OREGON IS JUST ONE OF THOSE STATES that’s meant for road trips. Between the rugged coastline, the verdure of the Western Cascades, and the high desert, the diverse terrain creates all kinds of epic possibilities. From the Columbia River Gorge to Crater Lake to Mount Hood, there is definitely no shortage of things to see. Be sure to travel slow and take the time to stop and look around so that you can immerse yourself in place and culture that make our state so awesome.
1. Historic Columbia River Highway Scenic Byway via US 30, I-84.
A road trip in Oregon is just not complete unless you’ve experienced the surreal 70-mile drive through the Columbia River Gorge, a National Historic Landmark that also happens to be America’s first scenic highway. It also was part of the Oregon Trail. So if you were an 80’s kid like me who “experienced” the trail via a green monitor, then here’s your chance to tackle the real deal. Wind along the scenic Columbia River, lush green forest, and waterfalls. Be sure to stop at one of the numerous hiking trails along the way to truly realize the beauty that is the Columbia River Gorge.
Make a stop at Vista House for a breathtaking view of the Gorge from the rotunda at Crown Point. If you want to see the famed yet often crowded Multnomah Falls and have time to kill, hike the five-mile Multnomah-Wahkeena loop and pass through forest lands of fairy tale essence – as well as eight waterfalls. I recommend starting at the Wahkeena trailhead as Multnomah is heavily trafficked. While driving through Cascade Locks visit Eastwind Drive-In for a monster-sized ice cream cone. Hood River is also a must-stop if you like quality craft beer, home of Double Mountain Brewery (get the pizza here), Full Sail Brewery, and Friem Family Brewers, to name a few.
2. Hells Canyon Scenic Byway via OR 82, Imnaha Road, FR 39, OR 86, I-84, OR 203.
This 208-mile horseshoe route has it all – rugged canyons, forested mountains, desert, and river. Depending where you are, start in La Grande or Baker City, both of which have vibrant downtowns and are good places to get some road snacks and gas – be sure to fill your tank before leaving as fuel stops are limited on this trip. Hells Canyon is our country’s deepest gorge. From FR-39 turn onto FR-3965 near the Ollokot campground and look down onto the canyon from Hells Canyon Overlook. Better yet, experience Hells Canyon National Recreation Area to its fullest by signing up for a rafting trip along the Snake River. For some culture, make a stop in Joseph, a small western arts town that happens to be a nice gateway for Wallowa Lake, a scenic base wedged amongst the majestic glacial peaks of the Wallowa Mountains. From Wallowa Lake, you have easy access to Eagle Cap Wilderness, which has a plethora of trail options for hikers and horseback riders. I recommend traveling this route anytime from June through October since parts of the byway are closed during winter due to snow.
3. Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway via US 97, OR 138, OR 62.
Thousands of years ago, a massive eruption caused a volcano to collapse, thus making way for the caldera that created Crater Lake, home to Crater Lake National Park. At 1,943 feet, Crater Lake is America’s deepest lake, and apparently our most pristine. Stop at Merriam Point for some epic scenery. Then take your time driving clockwise along the 33 mile Rim Drive encircling the electric blue lake so that you can easily stop at one of the many overlooks. Be sure to stop at the Cleetwood Cove trailhead, the only trail that leads down to the water’s edge. Also along the route, OR 62 takes you to Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, where you can find Oregon’s largest lake, Upper Klamath Lake, an area that attracts more than a million migrating birds.
4. Pacific Coast Scenic Byway via US 101.
While the California coast seems to hog a lot of the attention, Oregonians know that our coast has just as much to brag about. Since there’s a ton to see and do along Oregon’s 363-mile stretch, I suggest you plan it in segments to get the most out of the trip. Don’t plan on laying out on warm sands and sunbathing because our coast is usually windy and cool, even in the summer. Rather, spend some time exploring the rugged landscape, where hikes are plentiful and artsy beach towns abound. While passing through Newport be sure to stop and view the Yaquina Bay Lighthouse. Climb sand dunes at Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, and visit Cannon Beach to see the 235-foot Haystack Rock. For some nice coastline views, I recommend hiking in Ecola State Park near Cannon Beach or the Cape Lookout Trail in Tillamook, where if you’re there during winter you have a good chance of seeing whales migrating south. Finally, you want to stop in Astoria, a quirky city with Victorian homes, antique shops, Fort George Brewery, a corny but fun tram ride, and the unassuming Columbian Cafe, which serves up a great brunch. Oh yeah, and The Goonies was filmed in Astoria.
5. Mount Hood Scenic Byway via US 26, OR 35.
Visible from Portland, Mount Hood is not only an iconic landmark in Oregon but a great place to adventure around pretty much any time of year. Fortunately, there is a scenic drive that curves along the base of the mountain, affording incredible views. If you have time to spare, take a leisurely drive along the Hood River County Fruit Loop, a fertile valley where you will zoom past pear and apple trees, berry farms, and fields of lavender.
Approaching Mount Hood, you will soon be passing through Mount Hood National Forest, lined with old-growth Douglas fir. If you’re into winter sports, Government Camp is a paradisal haven for skiing and snowboarding. If you’re not into that, head up the 6- mile (very steep) road to Timberline Lodge and get drunk on hot toddies. The exterior of Timberline might look familiar if you’re a fan of The Shining since it was filmed there. I should also mention that from Timberline you have a sweet view of Mount Hood’s summit, so it’s worth the drive up. While in the area you will probably want to head to Bagby Hot Springs for some much-needed relaxation – just note that it’s clothing optional.
6. Journey Through Time Scenic Byway via US 97, OR 218, OR 19, US 26, OR 7.
As the name implies, this route showcases some history. Along US 97, make a stop at Shaniko, a living ghost town that has been restored as a tourist stop complete with kitschy shops, tours, and annual events. Continue east onto OR 218 and you will reach the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument where all along the byway you’ll find prehistoric fossil beds, some dating back 54 million years. Get out and explore the interpretive trails to learn more about the fossils. Then for more ancient stuff, head to the Painted Hills, a colorful landscape where you’ll see years of earth’s history layered in a trippy collage of red, yellow, gold, and black soil. From here there are a number of trails if you wish to explore the region more. As you weave along US 19 you are promised more spectacular views of the Painted Hills. Continue onto US 26 and pass through Prairie City, a scenic drive with views of the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness and then up into the Blue Mountains on OR 7. Eventually, you will reach Whitney, a ghost town with a bunch of abandoned buildings, until the byway meets up with Elkhorn Drive Scenic Byway, finishing your journey in Baker City.
7. McKenzie Pass-Santiam Pass Scenic Byway via US 20/US 126, OR 126, OR 242.
Start in the town of Sisters for some food and fuel,and maybe pop into a few galleries and antique shops while you’re at it. I recommend Sisters Bakery for a freshly baked doughnut and caffeinated beverage. Following the byway on US 20/US 126, you will come to Santiam Pass, a 4,817 foot pass that cuts through the Cascade Range. Here you will find some volcanic features and ashen buttes. Eventually, you will reach the McKenzie River Highway, where you can get out and explore the hiking and mountain biking trails of McKenzie River National Recreation Area. It’s also just a nice spot to laze about by the river. Further along the byway, you will come to Clear Lake, where you can walk a five-mile trail around the lake or paddle around on a canoe. Then head east on OR 242 on McKenzie Highway where you will have yet more volcano views before coming to McKenzie Pass, an epic 65-mile stretch of lava that resulted from an eruption around 2,000 years ago. Finish off at Dee Wright Observatory for panoramic views of different mountain peaks as well as a short interpretive paved hike along the lava beds.
8. Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway via OR 372, FR 41, FR 46.
Central Oregon is definitely worth exploring, and if you plan on visiting Bend, I recommend taking a drive on the Cascade Lakes Highway, where you will find forest roads, mountains, and well, lakes. Begin with lunch (or finish with dinner, depending) at Cascade Lakes Brewing Company Lodge, the one on SW Chandler Avenue near the Cascades Lakes Scenic Byway, not the one in downtown Bend. Heading westward on OR 372 (Cascade Lakes Highway) you will enter Deschutes National Forest, a canopy of pine, fir, and hemlock. If fishing or canoeing is a thing you do, get off at FR 41 for river access and while away some time by the Deschutes River. Continue on towards Mt. Bachelor, where you have the option for skiing as Mt Bachelor Ski Resort happens to be the largest ski area in Oregon. Snow usually lasts through June. If you are there during summer you can ride a chairlift to the Pine Marten Lodge for some killer views that reach all the way to Washington and California.
Make your descent, check out Broken Top Mountain as you pass by, and then get ready for some lakes. Sparks Lake and Devils Lake are worth checking out if you have time. But don’t worry, there are still more to come if you just want to continue on the road. The byway eventually takes you south on FR 46, where there is opportunity to get off and hike to the many lakes hidden within the Three Sisters Wilderness. Consider stopping atElk Lake Recreation Area for easy water access and views of Mt. Bachelor. Then continue on as the byway weaves along the Deschutes River, passing Little Lava Lake and Crane Prairie Reservoir.
Featured image by Andy Melton