Ted Grimsrud

20 best Oregon small towns

By Bob Welch

Register-Guard columnist [Eugene, Oregon]

Published: Monday, Feb 14, 2011 12:01AM

[TGG note: I spent my first 18 years in the 7th ranked town]


Monday, Feb. 14, is that traditional day when we express our unequivocal love to — well, of course, the state born 152 years ago on that date: Oregon.

So, in keeping with my yearly tradition of honoring it at this time of year, here are my Top 20 Best Small Towns in Oregon (populations 10,000 or less).

My choices aren’t based on crime statistics, economic viability or anything like that; instead, it’s just basic coolness, my choices clouded by all sorts of emotional subjectivity:

20. Jacksonville (Jackson County, pop. 2,490) If Harper Lee had based “To Kill a Mockingbird” in Oregon, she would have chosen this tired old town west of Medford to be her Maycomb, Ala.

19. Dayville (Grant, pop. 160) It’s a speck in a county that’s the same size as Lane but has so few people it would meet the 10,000-or-less qualification all by itself. Wonderfully quiet — until a car zings by Highway 26, which happens less frequently than Oregon loses a football game. The Dayville Mercantile’s floor has been worn smooth by 115 years of cowboy-booted history.

18. Fossil (Wheeler, pop. 460) Where else can you watch a parade where the most spectacular float is a tractor? Heavenly hills, homespun folks and Bill Bowerman stories abound.

17. Brownsville (Linn, pop. 1,530) Zipping off Interstate 5 and into Brownsville is the closest thing to backward time travel you’ll find in Oregon. And give the yesterday-­feeling town “brownie” points for having been the backdrop for “Stand by Me.”

16. Shaniko (Wasco, pop. 30) Every small-town list should include at least one ghost town; this is mine. Its heyday was a century ago, but as you drive north from Madras on Highway 97, there’s still something eerily intriguing about the place.

15. Wallowa (Wallowa, pop. 870) Another one of those emeralds in the Eastern Oregon rough, a drive-through town surrounded by a surprising amount of head-shaking beauty.

14. Bandon (Coos, pop. 3,065) Named for the Bandon, Ireland, family that founded it, this coastal town has charm, cheese, offshore rocky islands, a lighthouse and, of course, a handful of world-class golf courses where the fairways are wonderful, I hear. (I wouldn’t know, though I’ve played a handful of rounds in the Bandon gorse.)

13. Joseph (Wallowa, pop. 1,090) An off-the-beaten-track Sisters with fewer tourists and more antlers. Wallowa Lake and alpine mountains on its back porch; pine forests on its front; and Hell’s Canyon as its intellectually deep neighbor.

12. Frenchglen (Harney, pop. 12, though it’s not that crowded in the off-season) Not much here beyond the Frenchglen Hotel and a school where the principal has to warn hunters to stay off the playground. But a summer night on the hotel’s porch, watching the sunlight fade on Steens Mountain, is a night to remember.

11. Cannon Beach (Clatsop, pop. 1,650) It’s too upscale and too full of Portlanders to be among my leaders, but how can you ignore an artsy berg with iconic Haystack Rock sitting right on its beach?

10. Cottage Grove (Lane, pop. 9,110) It doesn’t look like much from the freeway, but once you start poking around — and meet people — its charm escalates. Like Brownsville, its Main Street has been in pictures: the parade scene in “Animal House.”

9. Neskowin (Tillamook, pop. 169) Coasty and quaint, its beach is beautifully book-marked by Proposal Rock and Cascade Head.

8. Depoe Bay (Lincoln, pop. 1,275) Spectacular surf and sandstone coves, fishing boats, chowder, used-book stores and a smiling Jack Nicholson taking his friends deep-sea-fishing in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” What’s to not like?

7. Elkton (Douglas, pop. 197) Coolest setting for a football field I’ve ever seen; a shanked punt almost lands in the Umpqua River. Plus a school-town bond that’s like Superglue.

6. Florence (Lane, pop. 8,185) Nothing inspiring about the Lincoln City-like stretch of Highway 101, but its Old Town riverfront, beaches and glimpses of dunes more than compensate.

5. Coburg (Lane, pop. 1,070) I’ve been in love with this place since seeing my first Golden Years parade in 1978. Driving through Coburg on a warm summer evening is like a visual bite of watermelon.

4. Newport (Lincoln, pop. 9,925) True, it fits into the small-town category about as comfortably as “Saturday Night Live’s” Chris Farley fit into a suit, but the bayfront is a rare blend of tourists and guys trying to shuttle forklifts of shrimp around. Worth it alone for the fishy smell — and the crab-line notches worn into the wooden dock railings.

3. Sisters (Deschutes, pop. 1,600) Quilt stores, bookstores and a rodeo. Yes, and way too much tourist traffic, but it’s flanked by the Three Sisters and studded with pines, so this town’s rustic ambience — even if slightly contrived — works for me.

2. Camp Sherman (Jefferson, pop. about 200) Nothing gritty about this place; it was founded not by pioneers but vacationers, many of whom arrived in waders, ready to fish the Metolius River. Cabins, a “Golden Pond”-esque general store and acres of life-pondering woods. All with a river running through it.

1. Yachats (Lincoln, pop. 730) Surprise, surprise, huh? I’ve gushed for more than a decade about this place, so I will spare you the details. But suffice it to say there’s no place I’d rather be.

But enough of me. How about your favorite Oregon small towns?

  1. I have never been, but I’ve heard that Brookings is the BEST place to live in Oregon. I met a woman who grew up there, she said that it is kind of in a cove, so that they don’t get all the rain and fog that the rest of Oregon gets, yet it is Green, Lush and Beautiful and pretty much that way year round, almost like a paradise.

    I have to test this theory out. Only problem is that it appears that it is mostly elderly people that live there, so there won’t be much fun for kids to meet others their age. Not sure though being I’ve never been there.

    I have been to Bandon, on your list. My Aunt lives there still. I was there when I was 14 for a family reunion. That was 25 years ago.

    It was a magnificent place, the Cheese was great. The Beach was nice, and everything was so beautiful. I don’t recall much else about it. I know that my Aunts place is like 2 minutes away from the ocean, so that was very nice, but for her, not people who visit :)

  2. I always liked Astoria and not just cause of kindergarten cop or the goonies but probably because I went to job corps there and have really experienced the town I also been partial to garabaldi right between one of my fav camp grounds barview jetty and Tillamook home of the overrated but I still can’t seem to stay away cheese factory gotta get my ice cream oh and despite my ex wife leaving me for someone from there prineville

  3. My husband and I are looking to buy some property in Oregon to buy now, retire in later. Looking for something rural, sort of a small town feel. Any suggestions for inexpensive places that would fit that bill?

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