Rugged ocean coast. Towering mountains. Desert sweep. The deepest lake in the United States and the tallest tree species in the world.
There really is nothing that Oregon doesn’t have when it comes to natural beauty and outdoor recreation.
With rising airfares and gas prices, many of us can choose to vacation closer to home.
Where to start? Beaver State is vast and with so many different landscapes to explore, it can seem overwhelming. We’ve got five road trip ideas that will take you to each of these diverse locations, including a mix of beloved gems and overlooked destinations.
Here are five Oregon road trip ideas that each cover the state’s unique landscapes: ocean, mountains, forest, volcanoes, and desert.
Crater Lake National Park
Once a 14,000-foot volcano, an eruption that rocked the Northwest more than 7,000 years ago created the deepest lake and one of the clearest in the United States in the southern Cascades from Oregon.
Today, visiting the collapsed volcano and Oregon’s only national park requires solid planning due to its remote location and the lively crowds seen in recent years.
First, accommodation and a base camp. There’s a large campground and lodge within the park itself, but one option I’ve always enjoyed is staying outside the park at Union Creek, a rustic collection of cabins in the middle of a Emerald Forest about a half hour drive from the park, or nearby campgrounds such as Farewell Bend, Natural Bridge, and River Bridge Campgrounds.
At the park itself, this year marks the return of boat tours to Crater Lake itself, after a two-year hiatus, which is still worth the effort, especially if you choose the option to get dropped off at Wizard Island. for the afternoon. Be sure to buy tickets for the boat trips in advance.
Beyond that, hikes are the best way to explore the rims of the volcano. Cleetwood Cove Trail is the only way to reach the shore of the lake, where you are allowed to swim (it is extremely cold). The hike to the park’s highest point, Mount Scott, is the way to see the entire lake from above.
Be sure to check the website, call, or plan ahead, as this year’s late-season snow and road repairs will limit options on East Rim Drive through July. The normal park visitor center is also being renovated and closed in 2022.
If you are taking a road trip to Crater Lake from Salem, be sure to stop for the waterfalls on your way across Highway 58 to Willamette Pass (Salt Creek Falls) or across Highway 138 and the North Umpqua Canyon (visit Tokatee Falls, Watson Falls and Fall Creek Falls).
Information: Website: https://www.nps.gov/; Phone: 541-594-3000
Wallowa Mountains and Eagle Cap Wilderness
While Oregon’s volcanoes such as Mount Hood and the Three Sisters are the state’s best-known mountains, the best alpine adventures are actually found in the northeast corner of the state.
The Wallowa Mountains and Eagle Cap Wilderness, about 90 minutes from La Grande and Interstate 84, offer a wonderful combination of tourist towns.
If you’re traveling with the family and want a more family-friendly adventure, find a vacation rental or stay at Wallowa Lake State Park. Surrounded by 9,000 foot mountains, Wallowa Lake is a chilly but fun recreation spot where you can fish, boat, hike and visit sites that bear witness to the area’s deep indigenous history.
The nearby towns of Joseph and Enterprise are full of great restaurants and local artwork.
If you want a quieter campground — and a less touristy experience — consider the many smaller, more rustic Forest Service campgrounds dotted around the area.
For a wilder adventure, backpack through the Eagle Cap Wilderness, a 361,446-acre landscape of alpine lakes, towering mountains, and wildflower meadows. The most popular trailhead is at Lake Wallowa, which accesses the iconic lake basin and scales towering peaks like the Matterhorn and Cape Eagle.
Southern Eagle Cap is an equally beautiful area but with far fewer people.
Information: Wallowa Lake State Park website: https://stateparks.oregon.gov/index.cfm?do=park.profile&parkId=20; Telephone: 541-432-4185. US Forest Service office numbers Wallowa Mountains, 541-426-5546, 541-426-4978.
Redwoods and scenic coastline along the Oregon-California border
One of my favorite places to explore in the United States is the giant trees and beautiful coastline on the remote coast of southwestern Oregon and far northwestern California.
The area offers giant hikes in giant sequoia territory, river adventures, and possibly the most beautiful stretch of the Oregon coast.
Base camp operates in Brookings or Crescent City, CA, or the many surrounding campgrounds, from larger (Harris Beach State Park) to quieter (Loeb State Park).
On the Oregon side, travel the beautiful Samuel Boardman State Scenic Corridor, home to many setbacks and short hikes to what many consider the most scenic stretch of the Oregon coast. Find scenic views and descend to secret beaches.
Then, hikes in the redwoods. The Oregon side offers two more sedate walks among the giants at Oregon Redwoods Trail and Redwood Nature Loop. The tallest trees, however, are found just across the border in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in California. It gets crowded in the summer, but the redwoods are second to none, especially with the opening of the Grove of the Titans Trail. I was sneaking in early on a weekday.
Information: Harris Beach/Boardman State Park numbers, 541-469-0224; Boardman Corridor Map: https://stateparks.oregon.gov/index.cfm?do=main.loadFile&load=_siteFiles%2Fpublications%2F%2F45470_OPRD_Boardman_Brochure%28web%29081813.pdf
John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
Those who live outside of Oregon and consider the state nothing more than a soggy forest will be surprised how much wilderness can be found in Beaver State.
But Oregon has a ton of dry landscapes worth seeing, and it probably starts with the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Best known for its Painted Hills unit, which features hillsides streaked with color, the monument also includes the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, which documents the many fossils and animals of the region discovered in what was once a prehistoric lake.
There are plenty of small towns with bed and breakfast style accommodations, as well as fun spots like the Oregon Hotel and Ritter Hot Springs that feel like the Old West.
The three units of the monument are spaced approximately one hour apart. The Painted Hills unit presents a collection of short hikes in a relatively small area. The nearest town is Mitchell and has almost everything you need. A wilder experience can be had by climbing Sutton Mountain, which towers over the Painted Hills like a battleship.
The most developed area is the Sheep Rock unit, which houses the visitor center. The Blue Basin and Island in Time hikes are the most iconic hikes, but there’s a lot to explore in this area.
The Clarno unit is the least visited but features dramatic cliffs at the dramatic Palisades, a beautiful picnic area with three easy-to-explore trails nearby.
Information: National Monuments website: https://www.nps.gov/joda. Phone: (541) 987-2333
Aquarium, breweries, tidal pools and sandy beach in Newport
It’s hard to pick a favorite Oregon Coast town. Each is unique and brings something different to the table. My overall favorite – although close – is Newport. The reason is simple: it’s a city that offers all the typical coastal pleasures of sand, forest and ocean, while adding the benefits of being a bigger city.
Biggest tourist attractions include the Oregon Coast Aquarium, which is well worth a visit despite its hefty price tag, especially for kids who can watch sea otters dart beneath the surface, play peekaboo with an octopus and enter a glass walkway with fish and sharks swimming above, beside and below them. There are also plenty of breweries and restaurants in the two historic areas of Nye Beach and Yaquina Bay.
Travel just north of town to Oregon’s tallest lighthouse – Yaquina Head – but stay in what’s considered an “Outstanding Natural Area” to explore the tidal pools and pebble beach.
South Beach State Park offers the opportunity to camp, bike, hike, or just laze on the sand. And a fun trip is to rent a fat tire bike from Bike Newport and ride it on the sand. For old-growth forest, head to Mike Miller Educational Park, home to ancient trees on a cute little 40-acre preserve tucked away on the south end of town.
Information: Travel Newport, https://traveloregon.com/places-to-go/cities/newport. Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area website, https://www.blm.gov/learn/interpretive-centers/yaquina; telephone: (541) 574-3100.
Zach Urness has been an outdoor journalist in Oregon for 15 years and is the host of the Explore Oregon podcast. To support his work, subscribe to the Statesman Journal. Urness is the author of “Best Hikes with Kids: Oregon” and “Hiking Southern Oregon.” He can be reached at [email protected] or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.