Picnic Spots – Eugene, Oregon Travel Guide
Clouds lazily float across a deep blue sky. They are in no rush to get anywhere, and neither are you. A soft breeze skips through the grass, bending each blade consecutively like sports fans doing the wave. In the distance you hear a dog bark, a child’s shriek of delight, or better yet, you hear nothing. The last half hour has been spent watching an inchworm cross a freshly fallen leaf and it is just nearing the center. You could be here all day. You sigh, roll over and think, "life is good."
Of course it’s good. You’ve just fattened yourself up with a tasty sandwich, stretched yourself out on a soft blanket or patch of lush lawn, and you are about to engage in a debate with your buddy about whether the fat blob hanging in the sky above you is shaped like an elephant, a Great Lake, or an 88′ Ford Festiva. These are the wonderful characteristics of a picnic and Eugene is characteristically a picnic type town.
On any given day you can visit one of the number of Eugene area parks and find locals and visitors doing the two things most loved by almost everyone on the planet: resting and ingesting. What makes these two practices even more loved in this mini metropolis are the surroundings. As if Mother Nature had intended that Eugenian’s spend a good deal of their time eating, relaxing and enjoying themselves, she made the nature and landscape nearly as appealing as possible, a veritable Garden of Eden.
A major contributor to the beauty of this valley town is water. Eugene gets its fair share dropped from the sky each year, but it also has water sources on the ground. Met by the rapid McKenzie River, which flows west from the Cascade Mountains, the Willamette River winds through Eugene bringing not only beauty, but also recreational opportunity. The sides of the river are flanked with bike paths, running trails and acre upon acre of clean, safe community parks.
A 3.8-mile section of the river loop called Pre’s Trail, named for the late University of Oregon track star Steve Prefontaine, winds through Alton Baker Park. This expanse of land is a heavy hitter in the Eugene park system. It is home to both the Willamette Science and Technology Center, which houses a small planetarium, and the Cuthbert Amphitheater, which with an array of summer music guests and a look reminiscent of Mother Goose’s bonnet, is an endearing part of local culture.
An autumn picnic at Alton Baker Park brings to mind the chirp of nesting birds, the rush of the river and 54,000 roaring football fans at Autzen Stadium, which also calls the park home. Alton Baker Park is bordered by the University of Oregon on one side, the Oakway Center plaza and other shopping areas on another and is linked to the downtown area by the new Defazio footbridge, named after local U.S. Congressman Peter Defazio. The footbridge enables walkers and bikers to enjoy their park visit and move freely to and from downtown without having to play Frogger in the Ferry Street Bridge traffic.
So, you have found the location, now you need the grub. You can grab snacks and sandwiches at grocery stores like Albertson’s and Trader Joes in the Oakway Center area, or try the Oakway Wine and Deli â€“ nothing says "picnic" like a bottle of local vino.
If you’re interested in downtown or just want to try your toes on the new footbridge, hit the Broadway Market for a tasty sandwich, or check out the 5th Street Market, a collection of stores and restaurants which will be conveniently located one block in front of you when the bridge spits you out. Among the dozens of eateries in the 5th Street Market is Cafï¿½ Yumm, which boasts a kind of veggie, grainy, saucy, tangy, easy-to-take-on-the-road concoction called a Yumm bowl. If this doesn’t grab you, let your taste buds do the walking. The downtown area has endless options.
Downtown also has other options for picnicking. The north end of this urban area is abutted by Skinner’s Butte. This hill, which you can walk, run, bike, drive, skip and dance up depending on your preference, provides a good view of downtown and the river. Skinner’s Butte, named for town founder Eugene Skinner who built his cabin atop the hill when he plunked down in this valley in 1846, also has a rock-climbing area for those picnickers who don’t just want to veg out after lunch.
While you are on the edge of downtown, check out the Owen Memorial Rose Garden for a unique picnic spot. This riverside park has over 4,500 roses and is speckled with dozens of other plants. The 9-acre park was donated by a local lumberman and philanthropist around 1950 and has made a breathtaking addition to the park system. Throw your blanket down, smell the roses and have a bite. Watch out for ducks waddling up from the river though. They’re locals, and they know the good sandwiches.
While on top of Skinner’s Butte, or whenever you look up from most anywhere in Eugene, you may have noticed far loftier heights at the south end of town. That tall abutment is Spencer’s Butte, commonly revered as "the butte" by locals. Willamette Street, which divides east and west Eugene, will take you there and offers plenty of opportunities to locate lunch.
The Willamette Street Plaza at the crossroad of 29th has a Price Chopper Supermarket, which offers snacks, salads and sandwiches made with both conventional and organic products, as does Wild Oats Market down the street. Also in this plaza is Barry’s Espresso and Bakery, offering New York style baked goods like bialys and reugelah. Try the egg salad on chalah bread, or anything on chalah bread for that matter. The Glenwood, a local staple for its extensive menu and great prices, is also located on Willamette Street. Bring your thermos and fill it with their famous tomato-cheese soup. If you’re in the mood for something different, get the tomato-cheese soup… no, seriously. Just make sure you try the tomato-cheese soup, okay?
At 2,054 feet, Spencer’s Butte offers a low-stress hike, but one that will definitely work up your appetite. You can walk, run, even tango to the top, but you cannot get there by car or bike. The 360-degree view from the top is well worth it though and presents fantastic views of the Willamette Valley. On a clear day you can see Mt. Hood jutting up on the horizon and the Three Sisters, which with Broken Top and Mt. Bachelor form a cluster of five volcanoes in the Cascade Range. On a pristine day you can see the bowl-shaped inverted peak of Mt. St. Helens and the towering Mt. Rainier in Washington.
The top of the butte is vibrantly green and rocky. Minus kilted, claymore-wielding Scots, the area looks like something out of Braveheart. It is a social place, where hikers chat and dogs mingle, but if quiet time or a private lunch is what you looking for, loads of nooks and crannies can be found.
If mingling is what you’re into however, the University of Oregon campus is the place to be. On nice days many students skip their classes just to sit on one of the vast campus lawns, chat and watch each other â€“ a popular college activity. The main drag through campus is 13th Avenue, and where the University academic buildings end, the eateries begin. Within one block on 13th you can choose from pizza, subs, bagels, Chinese, Japanese, Mediterranean, Mexican and more. Lets not overlook the several coffee locations and an ice cream shop or two. Still have that thermos? If you missed it on Willamette, the Glenwood also has a campus location at 13th and Alder.
Alas the hustle and bustle of campus life can become hectic and leave much to be desired in picnic terms, like peace and quiet. One Eugene park, however, embodies everything ideal to an avid picnicker.
Southeast of campus, Hendricks Park ascends above Eugene with mysterious beauty and grace. As you wander through the 77 acres of forested park, expect to come across a hookah-smoking caterpillar and don’t be surprised if your picnic lunch suddenly reads, "eat me". Hendricks Park is something right out of Wonderland. Home to over 600 plants and flowers, including 12 acres of rhododendrons, the park is Mother Nature’s tie-dye. Teeming with Douglas firs older than Eugene Skinner himself, Hendricks Park offers a sheltered haven for plants, wild life and merry picnickers.
Grab some grub on 19th Avenue at Studio One Cafï¿½ or McMenamins, which offers growlers of their array of microbrews to go. Also on 19th is Prince Pucklers Ice Cream shop, with an extensive selection of dangerously good flavor combinations from rich chocolates and creamy vanillas to fruit flavors like native marionberry ice cream. Sherberts and sorbets are also available and can be taken in to-go containers.
These spots are merely a few more notable ideas of what Eugene has to offer someone looking for a satisfying lunch-and-lounge experience. The options for grazing are endless and everywhere in this town. For those people who are wary of wet grass, there are tables available in most parks, although a little dampness is just part of the Eugene experience. If you can’t find a location or a food you are craving, stop someone, stop anyone, and ask. With good food, scenery and weather, the final element to a great picnic is friendly conversation, and like the expansive parks and gardens, there is more than enough of that around here.
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our North America Insiders page.