The state of Oregon is full of natural wonder and beauty. Within a few hours drive you can travel from the Pacific coast, through vibrant valleys, over snow capped mountains and across high desert. It’s really tough choosing just five scenic wonders, but here goes!
1. Swim, beach comb and shop at Cannon Beach and Haystack Rock
In 1967 Oregon’s legislature passed the Oregon Beach Bill, which enacted public ownership of the state’s beaches. An adventurous person could freely hike all 382 miles of the Oregon Coast Trail, which mostly follows the state’s beaches.
One of the best beach spots is along the northern coast at the town of Cannon Beach. With a population just shy of 1,700, Cannon Beach offers a variety of dining, shopping and lodging options to serve as a great homebase while you begin a beach combing adventure. Scour the sand for cool rocks smoothed by the churning waters of the Pacific, shells, and maybe even a sand dollar or two. If you visit during June check out the sand castle building contest.
Just offshore is Haystack Rock. A 235-foot tall rock jutting up out of the sand and water. During low tide, you can venture out and explore its tidal pools to see crabs, anemones and starfish. Just don’t get caught out there when the tide comes in. Movie buffs will recognize Haystack Rock from The Goonies, Point Break and Twilight.
2. Feel the water’s spray at Multnomah Falls
From Portland jump on the Historic Columbia River Highway, journey east then enter the beautiful Columbia River Gorge, a federally recognized National Scenic Area. The Columbia River Gorge is home to many waterfalls, but none so impressive as Multnomah Falls. You may feel like you just arrived in Rivendell, but rest assured you’re still in Oregon. Between the upper and lower falls, the water cascades down 620 feet. If you want a closer look, a short but sometimes steep hike 100 feet over the lower falls will take you to the Benson Footbridge spanning 45 feet across. (Warning: Don’t look down if you have a fear of heights!) You’ll get a spectacular view of the upper falls and a perfect photo backdrop. Multnomah Falls can get very busy and traffic can be brutal — especially during the summer — so I recommend making this your first stop of the day.
3. Take in the beauty at Crater Lake
Crater Lake National Park is probably Oregon’s best known wonder — it’s even on one of our license plates! The lake’s name is somewhat deceptive as it isn’t really a crater, but rather a caldera, or a volcano that has collapsed in on itself, leaving a crater-like formation. Because there are no streams or rivers flowing into or out of the caldera, all of the water in the lake is from rain and snow. In fact, Crater Lake averages about 44 feet of snowfall every year! Additionally that means very little contamination makes it to the lake, so it contains some of the purest, clearest water in the world. Crater Lake is nearly 2,000 feet deep, making it the deepest lake in the United States and one of the deepest in the world.
Biking, boating, fishing, snowmobiling, hiking and wildlife viewing are just some of the activities to engage in. The chipmunks and squirrels that live along the caldera’s slopes are especially comical to watch. Due to elevation, location in the Cascade Range, and remoteness it’s important to plan your trip well in advance. The National Park Service website can help you plan appropriately for weather, lodging and food.
4. Boat, relax and barbecue at The Coves Palisades State Park
Honestly, until a few months ago I had never heard of this place. While planning a vacation in Camp Sherman, Oregon I was looking at a map to see what was in the area for hiking and exploration. I saw The Coves Palisades State Park and read a few reviews on it. One reviewer declared that it was “the most beautiful place in the world.” That said, I knew we had to visit, and we weren’t disappointed.
Lake Billy Chinook is the the park’s focal point. The lake is a reservoir created by the Round Butte Dam and fed by the Crooked, Deschutes and Metolius rivers. It is named for a Native American who accompanied John C. Fremont on one of his Oregon expeditions. The lake lies at the bottom canyons carved by the three rivers with some of the canyon reaching heights of 700 feet. Camping, fishing, swimming, boating and hiking are just some of the activities that you can participate in. Campgrounds offer tent sites and RV hookups.
Be sure to also check out nearby Round Butte Overlook Park. It offers some amazing views of the area, including the Lake Billy Chinook and the Round Butte Dam. If you follow SW Mountain View Drive a few miles east from the Overlook, and turn north onto SW Round Butte Drive, you can follow a small road that leads to the top of the butte. The panoramic views are worth the short drive. Just remember, this isn’t part of the park, so be respectful of those who live there!
5. Explore the John Day Fossil Beds and the Painted Hills
The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is located in Oregon’s high desert. The monument is divided into three separate units: Sheep Rock Unit, Clarno Unit, and the Painted Hills Unit. The three units are all part of the park, but are separated by some distance, which requires some driving. Your first stop should be at the Sheep Rock Unit. Here you’ll find the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center which offers a great overview of the park and its history alongside displays. You might even see some of the researchers in the lab cleaning fossils. To clarify, the fossils found at John Day are not from dinosaurs. The area was actually under the ocean during the age of dinosaurs, so all the fossils here are from mammals and plants. You won’t be disappointed though! Instead of velociraptors, you’ll be introduced to amazing camel and rhinoceros-like animals that no longer roam the earth. With the knowledge of the surrounding area you’ve learned at the center, head for the hills!
The Painted Hills are beautiful and truly look like someone has reached out with a giant brush and painted the hillside with watercolors. Shades of black, red and yellow form a backdrop that varies throughout the day as lighting changes and throughout the year as shrubs and bushes grow and flower. There are five mini trails that get you up close and personal with the terrain. I recommend the Painted Cove Trail where the rocks and soil are particularly vibrant.
Finish your adventure at the rugged Clarno Unit with a hike and picnic. Despite how the area looks today, 44 million years ago it was a lush semitropical landscape until volcanic mudflows covered the area, creating the fossils that we see today.