Classic Community Spotlight: Dorena Lake (and Cottage Grove)

The communities of Cottage Grove and Dorena Lake have one important characteristic in common. They both seem to have the incredible ability to adapt, reinvent, transform and just keep going. This unique trait is deeply ingrained in the fabric of Oregon and when you start looking for it, you start to see it everywhere.

Dorena was originally located 6 miles east of Cottage Grove, but if you go there today, you’ll need scuba gear to find it. Dorena was first settled by farmers, loggers and gold miners in 1850 along the Row (sounds like how) River, about 25 miles southeast of Eugene in the low foothills of the Calapooya Mountains. In 1940, the US Army Corps of Engineers decided they wanted to build a dam and the town, along with roughly 100 homes, would need to be moved five miles upriver. So, Dorena did the only thing they could do – they rolled with it.

Interesting side note: The river’s name Row, as in a quarrel, comes from a situation involving two feuding brothers and trespassing livestock resulting in the shooting of one of the brothers. Isn’t history fun?

Today, the town of Dorena is a quiet, unincorporated community with not much more than a post office and a convenience store. Dorena Lake (the lake, not the town) is a beautiful reservoir people visit to fish, camp, boat, bike, and play in the water. The two most popular areas around the lake are Baker Bay Marina and Schwarz Park, both fully stocked for family fun.

Dorena isn’t the town it once was more than a century and a half ago, but if you ask the 80,000 people per year who get so much enjoyment from the lake, not to mention the hydropower generated from the dam, transforming from a town to a reservoir seems to be working out pretty good after all.

If you go 6 miles due west from Dorena Lake along the Row River, you’ll find the town of Cottage Grove. Cottage Grove bills itself as the All-American city and you can almost smell the apple pie in the air. With its famous covered bridges and a tidy main street, this town feels like a throwback to another era. That’s probably why Hollywood has come calling several times when filming movies set in the 1950s and 60s. The famous parade scene from Animal House was shot in downtown Cottage Grove and much of Stand By Me was set in and around town. Even though Cottage Grove has all the usual fast food spots and modern trappings, the town still has the bones to transform back to the time and place in which these stories were set.

Another great example of Cottage Grove’s ability to adapt can be seen in the 6 historic covered bridges all located within minutes of downtown. At the time the bridges were built, steel and concrete were hard to come by but timber in this part of the country was plentiful. The bridges were covered in order to keep the rain from aging them. The fact that these bridges still look great and are in use today is a testament to the craftsmanship and ingenuity of their builders.

Connecting Cottage Grove with Dorena Lake is another great transformation and attraction for visitors –The Row River Trail. This 16-mile National Scenic Trail is the result of a Rails-to-Trails program completed in 1998. The abandoned Oregon Pacific & Eastern Railway (nicknamed the Old Slow & Easy) used to haul lumber, ore, supplies and passengers between Disston and Cottage Grove. Now a beautifully paved biking and hiking trail, this path winds its way through old growth forest and past three covered bridges on its way to the eastern shores of Dorena Lake and on down the Row River. This year Cycle Oregon will have the pleasure of riding a section of this trail.

Whether you’re drawn to this area for the lake, the cycling, the history, the small town Americana, or for all of the above, there is plenty to see and do here. And that’s one thing that’s not likely to change.

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  1. Great article about Cottage Grove and Dorena (named after Dora and Lorena). The original Dorena was located where Rat Creek flowed into the Row River. I (and family) have lived on Rat Creek for 45 years in our Log House built in 1934 being just 300′ from Dorena. We also own a house next door that was one of the original Dorena residences and pulled (rolled) up to its present location. This area east of The Grove is a great cycling destination as we will see on the way back to Oakridge. I feel so lucky to have this “playground” so close by and on the 8 mile drive into town, if I see 4 cars then I have experienced a “traffic Jamb”. On day 7 after reaching Disston we enter the Umpqua National Forest for a wonderful climb through old growth forests and mostly car less roads and nice views at the top ridge before downhill into Oakridge. See ya’ll

  2. This might be too late to let your riders know but I think the trail used to be a railroad track which was featured in the movie Stand By Me.

  3. June R Buechting says:

    Corrections: there is no convienience store in Dorena, and Harms boat ramp has no ammenities.