I was surprised to learn last week that this mid-Willamette Valley town, best known as the home of Oregon State University, has been ranked as the most innovative city in the United States.

The assessment followed a study published by a quartet of social scientists in the Public Library of Science's online journal, so I perhaps should not have been startled.

After all, Corvallis is the place where the world's first transparent transistor and its original inkjet printer were invented — at OSU and Hewlett-Packard, respectively. It is the town where chemist Linus Pauling started his Nobel prize-winning career. It's the place where the modern maraschino cherry was developed by food scientists. It's a city that has more patents issued each year, on a per capita basis, than any other.

And it's the home of national royalty of a sort. OSU basketball coach Craig Robinson is the brother of First Lady Michelle Obama. Corvallis insiders say she makes several discreet visits to Corvallis each year, sometimes accompanied by her husband, President Barack Obama.

Nearly 24,000 university students are among the 55,000 people who live in Corvallis. The city's name is adapted from the Latin words for “heart of the valley,” but its pulse beats loudest at OSU. Signs around campus and in downtown Corvallis declare this a community that is “powered by orange.” Any time of year you may see students wearing bright orange shirts and jackets, but they are ubiquitous at sporting events, especially football games at Reser Stadium.

Sometime in the 1940s, OSU students adopted the symbol of the state of Oregon — the beaver — as their mascot. Benny the Beaver first made his appearance at Reser (then Parker) Stadium in 1952. He was chosen national Mascot of the Year in a 2011 competition. Students and townspeople alike are so infected by school spirit that they call themselves the Beaver Nation.

The main entrance to the OSU campus is less than a mile west of downtown Corvallis, on Jefferson Way at 15th Street. From the Kerr Administration Building on the southwest corner, small group tours are hosted six times every weekday (9, 10 and 11 a.m.; 1, 2 and 3 p.m.). Although they are mainly intended for prospective students and their parents, these tours are a good way for casual visitors to see the original northeast sector of campus.

OSU dates its history to 1868, when Corvallis State Agricultural College was chartered on the foundation of the earlier Corvallis Academy.

After it became Oregon Agricultural College (OAC) in 1890, the famed Olmsted brothers, Boston-based landscape architects, developed the first campus master plan, laying out handsome buildings along wide, tree-lined streets. The school was renamed Oregon State University in 1961.

The oldest existing building on the 400-acre campus is Benton Hall, erected in 1887. As it is now home to the Department of Music, passers-by often hear melodious sounds wafting from its upper floors, beneath an iconic clock tower.

Nearby is the handsome Valley Library, built in 1963 and expanded in 1999 with a donation from alumnus F. Wayne Valley.

But visitors may be less interested in its collection of 1.4 million volumes than in its exhibition on Linus Pauling (1901-1994), perhaps the university's most famous alum.

Located in the Special Collections section of the library's fifth floor, the display features a time line of Pauling's career and travels — most of them with his college sweetheart and wife of 58 years, Ava Helen. On request, student aides will unlock a reproduction of the scientist's faculty office at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), complete with an actual chalkboard and replicas of his two Nobel prizes: chemistry in 1954 and peace in 1963.

Born in Portland, Pauling graduated from OAC in 1922 with a degree in chemical engineering. He is credited with discovering the alpha helix, and his work on chemical bonds, sickle-cell anemia and especially vitamin C — which he championed as a preventive remedy for everything from the common cold to cancer — led him to worldwide renown. He was also famed for his stand against nuclear arms, a position that had the support of such prominent scientists as Albert Einstein and Albert Schweitzer.

Pauling may have been a superhero in his time, but he wasn't Superman or Spiderman, at least not in the world of Mark Newport. A Michigan-based fiber artist, Newport has a one-man show on exhibit in OSU's Fairbanks Gallery. “Alter Egos” features hand-knit superhero costumes and embroidered comic-book covers in the main entrance hall of the university's art department, just across 26th Street from the Memorial Union student center.

More on campus

Elsewhere on the OSU campus, there's plenty to see from the outside, not so much from the inside — unless your 2012 visit coincides with Mom's Day (April 14) or Dad's Day (Nov. 19). On these days alone, many schools and departments offer open houses with private tours of their facilities.

It may be worth a special trip at those times just to get a 45-minute tour of the O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory. A tsunami wave basin and 342-foot-long wave flume, the longest in North America, enable scientists to better understand the generation and impact of tidal waves. Better understanding of these natural phenomena will lead to improved preparedness, reducing the risk of disasters like the recent ones in Japan and Southeast Asia.

The OSU program is partially supported by the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation of the National Science Foundation.

Kitty-corner from this facility, at 35th Street and Jefferson Way, the OSU Radiation Center contains a nuclear reactor that serves state and federal programs as well as student and faculty research. Like the Wave Research Lab, it's open to visits only two or three times a year.

Headquarters of the OSU engineering program are at the Kelley Engineering Center, on Campus Way east of 26th Street. Opened in 2005, the four-story, $45 million building was certified LEED Gold by the U.S. Green Building Council, making it the first academic engineering building in the United States to be so honored. Ample natural light and ventilation enable it to cut energy costs by more than 40 percent over the norm.

Agriculture, veterinary medicine and the food sciences are also important elements of the OSU curriculum. The Agricultural and Life Sciences Building (Campus Way near 27th Street) is a major campus landmark; dairy, horse and sheep research centers are located one-half to three miles west of the main campus via Harrison Avenue.

But more visitors, perhaps, are interested in the adjunct Department of Food Science&Technology in Wiegand Hall (30th Street at Campus Way). A display case at the building's entrance introduces a half-dozen graduates who have gone on to success in various fields, including Doug Kutella, class of '99, co-owner of Central Oregon's Cascade Lakes Brewing Co.

The Oregon Wine Research Institute and Pilot Plant Brewery are located within Wiegand Hall, and may be visited by special arrangement.

Athletic facilities are mainly located on the south side of campus off 26th Street. These include Reser Stadium, home of the OSU football and track teams, and Gill Coliseum, where athletic offices ring the home court of the men's and women's basketball teams. A little to the northeast, off Washington Way, is Coleman Field, where the Oregon State baseball team — national collegiate champions in 2006 and 2007 — plays its home games.

Corvallis' largest hotel, with 153 rooms, the Hilton Garden Inn is directly across Western Boulevard from Reser Stadium.

Managed by Davis Smith, an OSU alum who was formerly sales and marketing director at the Seventh Mountain Resort and Bend's Oxford Hotel, it is the only hotel in Benton County with its own restaurant and lounge.

Downtown Corvallis

The hub of municipal Corvallis is directly east of the OSU campus, on the west bank of the Willamette River. Its landmark building is the 1888 Benton County Courthouse, located on Northwest Fourth Street between Monroe and Jackson avenues.

The oldest courthouse in Oregon still used for its original purpose, the four-story structure has a prominent clock tower whose bells and carillon help downtowners track the time of day.

U.S. Highways 20 and 99 West run through the center of Corvallis — north and east bound as Third Street, south and west bound as Fourth Street. From Western Avenue north to Harrison Avenue, through a series of cross streets named for early American presidents, downtown merchants welcome shoppers in search of wares as diverse as ceramic art, musical instruments and lingerie.

This is also where visitors find the city's best restaurants. Luc, chef Ian Hutchings' intimate, southern French-influenced dining room, may be the finest of a small but strong selection. Del Alma Restaurant&Bar, a multitiered restaurant with a Willamette River view, showcases contemporary Latin flavors. Magenta specializes in Pacific Rim tastes, including a small-bite selection of freshly made Chinese dim sum. Also excellent, with more family-friendly prices, are the Broken Yolk Cafe, the Old World Deli and the Block 15 Restaurant and Brewery.

The most picturesque stretch of downtown is Riverfront Commemorative Park, which stretches along First Street for nine blocks. From mid-April through mid-November, this is the home of the twice-weekly Corvallis Farmers Markets. Vegetables, fruits and flowers add plenty of color to the narrow park, but it's lively any time of year, as pedestrians and bicyclists meander around public sculptures beside the tree-lined Willamette.

In summer, patios outside the Flat Tail Brewery, the Big River Restaurant, and the jointly operated Cloud 9 restaurant and Downward Dog pub bring extra energy to this strip into the late evening hours.

Parks and rec

But Corvallis is more than a collection of buildings. It's also a beehive of activity for outdoors lovers.

Spencer Newell, a longtime Bend resident and cycling enthusiast who moved to Corvallis last October, said he has found his new residence to offer even more varied terrain for mountain biking than his former home in Central Oregon.

Newell recommended that I check out the Bald Hill Natural Area and the McDonald Forest, both just a few miles west of Corvallis. I took my dog to Bald Hill, a City of Corvallis park where a 1 1/2-mile trail offers a corridor through hundreds of acres of traditional farmland, scrub woodland and riparian wetland. I could imagine the cycling potential even more at the McDonald Forest, best approached from the OSU College of Forestry's Peavy Arboretum, six miles northwest of Corvallis.

The liveliest urban park is Avery Park, a 75-acre swath of green just south of downtown Corvallis and the OSU campus. Bordered on the north by the Marys River just before it flows into the Willamette, its features include rose and rhododendron gardens, a nature education center, extensive picnic grounds and a historic steam engine. All told, Corvallis Parks&Recreation administers 37 individual parks and undeveloped reserves.

The city is also a paradise for bird watchers. The Pacific Flyway extends through the Willamette Valley, making this region an important one for migratory birds. There are three wildlife refuges in the midvalley region; nearest to Corvallis is the Finley National Wildlife Refuge, 12 miles south. Created as a wintering area for Canada geese, it has become a sanctuary for falcons and egrets, as well as for elk and many species of indigenous plants.

Finally, Corvallis and its surrounding Benton County are the home to well over a dozen vineyards and wineries famed for their pinot noir and other vintages. Among the best known are Tyee, 10 miles southwest via Greenberry; Harris Bridge, 11 miles west via Philomath; Benton-Lane, 19 miles south near Monroe; and Airlie, 20 miles north near Adair Village.

Grab a glass — preferably an orange one — and raise a toast to the Beaver Nation.