In Oregon Cheese Country, it’s all about the free samples.
When you tell people â€“ especially Oregon natives â€“ that you are going to Tillamook for a day trip, they look at you funny. They will tell you that Tillamook smells bad, that it’s muddy and that there’s nothing to do but look at cows and eat cheese.
You see, for some people, cheese is one of the best reasons to visit an area. Especially if you can get some for free.
Although Tillamook, Oregon, (population 4,400) calls itself the "Land of Many Waters," it should really be known as the "Land of Many Cheeses." There actually isn’t so much water in the town (unless you count the puddles), but there’s a hell of a lot of cheese.
(Author’s Note: Let me preface this story with a warning: do not stop for two Egg McMuffins before going to Tillamook. The temptation to eat free food in town is going to be overpowering no matter how much food you’ve already consumed.)
The Tillamook Cheese Factory, located on Highway 101, is the biggest tourist attraction in town. My friend and I had been meaning to visit the factory for the past few months because we heard rumors of free cheese-tasting. We are both confessed cheese freaks, so I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a day.
From Eugene, there are quite a few ways to get to Tillamook. We chose to take I-5 to Portland, where it connects, through I-405, to Highway 6. Past Portland, the drive is absolutely beautiful. Highway 6 winds through the Tillamook State Forest, and is surrounded by waterfalls, creeks and mountains. It takes about three hours to get to Tillamook from Eugene this way (about an hour from Portland).
You’ll know you’re getting close to town when you start to notice an inordinate number of cows. You will also start to smell the odor that accompanies them. Just remember that as smelly as they are, these beasts produce some of the best cheese in the nation.
Follow Highway 6 straight through town. On your left, one of the first buildings you will see is The Pioneer Museum (located at 2106 2nd Street). Established in 1935, the museum is housed in Tillamook’s second courthouse, built in 1905. The museum’s main floor and basement hold hundreds of Tillamook’s artifacts. The second floor is devoted to a natural history display.
If you are interested in aviation, you can’t leave Tillamook without visiting the Air Museum. Follow Highway 6 through town to Highway 101 north. The museum is in the middle of a field on Highway 101. It’s impossible to miss the enormous blimp hangar with the museum’s name in very large letters on the side. The hangar was built in 1943 and currently holds 39 aircraft. (If you do somehow miss the turn onto Hangar Road, stop in at the South Prairie Store, where you can get a mean corn dog.)
But if you’re anything like me, you’ll go straight to the cheese. Instead of heading north on Highway 101, head south to the other end of town. Like the Air Museum, the Tillamook Cheese Factory is unmistakable. The big yellow sign beckons like a huge slice of cheddar cheese.
At first, the factory is a bit overwhelming. The cheese-making process is explained on the first stop of the self-guided tour. A life-size cow statue and pictures of various cheeses, cows and dairy equipment are on display.
The science behind the art of cheese-making.
Upstairs, you can view the cheese-packaging process in action. The factory floors are exposed to visitors through windows on the upper level. I have never seen such enormous amounts of cheese. Your mouth will be watering by the time you head back downstairs to taste some samples.
I must admit, I was a tad disappointed at the selection of free cheese. We tasted jalapeÃ±o Monterey jack, cheddar and "squeaky cheese" (cheese curd â€“ stay away from it). I had envisioned mountains of cheese, and I got a small pile. Maybe my expectations were just too high.
The cheese was good, but I was blown away by the ice cream. My friend actually broke down and ordered some, even though she had given it up for Lent. I can personally vouch for the Brown Cow, and she looked pretty pleased with the Cookie Dough.
If you like cows, the gift shop is a must.
Not entirely satisfied with our free sample consumption, we decided to hit a couple more stops while heading south on Highway 101. Debbie D’s Smoked Jerky Sausage Factory seemed like the obvious next stop. Beer sausage, wine sausage, half a dozen different flavors of beef jerky â€“ heaven. I settled on the wine sausage and called it quits. But you can also sample wine upstairs.
Next stop: Blue Heron French Cheese Company. Just past Debbie D’s, Blue Heron is famous for its Brie. I’m a Brie fan, and was very impressed. They also make very good blue cheese salad dressing. Scattered all over the shop, there are free samples of dips. The only problem with Blue Heron is that they force you to use a pretzel as a dipping tool. I learned that jam on pretzel isn’t very tasty.
I did give in to the wine tasting at Blue Heron because they have their own label. One taste is free, and you can get three for a dollar.
The rest of the store is filled with very random knick-knacks: a book called "How to Lose a Man in Ten Days," beanie babies, magnets and children’s soap.
To get back to Eugene, we decided to take Highway 101 to Highway 22, through the Siuslaw National Forest. The drive is gorgeous, but windy. One highlight: Hebo.
Sarah shows her gratitude.
Hebo is a small town at the junction of highways 101 and 22. I have to admit that I didn’t actually get out of my car in town, but I did admire the huge red grammar school and the inn. The really interesting thing about Hebo is that it appears to be situated a little too close to the path of the Nestucca River. Several houses (which seem to be currently occupied) were knee-deep in water. And it wasn’t raining when I was there.
Other than Hebo, there aren’t many towns along Highway 22. I’d tell you to relax and enjoy some beef jerky or smoked cheddar on the way home, but you should really wait until after you’ve departed the windy roads of the Siuslaw.
If there’s one thing you’re sure to take away from Tillamook, it’s a tummy ache.
During winter remember to check road conditions before you set out. Some areas of rural Oregon may be completely impassable due to snow; some areas require chains or snow tires â€“ and believe me, you’ll want them. For current road conditions, call (800) 977 6368 (inside Oregon) or (503) 222 6721 (outside Oregon). Or click here for the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Highways & Travel Information page.