lays the groundwork for a trip to Tillamook. This unpretentious dairy town of 4,700—situated at the junction of five rivers and a bay—doesn’t open onto the kind of glorious beaches that have made other coastal hamlets such as Lincoln City and Seaside irresistible to tourists. But Tillamook adjoins incomparably gorgeous woodlands. A favorite day hike in the area is the quarter-mile walk to Munson Creek Falls just south of downtown. A mossy path winds through stands of Sitka spruce and red cedar, past massive clumps of mushrooms, and ends at the base of the highest waterfall in Oregon’s Coast Range, a thin, clear stream that plunges 319 feet over basalt cliffs.
The spruce trees you’ll find on the Munson Creek Falls trail are gargantuan because this area escaped the burn. When Tillamook’s first European settler, Joe Champion, arrived in 1851, he carved himself a surprisingly roomy home in a spruce stump. You can see a replica of his so-called castle at the Tillamook County Pioneer Museum, renovated in 2010. Founded in 1935, this small-town cabinet of curiosities is a repository for many of the funky treasures that have turned up in Tillamook over the years, from an American Indian agate knife to a collection of 46 types of barbed wire.
From Cow to Cone
The ice cream counter at the Tillamook Cheese Factory serves 38 flavors, from vanilla to licorice.
Tillamook has two other idiosyncratic museums worth visiting. Housed in a cavernous wooden blimp hangar, the Tillamook Air Museum exhibits approximately two dozen shiny vintage planes, including a restored P-47 Thunderbolt that saw action during World War II. The same people who appreciate the planes will probably not exult over the antique buttons and crocheted purses displayed at the sweet Latimer Quilt & Textile Center. Located in an old schoolhouse, the museum also features changing exhibits of contemporary crafts.
But neither quilts nor bombers—and probably not even the Forest Center—will ever outdraw Tillamook’s flagship attraction: the cheese factory. The town’s famous 102-year-old dairy cooperative produces 58 million pounds of cheese and attracts close to a million visitors a year. From an elevated viewing gallery at the visitor center, you can watch cheese being packaged the old-fashioned way: on an assembly line. It’s delicious stuff. And that’s something everyone—from aircraft buff to embroidery enthusiast to tree hugger—can agree on.
Photography by Don Frank
This article was first published in March 2006 and updated in March 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Check out the rest of our Oregon North Coast package:
Astoria: American history and movie history collide.
Cannon Beach: Dramatic skies and solitude.
Gearhart: Old-fashioned candy and pure relaxation.
Seaside: Family fun with seals and wheels, arcades and ales.
Pick up copies of AAA's Oregon & Washington TourBook and map. For additional information, contact the Tillamook Area Chamber of Commerce: 3705 Hwy. 101 N., (503) 842-7525, gotillamook.com. Area code is 503 unless noted.
A PEEK AT THE PAST
Latimer Quilt & Textile Center $3 admission. 2105 Wilson River Loop Rd., 842-8622, latimerquiltandtextile.com. Tillamook Air Museum $9 admission. 6030 Hangar Rd., 842-1130, tillamookair.com. Tillamook County Pioneer Museum $4 admission. 2106 Second St., 842-4553, tcpm.org.
Five Rivers Coffee Roasters & Antiques Get your caffeine fix and a Victorian needlepoint footstool, a pair of vintage pumps, or a glass cottage lamp. 3670 Hwy. 101 N., 815-2739, coastcoffee.com. Rainy Day Books A large selection of used titles with an emphasis on local history. 2015 Second St., 842-7766.
CHEESE, GLORIOUS CHEESE!
Blue Heron French Cheese Company Sells its own Brie and serves soups, sandwiches, and wine. 2001 Blue Heron Dr., 842-8281 or (800) 275-0639, blueheronoregon.com. Tillamook Cheese Factory Free admission. 4175 Hwy. 101 N., 815-1300, tillamook.com/cheesefactory.
Kendra's Kitchen The owner of the late, lamented Whiskey Creek Cafe has brought her beloved oyster burgers and homemade pies to a new location. 1160 Hwy. 101 N., Netarts, 842-4068. Pelican Pub & Brewery House-brewed beers, a fine burger, clam chowder, fried fish, and a knockout peanut butter pie. 33180 Cape Kiwanda Dr., Pacific City, 965-7007, pelicanbrewery.com.
The Ashley Inn of Tillamook From $126. Walking distance from the Tillamook cheese factory; indoor pool and hot tub. 1722 Makinster Rd., 842-7599, ashleyinns.com. Shilo Inn From $98 for AAA members. Also close to the cheese factory; indoor pool and spa. 2515 N. Main Ave., 842-7971, shiloinns.com.