Oregon is a natural stunner. The state's glorious coastline alternates between rugged cliffs accented with stone sentinels just offshore to miles-long sandy beaches perfect for a relaxing stroll. Inland, landscapes vary from craggy gorges to coniferous forests to salty playas. Then there are the snowy volcanic peaks, painted desert panoramas and rich agricultural lands hosting hundreds of vineyards. For a relatively compact region, you couldn’t ask for more.
Oregon’s alluring coast
The Pacific Ocean has been kind to Oregon, blessing it with cool, rugged beauty. Frothy waves lap the shores of Ecola State Park, and just inland a lush Sitka spruce forest is home to wildlife like Roosevelt elk and bald eagles. For a delightful excursion, wheel over to dramatic Three Capes Scenic Drive – and stop for a beer or meal at Pelican Pub & Brewery. For a bit of big-city culture condensed into small-town life, head to Astoria, the first permanent US settlement on the Pacific coast, and a pretty one to boot. Newport is another good destination, with a first-rate aquarium for the kiddies. Darling little hamlets to explore include Yachats (boasting amazing rock formations), Bandon (strewn with cute boutiques) and scenic (along with well-located) Port Orford.
The glorious gorge
One of the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest is the Columbia River Gorge. Gouged out by the Missoula Floods some 15,000 years ago, this sensational geologic landmark is home to Multnomah Falls, Oregon’s most popular tourist attraction, and Vista House, sporting incomparable views of the gorge. Dozens of hikes lead to gushing waterfalls and fern-laden gullies, while blustery winds make the town of Hood River one of the world’s best places to kite board or windsurf. And just over the mountains to the south lies magnificent Mt Hood, Oregon’s highest peak and itself a major hiking, camping and skiing destination.
Heavenly wine country
Oregon is the fourth-largest producer of wine in the US, and the mild Willamette Valley contains the lion’s share of the state’s wineries. This region is known for its pinot noir – that fruity, earthy, full-bodied red made famous in the movie Sideways. Don’t ignore other varietals, however; chardonnay, riesling and pinot gris are other local – and very tasty – celebrities. Some wineries to visit include Argyle, noted for their sparkling wines; Eyrie, which makes an excellent pinot gris; and Domain Drouhin (domainedrouhin.com), a pioneer in chardonnay. Meanwhile, Willakenzie, Willamette Valley , Archery Summit and Sokol Blosser (sokolblosser.com) are tops for their pinot noirs. So tip that glass back and drink up – there’s plenty more where that came from.
The wonders of Bend
If you love outdoor activities, Bend should be your destination. You can ski in the morning, kayak in the afternoon and golf in the evening. Just south of the city is Newberry National Volcanic Monument, a volcanic region containing an old lava tube to explore, petrified forests to wow over and old obsidian lava flows to scamper around. Peaceful, isolated lakes within the monument offer rustic resorts with water sports, camping and hiking, while lovely Bend is home to plenty of exceptional restaurants and breweries.
Bewitching Crater Lake
It’s difficult to describe the ethereal beauty of Crater Lake, the deepest lake in the US and Oregon’s only National Park. The water’s deep, complex and jaw-dropping blue color is simply dazzling – you don’t often witness this hue in nature. And it’s amazingly clear, straight down to a hundred feet, due to its isolation from rivers and streams; only rain and melted snow fill this ancient volcanic caldera. Hop on a boat ride to Wizard Island, a cinder cone that reaches 755ft above the lake’s surface, or hike up Watchman Peak, a moderate .7-mile trail with spectacular views and a historic fire lookout. During the months of mid-June through mid-October (depending on snow) you can motor around Rim Drive and stay at historic Crater Lake Lodge. Attention cyclists – the park hosts one or two vehicle-free days annually, a rare chance for an unforgettable ride.
The rainbows of John Day Fossil Beds
Your first view of the Painted Hills ‘Unit’ (ie, region) here will be striking – bands of red, brown, yellow, orange, beige and black shimmer in the desert’s dry air, making you wonder ‘how the heck did this happen?’ That would be the ash deposits of several volcanic eruptions that occurred some 30 million years ago. To the east, the Sheep Rock Unit features stunning eroded mountain tops where paleontologists have found dinosaur fossils, while the central Clarno Unit harbors ancient mud flows, cool rock formations and petrified logs. But don’t try doing it all in one day – the units are many miles apart and each deserves a few hours’ exploration. Stop by the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center for excellent exhibits, presentations and general information.
Far-flung delights: Steen Mountain & Alvord Desert
Ask any Portlander and it’s unlikely they’ve ever been to the far southeast corner of Oregon, let alone even heard of Steen Mountain or the Alvord Desert. But they’re spectacular – Steen Mountain is a massive, 30-mile-long fault-block range formed about 15 million years ago, now strewn with alpine meadows, glacier-carved gorges and hanging valleys. There are awesome overlooks along the 56-mile loop gravel road, with access to camping and hiking trails. And from certain viewpoints you can see the Alvord Desert to the east, an ancient alkali lake bed that’s now a series of evaporated salt flats dotted with a few hot springs. It’s so flat and long that land speed records have been smashed here. And if you need a break in the area, the hamlet of Fields Station offers great burgers and milkshakes, while near Steens the small and charming Frenchglen Hotel is a historical gem. Just don’t expect full services; these places have populations under 20.