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Fall for Oregon's autumn foliage along a Nehalem River backroad

A scenic 30-mile drive along the river takes you through some of Oregon's most spectacular sights of the fall season.

ELSIE, Ore. — I am a big believer that it’s the journey that supports the destination. It is an insightful phrase that I have lived by whenever I travel throughout Oregon’s great outdoors.

This week, getting from this place to that is a journey to savor along a coastal byway that offers leaping salmon and spectacular fall colors — all within a 90-minute drive from Portland.

If the roadway flanking the Lower Nehalem River has a number, I surely cannot find it on a map. Perhaps that’s why I’ve such a love affair with this backdoor byway that takes a bit longer to get from this place to that.

It breezes along nearly 30 miles beginning at a small whistle-stop village called “Elsie” (located on State Highway 26) and bounds down a narrow lane past limb-framed farms that cry “photo opp,” before it zips past softly rounded hillsides whose trees sport what calendars told us nearly a month ago: the seasons are changing!

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The Nehalem River’s tributaries also show you the changing times: some start as tiny, spring-fed trickles across spongy moss that later grow giant and creek-sized and where husky salmon have muscled their way back from salty sea to find their birth home in time to spawn.

“It is so exciting, you just don’t want to leave, can’t stop watching them,” said local photographer Don Best, perched above popular Nehalem Falls at the Oregon Department of Forestry’s Nehalem Falls Campground. (Note: the campground has closed for the fall-winter season, but the trail to the falls remains open.)

Nehalem Falls does so in a short, 30-yard series of churning drops that give salmon little choice but a gang-up approach to leaping for their lives.

Best is an avid fan of the site and tries to capture the salmon show each fall.

“I’ll be here for hours trying to get that ‘oooh-ahhh’ shot,” said the longtime outdoor photographer. “They jump high and they jump low and you never know where they’ll show up. Plus, they’re only in the air for half a second so you don’t always get them in the perfect shot. Some people take pictures underwater and they turn out really great — but to get them flying through the air is a different story. That’s fun for me.”

The water handsprings over unseen rocks through the falls while other river spots show off a distinct river’s rhythm, providing a source of restoration for the life that grows here.

The Nehalem River is always by your side on this scenic drive but you can enjoy a chance to break off from the roadway at Henry Rierson Spruce Run Campground. Abundant picnic tables compliment a perfect riverside stop and rest and breathe in relaxation before you continue on your way.

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It is the colorful, wonderful show along this backroad that I cherish most; where the big leaf maple leaves, already mottled brown or gray, sometimes fall gently, gliding by the way.

At other times, a breeze kicks up a blizzard and the leaves drop and stop on placid pools where barely a ripple marks the moment, or the giant leaves collect and build in piles along the road providing a "drive through" too inviting to refuse.

So, hurry here soon and then slow down on a backroad without numbers that is one of the very best around! 

Please consider the Oregon Fall Foliage Hotline (operates between Sept. and Nov.) for it offers weekly reports on the status of the fall colors across Oregon.

Be sure to watch the weekly half hour program of Grant’s Getaways. The show airs each Saturday and Sunday at 4 p.m. on KGW.

For something different, you can follow my Oregon adventures via the Grant’s Getaways Podcast: Each segment is a story-telling session where I relate behind the scenes stories from four decades of travel and television reporting.

You can also learn more about many of my favorite Oregon travels and adventures in the Grant’s Getaways book series, including:

The book collection offers hundreds of outdoor activities across Oregon and promises to engage a kid of any age.

You can reach me: gmcomie@kgw.com

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