Once you’ve settled in to Portland, you’ll inevitably want to explore your surroundings. After all, you didn’t move to one of the most beautiful regions in the world just so you could spend all your time in the city, did you? Within a few hours’ drive (or in some cases, a bus, train, and/or ferry ride) you’ll find volcanic peaks, raging rivers, dense forests, high desert plateaus, an atmospheric coastline, cosmopolitan cities, and some of the richest farmland in America. It really doesn’t matter which direction you go; anywhere in the region, you’re bound to encounter interesting destinations and some beautiful scenery.
For general Oregon travel information, suggested destinations, an accommodation guide, and much, much more, call Travel Oregon at 800-547-7842 or visit their comprehensive website at traveloregon.com. The Washington State Tourism Office (800-544-1800, experiencewa.com) is equally helpful; thankfully, it shelved its terrifying “Say WA” tourism campaign in 2006 in favor of “Experience Washington.” The current slogan, evidently designed to minimize ambiguity, is “Washington. The State.” For information on some of Oregon’s natural areas, scan the Greenspaces chapter of this book.
Mount Hood and the Northern Oregon Cascades
Mount Hood, Portland’s iconic backdrop (at least on a clear day), is the city’s favorite year-round destination for outdoor recreation. While thousands of people summit the 11,240-foot glaciated peak every year—a feat that requires technical mountaineering skills and a fair amount of fortitude—the vast majority of visitors come to ski or snowboard, to hike, to mountain bike, or just to sightsee and enjoy the mountain air. The mountain’s southwest slopes are only an hour from Portland.
The most direct route to the mountain is US Highway 26 from Gresham. (Unless you’re coming from the southeast part of the metro area, it’s usually fastest to take Interstate 84 east to Exit 16, then head south on NE 238th/242nd to Burnside, and take Burnside southeast to US 26.) Highway 26 climbs gently past ornamental plant nurseries, Christmas tree farms, and stands of dense forest, and through the towns of Sandy, Brightwood, Welches, Zigzag, and Rhododendron, until it reaches the outpost of Government Camp at 3500 feet. The main commercial center on the mountain, Government Camp offers ski rentals, grocery stores, a gas station, restaurants, a brewpub, and various overnight accommodation options. Government Camp is a good base for hiking and skiing—Mount Hood Skibowl is directly across the highway—but it’s more of a convenient way station than a destination in itself, a recent condo boom notwithstanding.
From Government Camp, a six-mile road winds tortuously uphill to Timberline Lodge (800-547-1406, timberlinelodge.com) and its ski area (which is open almost all year). If the 1930s-vintage lodge looks familiar, you may have already seen it in the 1980 horror film The Shining. (Sweet dreams, kids.) The lodge’s name is derived from its location at timberline on Mount Hood, at 6,600 feet above sea level; the slopes above are virtually devoid of trees, except for a few gnarled old specimens. On a clear day, it feels as if you could reach out and touch the summit of the mountain, although it’s actually nearly a mile higher.
Back at Government Camp, US 26 continues east and south over two 4,000-foot passes toward dry Central Oregon (see below). A few miles east of Government Camp, State Highway 35 branches off and loops around the east side of Mount Hood and down the Hood River Valley (see below). A network of forest roads (many of them unpaved) lead to other destinations around Mount Hood, including picture-postcard-pretty Lost Lake (541-386-6366, lostlakeresort.org) on the mountain’s north side; Cooper Spur on the east side, from where it is possible in late summer to hike to a promontory overlooking Eliot Glacier at an elevation of 8,700 feet; and the Salmon River, upstream from Welches, which flows out of the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness. An extensive zone surrounding Mount Hood’s summit is also a designated wilderness area, as is the Badger Creek Wilderness east of the mountain and the newly created Roaring River Wilderness to the southwest.
Many of the forest trails around Mount Hood (including mountain bike trails and Nordic ski routes) depart directly from US 26 or Highway 35, but the ease of access from Portland ensures that these trails are crowded on good-weather weekends. The farther you get from the main highways, however, the fewer people you are likely to encounter; if you actually get out and hike more than a few miles it’s possible to find solitude even in mid-summer. If you’d like to spend a bit more time on the mountain, there are plenty of inexpensive forest service campgrounds for tent or trailer camping; backpackers will find an abundance of backcountry campsites, especially in designated wilderness areas. For shelter under a roof, you can stay in one of several hotels, or rent a cabin in Government Camp or in one of the communities on the mountain’s west side.
South of Mount Hood, the Cascade Mountains are a patchwork of clear cuts, stands of second-growth timber, and some small swaths of remnant old growth, primarily in roadless and wilderness areas. State Highway 224 winds from Estacada up the scenic valley of the Clackamas River; the river drainage harbors destinations like the Bull of the Woods Wilderness and Bagby Hot Springs (which for many years was plagued by frequent parking-lot break-ins, although the situation has improved in recent years). The adjacent Opal Creek area, east of Salem, harbors one of the finest remaining stands of old-growth forest in the state. The other main road to penetrate this region, State Highway 22, runs east from Salem past Detroit Lake, a reservoir that is a popular destination for boaters. Various byways and forest roads connect the two main roads and lead to out-of-the-way attractions like Breitenbush Hot Springs (503-854-3320, breitenbush.com) and Olallie Lake. At the crest of the range looms Oregon’s second-highest peak, Mount Jefferson; the surrounding area, including such beauty spots as Jefferson Park (a lake-dotted meadow basin near timberline) and the curiously shaped peak of Three Fingered Jack, is part of the Mount Jefferson Wilderness, where motorized vehicles are prohibited.
Much of the Mount Hood region lies within Clackamas County; for trip ideas, contact the county tourism department, Oregon’s Mt. Hood Territory (503-655-8490, 800-424-3002, mthoodterritory.com).
The Columbia River Gorge and the Hood River Valley
Traffic permitting, you can drive east from downtown Portland on Interstate 84 and, within half an hour, find yourself amid the splendor of the Columbia River Gorge. Here, the Columbia River forces a passage westward through the Cascades, through a palisade of basalt cliffs that tower hundreds or thousands of feet above the river. The Gorge isn’t wilderness—multiple dams shackle the Columbia, major highways and railroad tracks run along both shores, and several towns and small cities perch on the banks—but it is nonetheless a spectacular place.
Interstate 84 runs the length of the Gorge on the south side of the river, but by far the best sightseeing route is the Historic Columbia River Highway, which branches off from the interstate at Exit 17 in Troutdale and climbs through the town of Corbett to historic Vista House (vistahouse.com) at Crown Point, a promontory high above the river that offers a spectacular view eastward (upriver). From Crown Point, the highway descends through mossy forest, past several spectacular waterfalls, including two-stage, 620-foot Multnomah Falls, the state’s biggest natural tourist draw. The area at the base of the falls can get very crowded on summer weekends, when tour buses disgorge their passengers to gawk at the spectacle, but the parking lot off the historic highway is often nearly deserted on winter weekdays. (A separate parking area, accessible from Interstate 84, attracts passing motorists all year.) A word of warning about parking near the waterfalls: these parking areas are notorious sites for car prowls (break-ins), so be sure to lock your car and keep all “attractive” possessions out of sight. Nearby Oneonta Gorge is a narrow, rock-bound chasm that leads to yet another waterfall. Many more waterfalls are accessible by trail only, as are the most spectacular views, which are available from Angel’s Rest (a 4-mile roundtrip hike from the historic highway) and other similar clifftop perches on both sides of the Gorge.
Take a break from natural splendor at Bonneville Dam (541-374-8820, nwp.usace.army.mil/Locations/ColumbiaRiver/Bonneville.aspx) and admire the engineering feats that inspired Woody Guthrie. The dam’s visitor center and fish ladder (with viewing window) are generally open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and tours of the power plant are sometimes offered, but heightened security can cause closures on short notice; call or visit the website before scheduling a visit. Upstream of the dam, at the town of Cascade Locks (cascadelocks.net), the Bridge of the Gods leads to the Washington side of the Gorge. (The Pacific Crest Trail also crosses the river on this bridge.) Washington State Highway 14 runs along the north bank of the river for the length of the Gorge, and makes a good alternate or return route. The Washington side includes such attractions as Beacon Rock State Park, several hot springs resorts, and Skamania Lodge (509-427-7700, skamania.com), a resort outside Stevenson.
Continuing eastward on the Oregon side, as you approach Hood River (hoodriver.org) the climate quickly becomes noticeably drier, with oaks and ponderosa pines replacing the Douglas firs that cling to the mountainsides further west. Hood River, long a small regional commercial center and world-class windsurfing/kiteboarding destination, has recently boomed, and housing appreciation rates have been among the highest in the state. It’s easy to see why—with Mount Hood to the south and the Columbia River and Mount Adams to the north, with abundant outdoor recreational opportunities, and with substantially less rain than Portland, it would be surprising if the place didn’t boom. While not all locals are happy about Hood River’s changing demographics, the change has led to the opening of several excellent (albeit spendy) restaurants in the historic, hilly downtown. At just over an hour from Portland, Hood River is a wonderful destination for a weekend getaway; try one of the many bed and breakfasts in town or across the Columbia in White Salmon, Washington.
From Hood River, you have a range of options for continuing your tour. You can turn south through the scenic Hood River Valley, a major fruit-growing region. The valley is especially beautiful in spring, when the apple, pear, and cherry orchards are in bloom (with a snow-covered Mount Hood looming picturesquely behind), and during the late summer and fall harvest, when fruit stands and pumpkin patches open for visitors. You can follow the so-called Fruit Loop (hoodriverfruitloop.com), and so start and end at Hood River, or continue up the valley on Highway 35, pass over the shoulder of Mount Hood, and return to Portland via US Highway 26. You can head north toward Mount Adams country and the hamlet of Trout Lake (see Washington State, below). Or you can continue eastward through the Gorge into an increasingly arid landscape.
If you choose to continue upstream along the Columbia from Hood River, you will pass scenic wonders like the Nature Conservancy’s Tom McCall Preserve, which puts on a colorful show of wildflowers in April and May. At The Dalles (thedalleschamber.com), once a major stopover on the Oregon Trail, visit the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center (541-296-8600, gorgediscovery.org). About 24 miles east of The Dalles, on the Washington side, stands the peculiar, castle-like Maryhill Museum of Art (509-773-3733, maryhillmuseum.org). Built in the nineteen-teens by Quaker entrepreneur Sam Hill (who was not the basis for the expression, “What in the sam hill?”), the museum now houses an eclectic collection of European, American, and Native American art, including a major assemblage of Auguste Rodin sculptures and watercolors. Nearby, don’t miss the full-size replica of Stonehenge, built on a bluff by Sam Hill as a memorial to soldiers who lost their lives in World War I. This part of the Gorge has a favorable climate for growing wine grapes, and a number of wineries have opened in recent years.
Much of the Gorge is protected within the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (541-308-1700, fs.usda.gov/crgnsa). For general tourism information, contact the Columbia River Gorge Visitors Association (crgva.org).
The Oregon Coast
Less than 90 minutes to the west of downtown Portland (as always, traffic permitting), the often fog-bound beaches and rugged headlands of Oregon’s Pacific Ocean coastline beckon. The drive west on US 26 climbs over the low crest of the Coast Range—Saddle Mountain State Natural Area (oregonstateparks.org) encompasses the highest point in the northern Coast Range and makes a good detour on a clear day—and then leads through damp mossy valleys toward the sea. Eventually, Highway 26 dead-ends at US Highway 101, which runs the length of the Oregon Coast (and almost the entire length of the West Coast of the United States, in case you feel like heading to L.A.). Be aware that 101 is not a fast road; it has frequent hills, there are only two lanes for most of its length, and lumbering recreational vehicle traffic can be a nightmare during the summer. A scenic alternative to Route 26 is State Highway 6, which winds through the Tillamook State Forest to the bayside town of Tillamook (see below).
Seaside (seasideor.com), the first town to the north, has a bit of a carnival atmosphere, with a busy waterside promenade, several factory outlet stores, and plenty of saltwater taffy vendors. To the south, artsier Cannon Beach (cannonbeach.org) offers a long stretch of sand, with locally iconic Haystack Rock accessible at low tide. Between these two towns, scenic Ecola State Park (oregonstateparks.org) beckons visitors with isolated beaches, tidepools, and the rocky cliffs of Tillamook Head.
The short stretch of Highway 101 north of Seaside leads through the quiet, affluent resort town of Gearhart to Fort Stevens State Park (oregonstateparks.org) and its bike paths, crumbling military fortifications, swimmable lake, and excellent beach (complete with a small shipwreck) just south of the mouth of the Columbia River. Nearby Fort Clatsop (nps.gov/lewi/planyourvisit/fortclatsop.htm) marks the spot where Lewis and Clark passed the winter of 1805–06 (moaning all the while in their journals about the incessant rainfall). The city of Astoria (503-325-6311, 800-875-6807, oldoregon.com) lies just upriver from the mouth of the Columbia. This historic, quirky, and slightly gritty (yet generally attractive) waterfront town has a vibrant Scandinavian heritage—there are still Finnish saunas in Astoria—and a strong maritime flavor, as the exhibits in the Columbia River Maritime Museum (503-325-2323, crmm.org) attest. Victorian homes on steep hillsides are reminiscent of San Francisco homes (but with bigger lots and smaller price tags), and on (infrequent) clear days there is a magnificent view from the Astoria Column, perched on the city’s highest hill. The city has seen a recent boom in good restaurants and boutique hotels.
From Astoria, you can loop back to Portland via Highway 30 along the Columbia River, or continue north over the Astoria-Megler Bridge to the beaches of the southern Washington coast. The community of Long Beach (360-642-2400, 800-451-2542, funbeach.com) is reputed to have the longest drivable beach in the world; this claim leaves unanswered the question of why you would want to drive 17 miles down a beach, avoiding volleyball players and giant chunks of driftwood, and hoping you don’t get stuck in the sand with the tide advancing.
If, instead of heading north from Seaside, you choose to drive south from Cannon Beach, you’ll pass through the small vacation communities of Arch Cape and Manzanita on your way to Tillamook, the state’s cheese capital. The Tillamook Creamery (503-815-1300, 800-542-7290, tillamook.com), although not the blockbuster experience it once was, is still one of the most popular destinations on the coast, and the gift shop sells cheddar cheese curds. (It’s not all about cheese though; you might want to visit the ice cream counter, the only location that stocks every flavor of Tillamook Ice Cream, and will even serve them all up to you at once in a multi-scoop bowl.) From Tillamook, take the Three Capes Scenic Route past Capes Meares, Lookout, and Kiwanda as an alternative to busy Highway 101.
Heading south, some consider bustling Lincoln City (oregoncoast.org) to be a great base for exploration, while others view it as an overbuilt tourist trap. The attractions in slightly more laid back Newport (discovernewport.com) include the historic bayfront, a working waterfront that boasts tacky souvenir parlors, sea lions lazing on the docks, and restaurants that have garnered rave reviews from the New York Times; charming Nye Beach; and the Oregon Coast Aquarium (541-867-3474, aquarium.org), one of the country’s finest aquaria and famous as a former halfway house of sorts for the orca Keiko, a.k.a. Free Willy. South of Newport, the coast gets fewer visitors. You’ll pass through rugged coastal scenery and often fog-bound towns like Waldport and Yachats on your way to Florence and the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area (fs.usda.gov/recarea/siuslaw/recreation/recarea/?recid-42465), a 40-mile strip of sand dunes that in some places are more than 500 feet high; the dunes area also contains several swimmable freshwater lakes. Beyond Coos Bay and its large working harbor, the south coast includes towns such as Bandon (famous for its cheese, cranberries, and lightning-fast broadband network), Port Orford, Brookings (the so-called banana belt of Oregon, which typically has the state’s mildest winter temperatures), and Gold Beach (800-525-2334, goldbeach.org), a good base for jet boat excursions up the Rogue River.
For more information on visiting the Oregon Coast, contact the Oregon Coast Visitors Association (541-574-2679, 888-628-2101, visittheoregoncoast.com). Dozens of the most scenic areas along the coast are part of the Oregon State Parks system (800-551-6949, oregonstateparks.org); while some state parks are little more than waysides open for day use only, others are fairly large and substantial parks with camping facilities, and sometimes yurts or cabins.
The Willamette Valley and Oregon’s Wine Country
The Willamette Valley stretches south from Portland for more than 100 miles. This broad valley is home to some of the nation’s richest agricultural land, as well as the cities of Salem, Albany, Corvallis (541-757-1544, 800-334-8118, visitcorvallis.com), and Eugene (eugenecascadescoast.org, 541-484-5307, 800-547-5445). The latter two cities, home to Oregon State University and the University of Oregon, respectively, are both worthy stopovers, but the Willamette Valley generally lacks major tourist attractions. Its appeal lies primarily in its small towns and farm fields, some of which are full of unusual crops like peppermint and lavender, and its slower pace of life. To see the valley at its best, get off the main highways (Interstate 5 and highways 99E and 99W) and putter around the back roads; better still, tour the valley by bicycle. (Smell the mint, feel the burn.)
For wine lovers, the most compelling destinations in the Willamette Valley lie along its margins, on the low ranges of hills that rise from the flat valley floor. Here, on slopes that shed cold winter air and collect summer sunshine, grow the vineyards that supply the dozens of wineries in the six AVAs—American Viticultural Areas—in the Willamette Valley region. Oregon is globally famous for its pinot noirs, but it produces many other kinds of wines as well. The greatest concentration of wineries is in Yamhill County, especially around Dundee, less than an hour southeast of Portland. For more information about wines and wineries visit willamettewines.com or oregonwine.org.
One don’t-miss destination, especially for waterfall lovers, is Silver Falls State Park (oregonstateparks.org) east of Salem. The park contains a canyon with no fewer than ten waterfalls, some of which are short walks from parking areas on the canyon rim; an 8.7-mile trail links the falls and actually passes through small rock amphitheaters behind four of them. Nearby, just south of Silverton, the Oregon Garden (503-874-8100, 877-674-2733, oregongarden.org) presents a wide range of specialty gardens, as well as the only Frank Lloyd Wright–designed house in Oregon.
For more ideas about Willamette Valley tour routes, contact the Willamette Valley Visitors Association (866-548-5018, oregonwinecountry.org).
Fast-growing Bend (541-382-8048, 877-245-8484, visitbend.com) sprawls on the banks of the Deschutes River as it flows from forested highlands into the high desert. The hub of scenic central Oregon, Bend is a minimum three-hour drive from Portland via Mount Hood and Madras or Salem and Santiam Pass. Bend property values rose at one of the highest rates in the country during the mid-2000s real estate boom, and although some of the toniest eateries and shops did not survive the subsequent crash, the city still offers a wide range of restaurants and hotels, as well as the acclaimed High Desert Museum (541-382-4754, highdesertmuseum.org), three miles south of town. The real attraction of central Oregon, however, is the stunning landscape and the consequent recreational opportunities. The region immediately surrounding Bend is a semi-arid plateau of sagebrush, juniper, and ponderosa pine, but the volcanic peaks of the central Cascades rise just to the west, and scenic beauty can be found in every direction.
Mount Bachelor (800-829-2442, mtbachelor.com), only 20 miles away from Bend, is a major winter-sports destination, while one of the largest designated wilderness areas in the state, with more than 240 miles of hiking trails, encompasses the nearby Three Sisters. (South Sister, at 10,358 feet, is the third-highest mountain in the state; you don’t need technical climbing skills to reach the top in late summer.) The McKenzie Pass Highway runs west from Sisters, a small, touristy town northwest of Bend, over a bleak, lava-strewn pass between Mount Washington and the Three Sisters, while the Cascade Lakes Highway, a National Scenic Byway, winds south from Mount Bachelor past a series of high mountain reservoirs (and abundant campsites).
North of Bend, past slightly lower and drier (but also fast-growing) Redmond is Smith Rock State Park (oregonstateparks.org), one of the premier rock climbing destinations in the country. Much of the land nearby is part of the Crooked River National Grassland. To the east, the relatively low, forested Ochoco Mountains are much less visited than the Cascades, and the range includes three small wilderness areas. South of Bend, the Newberry National Volcanic Monument (541-383-5700, fs.usda.gov/main/Deschutes/recarea/?recid=66159) includes lava tubes, cinder cones, and two beautiful, crystal-clear crater lakes set in a geologically active caldera. Practically anyplace in the region makes a great jumping-off point for backcountry trips.
For obvious reasons, central Oregon is a major outdoor sports center. Downhill and cross-country skiing and other winter sports bring crowds in the winter, while hiking and backpacking, mountain and road biking, rafting and other forms of boating, and golf are all popular pursuits during the summer and fall. Central Oregon has also become something of a hub for destination resorts; the two most venerable and best-known of these resorts are Sunriver (800-801-8765, sunriver-resort.com), about 15 miles south of Bend, and Black Butte Ranch (866-901-2961, blackbutteranch.com), off Highway 20 between Sisters and Santiam Pass. Closer to Portland, Kah-Nee-Ta Resort and Spa (800-554-4786, kahneeta.com) is located on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. For more information on destinations in the region, contact the Central Oregon Visitors Association (800-800-8334, visitcentraloregon.com).
South of Eugene, the Willamette Valley peters out in a rugged jumble of forested mountains cleft by the valleys of the Umpqua and Rogue rivers and their various tributaries. Most southern Oregon cities, including Roseburg, Grants Pass, and Medford, huddle in the river valleys. Roseburg (541-672-9731, 800-444-9584, visitroseburg.com), although not particularly exciting, makes a good base for exploring the Umpqua Valley wine region (541-673-5323, umpquavalleywineries.org) and Wildlife Safari (541-679-6761, wildlifesafari.net), a drive-through wild animal park.
The Rogue River Valley in far southern Oregon, the site of Medford and Grants Pass, is a region of orchards, loggers, retirees, more wineries, and, surprisingly, smog. Jacksonville (jacksonvilleoregon.org), just west of Medford, is a well-preserved 19th-century gold-mining town, but the most popular “urban” destination in southern Oregon is Ashland. Home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (800-219-8161, osfashland.org), a nearly nine-month-long annual theatre series (and the attendant nice restaurants and hotels), as well as to large communities of environmentalists and California retirees, Ashland is an intriguing place to visit at any time of year. In winter, when the Shakespeare Festival is on hiatus, the Mount Ashland Ski Area (541-482-2897, mtashland.com) is a half-hour drive away.
Still more wineries nestle in the Applegate Valley, which winds through the botanically and geologically unique Siskiyou Mountains. Few roads pierce this rugged range (and none enter the large Kalmiopsis Wilderness), but US Highway 199 runs from Grants Pass toward the redwood country of northern California through the hippie-meets-logger community of Cave Junction (where there are still more wineries). A spur road leads to Oregon Caves National Monument (541-592-2100, nps.gov/orca), which centers on a marble cave system high in the Siskiyous.
The iconic natural attraction of southern Oregon, and arguably of the state as a whole, is Crater Lake National Park (541-594-3000, nps.gov/crla/). More than 1,900 feet deep and almost impossibly blue, Crater Lake fills the crater of ancient Mount Mazama, which erupted 7,700 years ago in a fashion that makes the 1980 Mt. St. Helens eruption look like a hiccup. Much of the park is inaccessible during the winter—the area averages some 44 feet of snow each year—but during the summer it’s possible to drive around the lake, climb to the top of several neighboring peaks, or hike down to the water and take a boat to the mini-volcano of Wizard Island. Other regions of the Cascade spine north and south of the park are included within several wilderness areas, which receive far fewer visitors than the wilderness areas in the central and northern parts of the state. On the east side of the mountains, the city of Klamath Falls (discoverklamath.com) lies near broad, shallow Upper Klamath Lake, a major stopover point for migratory birds.
Information about southern Oregon destinations and accommodation options is available from the Southern Oregon Visitors Association (southernoregon.org).
Away from the Interstate 84 corridor (which follows the old route of the Oregon Trail), high, dry eastern Oregon receives comparatively few visitors. While it may not have many urban attractions—Pendleton (pendletonchamber.com), home of the annual Pendleton Round-up (pendletonroundup.com), being the main exception—this part of the state offers incredible scenery and wide-open spaces. Major mountain ranges—the Blue Mountains, the Strawberry Mountains, and the jagged, granitic Wallowas—thrust upward from the sagebrush and grassland, and offer outstanding and generally uncrowded recreational opportunities. The Wallowas in particular make an excellent hiking and backpacking destination; most of the range is protected within the vast Eagle Cap Wilderness, and more than 500 miles of trails link beautiful alpine lake basins. Non-hikers can enjoy the towns of Joseph and Enterprise, just north of glacial Wallowa Lake. Not far to the east, on the Oregon-Idaho border, is difficult-to-reach Hells Canyon, where the Snake River runs through North America’s deepest river gorge.
The mountain-and-valley country of east-central Oregon includes the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument (541-987-2333, nps.gov/joda/); the monument has three separate units which protect not only abundant fossils but also the colorful Painted Hills. Remote southeastern Oregon has a host of adventurous destinations, including the canyons of the Owyhee River, Malheur and Harney lakes, and Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge, but the region’s crown jewel is probably Steens Mountain. This fault-block mountain range rises fairly gradually from west to east; then, from the high point at nearly 10,000 feet, the east side plunges precipitously to the Alvord Desert, Oregon’s driest spot, thousands of feet below. The mountain features aspen forests, cirque lakes, wildflower-dotted meadows, and bighorn sheep. A graded dirt road, passable by most passenger cars, runs from Frenchglen most of the way up the west side of the mountain (road open summer only).
The Eastern Oregon Visitors Association (541-574-2679, visiteasternoregon.com) is more than happy to suggest destinations and itineraries in this part of the state.
Washington, like Oregon, is a topographically diverse state that encompasses coast, mountains, and semi-arid plateau, and has a correspondingly impressive range of getaway options.
One of the main attractions of southwestern Washington is clearly visible from Portland on a clear day. Mount St. Helens, which famously blew its top in May 1980, is now part of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument (360-449-7800, fs.usda.gov/mountsthelens). You can visit one of the two observatories that offer views of the crater (which contains a growing new lava dome), hike into the recovering blast zone, or make a long, ashy (or snowy) slog to the new summit at the crater rim (permit required). Ape Cave, on the south side of the mountain, is the longest lava tube in the Western Hemisphere; it’s a great place to take kids. The next volcano to the east, Mount Adams (also visible from Portland), tops out at 12,276 feet and is thus more than 1,000 feet taller than Mount Hood. The area between the peaks is part of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest (360-891-5000, fs.usda.gov/gpnf/), which contains many wonderful (and, considering the proximity to Portland, often surprisingly uncrowded) hiking and backpacking options, including three wilderness areas; the lake-dotted Indian Heaven Wilderness is a particularly appealing destination (outside of peak mosquito season). The small community of Trout Lake makes a good base for exploring the Mount Adams region.
Moving north along the Cascades, Mount Rainier National Park (360-569-2211, nps.gov/mora) centers on the mountain of the same name, which at an elevation of 14,410 feet is the highest peak in the Pacific Northwest. In addition to the mountain itself and its many glaciers, the park offers alpine meadows, old-growth forest, and the 93-mile Wonderland Trail. Moving north along the spine of the Cascades, you can visit the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Mount Baker and its adjacent wilderness and National Recreation Areas, and the rugged, glacier-clad peaks and steep-sided valleys of North Cascades National Park (360-854-7200, nps.gov/noca) on the Canadian border.
The bulk of Washington’s population lives in the lowlands west of the Cascades along Puget Sound. Although cities like Olympia (the state capital), pleasant Bellingham, and gritty Tacoma are all worth a stop, the Big Kahuna of Washington cities is Seattle. Portlanders carry on a love-hate relationship with Seattle, 170 miles to the north. Despite legitimate gripes about Seattle’s sprawl, traffic congestion, and high prices, Portlanders still flock to the city for its cultural attractions (which are arguably better and certainly more numerous than Portland’s), its professional sports teams, and its matchless setting on the water between two mountain ranges (when you can see them). You can make a great weekend out of visiting Seattle’s museums, sampling its cafés and restaurants, dodging airborne fish carcasses at Pike Place Market, and maybe even going to a Mariners or Seahawks game. Best of all, you can relax and go by train. For the official line on tourism in Seattle, contact the Seattle Convention and Visitors Bureau (866-732-2695, visitseattle.org).
The mountains visible across Puget Sound from Seattle are the Olympics, largely protected within Olympic National Park (360-565-3130, nps.gov/olym/). The park is incredibly diverse; besides the mountains, which are impressive enough, the park includes such attractions as the Hoh Rain Forest, the alpine meadows near Hurricane Ridge, and the longest stretch of wilderness coastline in the contiguous United States. Since 95% of the park is designated wilderness, the best way to explore its charms is on foot (with lots of time). Outside the park boundaries, overzealous forestry practices have compromised the Olympic Peninsula’s tourism potential, but the region also includes interesting towns such as Port Angeles, Poulsbo, and charming, historic Port Townsend (enjoypt.com); soggy, unassuming Forks is the setting for the popular Twilight series, and as a result has become a tourist draw.
Puget Sound’s islands offer fun maritime getaways, although they tend to be crowded with visitors from the Seattle area on summer and holiday weekends. Although largely rural, Vashon Island (206-463-6217, vashonchamber.com), southwest of Seattle, is home to many commuters to the city, who travel back and forth by ferry. Further north, the state’s largest island, Whidbey Island, can be reached by ferry from either side of the Sound or by the bridge over Deception Pass; nearby Camano Island has bridge access only. Information about both destinations is available at whidbeycamanoislands.com.
At the northern end of the sound, the atmospheric San Juan Islands are accessible only by ferry (or air). It’s best to give yourself at least a long weekend here; the wait for the ferry can take several hours, especially on summer weekends. Once you arrive, you’ll find secluded beaches, charming towns, cozy coffee shops, and an abundance of quaint bed and breakfasts. Each of the three main islands—Lopez, Orcas, and San Juan—has a different character and is worth a visit; you can stay on all three islands over the course of a visit, or you could plan to use one as a base and take ferry rides to the others. If possible, bring or rent a bicycle or kayak and tour the islands that way. For more information, contact the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau (888-468-3701, visitsanjuans.com). For details about ferry routes and schedules throughout the Puget Sound region, visit the Washington State Ferries website at wsdot.wa.gov/ferries/, or call their helpline at 888-808-7977 (206-464-6400 from outside Washington).
Eastern Washington, like eastern Oregon, is much drier than the western half of the state. The most popular draws are actually in the eastern Cascades or its fringes: Lake Chelan, the “Bavarian” village of Leavenworth (509-548-5807, leavenworth.org), and the cross-country skier’s paradise of Methow Valley. Semi-arid eastern Washington contains some thriving cities, including Yakima, the Tri-Cities (Richland, Pasco, and Kennewick), and Spokane, along with vast fields of wheat; the major attractions, however, are the reservoirs along the Columbia River (including Lake Roosevelt, behind Grand Coulee Dam) and the mountain ranges of northeast Washington. In southeastern Washington, the area around Walla Walla (wallawalla.org) is a highly regarded wine-producing region; contact the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance (509-526-3117, wallawallawine.com) for details.
Both cosmopolitan Vancouver and self-consciously anglophilic Victoria are popular getaways. Vancouver, which is accessible from Portland by car, train, bus, or nonstop flight, is a cosmopolitan port city with a spectacular setting, great shopping, and some of the best Asian restaurants on the West Coast. Thousand-acre Stanley Park, jutting out into Burrard Inlet not far from the central business district, is widely considered one of the most beautiful public parks in the world. For more information, contact Tourism Vancouver (tourismvancouver.com).
Victoria (tourismvictoria.com), near the southern tip of Vancouver Island, is a smaller and more laid-back destination that is sometimes called the most English city outside England. Apart from the double-decker buses and high tea at the Empress Hotel, Victoria has some beautiful gardens; the most famous of these, Butchart Gardens (866-652-4422, butchartgardens.com), was created out of a former quarry. Ships cruise directly to Victoria’s Inner Harbour from downtown Seattle, Bellingham, and Port Angeles, while ferries from Anacortes, Washington, and the British Columbia mainland port of Tsawwassen go into Sidney or Swartz Bay, a few kilometers north of the city.
Beyond the province’s big cities, major destinations in southwestern British Columbia include Pacific Rim National Park on the west coast of Vancouver Island; the Gulf Islands, the Canadian continuation of Washington’s San Juan Islands, between Vancouver Island and the B.C. mainland; the world-class Whistler Blackcomb ski resort (whistlerblackcomb.com), host of most of the alpine events in the 2010 Winter Olympics; and the semi-arid, fruit-and-wine-producing Okanogan Valley.
There are more than enough diversions in the Pacific Northwest to keep anyone busy for a lifetime. If you have a bad case of wanderlust (or sunshine lust), however, it’s easy to venture farther afield. For one thing, long-distance driving is generally less stressful (or at least less crowded) here than in more heavily populated regions. In the Northeast, a drive from Boston to Washington, D.C., on Interstate 95 would pass through Providence, New York City, Newark, Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore (not to mention innumerable toll plazas); a drive of the same distance south from Portland on Interstate 5 wouldn’t even get you to Sacramento.
A day’s drive or less south from Portland could take you to the redwood forests of the northern California coast; 14,180-foot Mount Shasta or its nearby houseboat-infested reservoir, Lake Shasta; Lassen Volcanic National Park; the Trinity Alps; Napa Valley or Sonoma; San Francisco; Lake Tahoe (or Reno, Nevada); or the California gold country. Heading east, you have access to most of Idaho (the scenic panhandle, rugged central Idaho, or Boise), as well as western Montana (including Glacier National Park and Missoula), the southern Canadian Rockies, and, if you have a really high tolerance for long-distance driving, Yellowstone National Park.
If you have the cash, and don’t mind either the security hassles or the environmental impact of flying, Portland has nonstop flights to most major cities in the western United States. You can easily get away for a long weekend in Las Vegas, San Diego, Phoenix, or even Hawaii or Mexico.