The Pacific Northwest state of Oregon is a land full of natural wonders, bustling cities, and friendly small towns. The city of Portland in particular is known as a haven for unique characters, and that same spirit of independence and quirkiness carries into many of Oregon’s towns as well. From one-of-a-kind natural features to “only here” attractions, the seven towns highlighted here are definitely unique destinations. So, when planning your first (or next) trip to Oregon, make some time to venture beyond the big cities like Portland and discover all the cool things the Beaver State’s small towns have to offer!
The coastal town of Yachats offers spectacular views all along its rocky shoreline, but the main attraction is a gaping hole among the rocks known as Thor’s Well. While it is actually only about 20 feet deep and empties out during low tide, Thor’s Well looks like a giant swirling bathtub drain that will slowly empty the ocean during high tide. While it is a great photo spot, it is important to be careful walking on the surrounding rocks. Along with the year-round draw of Thor’s Well, Yachats is home to several fun autumn festivals, including Oktoberfest in late September, the Mushroom Festival in October, and the Celtic Music Festival in November.
The northwest Oregon community of McMinnville is the home of the Spruce Goose, the largest wooden aircraft ever built. The brainchild of eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes during World War II, the hulking plane was designed to take off and land on water, but only ever made one short flight. Admire the Spruce Goose and other wonders at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum, then do some rain-or-shine slipping and sliding at the Wings and Waves indoor water park, which is adjacent to the aviation museum. McMinnville also hosts the Oregon International Air Show in late September, the McMinnville Scottish Festival in October, and the annual McMenamins UFO Festival each May.
While Oregon brings to mind forests and rocky coastlines, areas of the central and eastern part of the state have a high desert landscape. For the most colorful view of this landscape, head to the Painted Hills segment of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, about 9 miles northwest of the town of Mitchell. As the name indicates, Painted Hills contains vibrantly colored mounds and hillsides along an ancient flood plain that has long since dried out. You may come across rhino or even dinosaur fossils while there, and you definitely might think you are in Utah or Arizona instead of Oregon! Visit on Labor Day weekend to enjoy Mitchell’s Painted Hills Festival.
In a time when many small, family run amusement parks have closed or been bought out by entertainment conglomerates, Enchanted Forest, located in Turner, is a breath of fresh air. The park, which was the brainchild of local resident Roger Tofte and opened in 1971, is nestled among the trees and has a charmingly haphazard and DIY feel. Many of the rides and fairy tale inspired sculptures were handmade by Tofte, but the park also contains an impressive, 350 foot tall water fountain light show. Meanwhile, Turner is a cute little town of about 2,500 residents that is located only about 10 miles south of Oregon’s state capital, the city of Salem.
Oregon is a great place for quirky attractions in the forest! Like Enchanted Forest in Turner, Prehistoric Gardens in Port Orford is situated among the tall trees. Begun in 1955 as a roadside attraction along Highway 101, the park contains concrete sculptures of dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures, some of which tower at over 40 feet tall. Some of the paint jobs are chipped and faded, but that just adds to the rustic charm of Prehistoric Gardens. Meanwhile, Port Orford is a lovely coastal town with the distinction of being the westernmost community in the lower 48 states. Port Orford also contains Battle Rock, a picturesque stone promontory with a deadly history during Oregon’s early settlement period.
A 2002 wildfire uncovered what had long been a well-kept secret hidden in the forest of Cove Palisades State Park: the Metolius Balancing Rocks. A series of boulders perch precariously atop slender cylindrical towers of stone, a seemingly impossible natural phenomena that is actually the result of ancient volcanic activity and millenia of erosion. But even with this knowledge, you may find it hard to believe what you are seeing! The state park is located near Deschutes National Forest, another great spot for hiking, camping, and sightseeing. Culver, a small town of about 1,500 residents, draws big crowds each August during its annual Crawdad Festival, which honors that small freshwater crustacean.
If you are a cheese lover, be sure to visit Tillamook on the northwestern Oregon coast. This small town is home to the surprisingly large Tillamook Creamery, which produces around 150,000 pounds of cheese per day. Check out the visitor’s center, go on a factory tour, and definitely try a few cheese samples! Then, walk off your cheese samples by visiting Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint and its Octopus Tree, a spruce tree with numerous trunks that look like tentacles. Or, check out the collections of airplanes in the Tillamook Air Museum, housed in a former World War II blimp hangar that is believed to be the largest wooden building in the world.
Oregon’s big cities have many one-of-a-kind attractions, from the Witch’s Castle in Portland to the world’s last Blockbuster Video store in Bend. But the Beaver State also has hundreds of small towns with their own unique charms. Natural features like Thor’s Well and the Metolius Balancing Rocks highlight the beauty of Oregon’s environment, while manmade attractions like the Enchanted Forest speak to the quirky spirit that makes Oregon’s small towns such great places to visit. Go ahead and book your trip today!