Portland has got its charms, but some of Oregon's most bizarre, dazzling, notable museums lurk outside city limits. The largest clear-span wooden structure in the world? Check. The largest pig hairball in the world? Check. Our very own Frank Lloyd Wright House? Check, again!
Most of these destinations make for a reasonable day trip, so whether you're flying solo inviting a significant other, or packing the whole family into the car, you can see contemplate, and be home in time for dinner.
At the coast
Tillamook Air Museum (pictured above)
In 1942, the US Navy began construction on 17 wooden hangars meant to house antisubmarine patrol and convoy escort blimps. Two hangars were created at the Naval Air Station in Tillamook during World War II, but only one has survived—and it’s the largest clear-span wooden structure in the world. The hangar contains up to 28 aircraft, including the US F-14 Tomcat (Tom Cruise flew one in Top Gun), the Soviet Mig-17 (a 1950s subsonic jet that went toe-to-toe with American supersonic jets in Vietnam), and six land vehicles, like the 1944 Willys Jeep. 6030 Hangar Rd, Tillamook, tillamookair.com
Good for: Kids; Military Channel connoisseurs; airplane enthusiasts; history buffs. Admission: $3.50–10
Opened in 2010 (on the 25th anniversary of The Goonies, in the former Clatsop County jail, a location used in the film), the Oregon Film Museum is a small and Goonies-centric delight. There’s a hands-on, make-your-own short film component, and a rundown of some of the state’s highest-profile productions, from Kindergarten Cop to Twilight. For completists, the museum’s website contains a running list of every single film that’s been shot in the Beaver State. 732 Duane St, Astoria, oregonfilmmuseum.org
Good for: Film buffs; Goonies-heads.
Trish Bright, the retired stockbroker who birthed Astoria’s Museum of Whimsy, is not a hoarder. She is clearly a collector/curator, with some unusual soft spots, which are on heavy display in her extremely personal museum housed in a glorious former bank building downtown Astoria. If you are a lover of intricate beadwork, you might be drawn to the 19th-century Lakota baby bonnet; if your taste runs more Disney, you will prefer the rare Donald Duck sequin costume from the 1930s. Where else will you find a vintage baby incubator that was once on display at Coney Island, with a terrifyingly lifelike silicon baby inside, next to a beribboned taxidermy donkey? Should you wish to bring some of this whimsy home, portions of the collection rotate through the gift shop, so you, too, can be the proud owner of a bejeweled light fixture from France. 1215 Duane St, Astoria, museumofwhimsy.com
Good for: Self-flagellating yard sale fans; anyone who has wondered what it would be like to clamber inside a full-size replica of a British narrowboat.
Admission: Suggestion donation of $5 (open for private tours only)
No need to pilgrimage to Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pennsylvania, to worship at the altar of American architectural treasure Frank Lloyd Wright—his only Oregon project is just an hour south of Portland. In 1957, the always-ahead-of-his-time architect designed a home for Oregon farmers Conrad and Evelyn Gordon. The Gordons lived there for nearly four decades; when the property was sold, the home was moved to a new location at the Oregon Garden in Silverton, where it is now open for tours. The home is a prime example of Wright’s Usonian style, in which he aimed to design thoughtful, modern homes at lower price points. Don’t miss the wood cutout window pattern made from perforated boards that resemble handsaws—a sly nod to Oregon’s logging industry heyday? 869 W Main St, Silverton, thegordonhouse.org
Good for: Architecture buffs (duh), especially ones who can shell out $599 for an overnight stay for four.
Admission: $20 (ages 17 and under free)
Reignite your childlike sense of wonder (and let your kids ignite theirs) at the Historic Carousel and Museum of Albany. The main event is a 1909 carousel whose restoration began in 2004 and took until 2017 to complete. It sports a menagerie of 52 animals, dreamt up and sponsored by different Albany families, then carved and painted by local volunteers. The adjacent museum features carousel animals and decorations dating back to 1885. 503 First Ave W, Albany, albanycarousel.com
Good For: Kids; the young at heart.
Admission: Museum free, carousel rides $2
Can we interest you in the world’s largest pig hairball? A pair of deformed calves? Perhaps a paintstaking replica of Jesus’s crown of thorns? Tucked into the corner of an active seminary in a remote stretch of Marion County (which also houses a library designed by Finnish architectural legend Alvar Aalto), the Mount Angel Abbey Museum is an ode to the natural world, in all its (often-grotesque) glory. The views from the grounds are stunning, and a short walk away lies Benedictine Brewery, which is owned and operated by the monks who live at the abbey, featuring beers brewed
by hops grown on-site with water from their well. 1 Abbey Dr, St. Benedict, mount
Good for: Peaceful contemplation; remembering nature be wild; beer
Admission: Free, optional donation
Can’t decide between natural history and history-history? This 48,000-square-foot museum, full of interactive multimedia exhibits, makes a good spot to while away a few hours as you learn about the Ice Age (don’t miss the full-size mammoth replica), the geological forces that shaped the Gorge (hint: volcanoes are involved), and 10,000 years of Indigenous history. The highlight, though, is the Raptor Program, where visitors can meet birds of prey, like bald eagles, red tailed hawks, and American kestrels. 5000 Discovery Dr, The Dalles, gorgediscovery.org
Good for: Kids; history buffs; ornithophiles.
Admission: $5–9 (ages 5 and under free)
This museum claims to be the only one along the Oregon Trail to tell the story of westward expansion from the point of view of the Indigenous people—specifically the Cayune, Umatilla, and Walla Walla tribes—whose world was upended to the extreme by Lewis, Clark, and all who came after. But the museum doesn’t begin, or end, there. Permanent exhibits take visitors back to pre-contract days, including a reconstructed lodge made of tule reeds in which visitors can sit and listen to recordings of legends passed down through countless generations. There’s no shying away, either, from artifacts that depict the miseries imposed by settlers: disease, war, forced boarding schools that tore families apart. But there’s hope here, too, in the forward-looking finale galleries that celebrate Native cultural perseverance. 47106 Wildhorse Blvd, Pendleton, tamastslikt.org
Good for: Everyone and anyone who needs to understand that there is so much more to the Oregon Trail than dying of dysentery.
Admission: $7–10 (ages 5 and under free)
This mid-19th-century building in John Day has lived a lot of lives: trading post, temple, community center for the city’s once-robust Chinese population, boardinghouse, apothecary. Now a designated state park and National Historic Site, it’s leaned hard into the apothecary of it all, returning to its medicine-heavy 1940 appearance, complete with the possessions of its former owners, vintage furniture, and various period-appropriate Chinese medicinal tools. 519 W Main St, John Day, stateparks.oregon.gov
Good for: History lovers; Eastern medicine enthusiasts.
Admission: Free (building closed until May 2022, with on-site virtual tours offered through the end of October 2021)
While it’s more roadside attraction than museum (OK, it’s fully a roadside attraction), we would nonetheless be remiss to exclude this bizarre little slice of PNW lore. Opened in 1930, the Vortex has been the subject of a Mythbusters-style takedown on Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files and mentioned on a season 7 episode of The X-Files. A variety of strange phenemona plague the property: brooms stand on end, gravity seems to bend, heights ebb and flow—it’s all packaged as paranormal, though the Vortex’s “no moving video” rule admittedly makes us cock a skeptical brow. 4303 Sardine Creek L Fork Rd, Gold Hill, oregonvortex.com
Good for: The superstitious; the decidedly un-superstitious; the Twilight Zone fan in us all.