By Bennett Hall

Corvallis Gazette-Times

The Oregon Department of Transportation has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to take some of the twists and turns out of U.S. Highway 20 and make it a swifter, safer passage through the Coast Range between the mid-Willamette Valley and the Pacific Ocean. Now, for a tiny fraction of the cost, ODOT is hoping to steer a few of the thousands of travelers who make that trip each day onto an alternate route: state Highway 34.

In late April, a 72-mile stretch of the state highway between Tangent and Waldport won official recognition from Oregon’s transportation and tourism commissions as the Marys Peak to Pacific Scenic Byway. The route also includes a pair of 10-mile spurs that invite travelers to make side trips to Marys Peak and Alsea Falls.

It’s a considerably slower drive than the comparable stretch of Highway 20 (the two routes briefly come together as one, occupying the same asphalt from Corvallis to Philomath before diverging through the mountains).

But then, that’s precisely the point of a scenic byway.

“For me, it’s about slowing down and enjoying some of the scenery along the way,” said Christina Rehklau, who’s helping to promote the route in her role as executive director of Visit Corvallis, the city’s tourism bureau. “You get to see some of those landscapes you wouldn’t ordinarily see. It’s a little slower pace, and quite frankly a lot of us could benefit from unplugging once in a while.”

Many longtime Valley residents may have a hard time thinking of Highway 34 as a scenic drive. Most people heading from this area to the coast choose Highway 20 because it’s a faster road and leads to Newport, a bustling town of 10,000 with a busy commercial fishing port, two aquariums, a historic lighthouse and a thriving tourist district with motels, restaurants and shops. Highway 34, in addition to being slower, deposits travelers at Waldport, a sleepy coastal community of about 2,000, with few of the obvious attractions of its larger neighbor to the north.

But proponents of scenic byway status hope the new designation will help travelers, including the most jaded locals, see this particular patch of pavement with fresh eyes.