Overlooking the magnificent Crater Lake, Oregon.

The Natural Wonders of Oregon

The Pacific Northwest is internationally renowned for the allure of its jaw-dropping natural beauty. Temperate rainforests, coastal mountain ranges, and the eternal beating of the Pacific Ocean are all on display for visitors to the region. The state of Oregon, one of the most southern portions of the region, has no shortage of lakes, dunes, and wondrous earthly splendor to explore. Visit mind-blowing geological structures, see the home of rock climbing in the US, and dip in the country's deepest lake. These natural wonders in Oregon offer adventure to those who heed the call of the wild.

Columbia River Gorge

Sunset at Columbia River Gorge, Oregon
Overlooking the Columbia River Gorge, Oregon.

Thirty miles east of Portland, the stunning views of the Columbia River Gorge are spectacular to behold and a must-see experience for visitors to the state. From the far end of the gorge at Crown Point, witness the scope and majesty of the untamed Columbia River roiling between the Cascade Mountains. The Gorge was harrowed roughly 14,000 years ago by massive flooding, carving a bed through sheer rock. Today, basalt rock walls, firs, ferns, and countless waterfalls frame the river on both sides. The Columbia River is one of the country's greatest rivers, for good reason. Dog Mountain beckons hikers with swathes of yellow wildflowers and views of the meandering river below. Discover the many hidden waterfalls, saunter through the backcountry trails, and taste the area's farm-to-table produce.

Crater Lake

wide angle view of Crater Lake from the top of Watchman's Peak, beautiful landscape in Oregon
Crater Lake from the top of Watchman's Peak.

The deepest lake in the country is best seen from afar at first. Stop atop the cliffs that ring it first before descending nearly 2,000 feet toward the lake’s sapphire surface. The now dormant volcano at the lake’s center belies the very much alive primordial splendor that awaits those who make it to the water’s surface. Hiking is unquestionably one of the draws to the area. The old-growth forests help make the trails here world-class, and cross-country skiing becomes possible in the winter. The park is open all year, however. Start at one of two visitor centers and begin exploring from there. Rim Drive is also an incredibly scenic drive for those who forgot their hiking shoes. Besides the natural beauty, thespians rejoice at the entertainment on offer at Crater Lake. The area hosts the famed Oregon Shakespeare Festival and numerous vineyards, chocolatiers, and cheesemakers.

Painted Hills

Colorful clay hills in the Painted Hills of Oregon
Painted Hills of Oregon.

This unmistakable Oregon wonder gets its name from a geological formation arranged by millions of years of erosion into something truly sublime. The hills look like naturally occurring cave paintings. Best seen in the afternoon, the Painted Hills possess marbling of blacks, reds, and yellows similar to those of Peru’s Rainbow Mountain. The colors seem to change depending on the season, so try and visit during mid-spring or autumn. The hills are also known to change color during precipitation. However, these chameleon-like outcrops are only the first of three units that comprise the John Day Fossil Beds. Stop by the Clarno Unit, with its pillars formed by waterfalls and volcanic waste products, before visiting the Sheep Rock Unit, where one can find fossilized plants and animals at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center. Over 50 million years of flora and fauna evolution are there to learn about first-hand.

Wallowa Mountains

Ranch land near the Wallowa Mountains in Oregon
Wallowa Mountains in Oregon.

Mountainous, rugged wonder lies in store within the Wallowa Mountains, called the "Swiss Alps" of Oregon. Hard-nosed hiking veterans are welcome to summit these peaks the old-fashioned way, but horse riding is also an option for those who feel the palpable heartbeat of the frontier, which is still very much alive in this region. Also, there is a gondola that travels nearly 4,000 feet between the peak of Mount Howard and the center of Wallowa Lake Village. The Wallowas are nothing if not fun for the whole family. Camping is a selling point of the mountains, as are cabins for the interior-inclined. Mini golf courses, art galleries, and craft beer breweries are all on tap in the surrounding areas. Hire a pedal-powered car from Joseph Branch Railriders and travel the railroad tracks through fields of wildflowers and tawny brush. 

Oregon Coast

A sunny afternoon on the beach and rocky cliffs that are south of the Arch Rock in the southern part of the Oregon Coast.
Beach and rocky cliffs that are south of the Arch Rock in the southern part of the Oregon Coast.

The Pacific Ocean to its west is one of the state’s greatest assets. The Oregon Coast is over 360 miles of shoreline that remains one hundred percent free to the public. No fenced-off beaches here. Divided into three regions, many cities call the shoreline home. Paddle up and down the Wild Rivers Coast estuaries, bicycle from Astoria to Newport, or ride the dunes with an ATV over the Oregon dunes. Scenic vistas are more common than not along the Pacific Ocean. Soak up the sun and simmer in the salty spray of sea breeze while rolling waves lull you to sleep for a beachfront nap. Visit the town of Seaside, the state’s first seaside town, and walk the lovely waterfront promenade, one of the coast’s most vaunted attractions. Head to the Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area for Romanticist scenery fit for framing. A gorgeous rustic lighthouse sits atop a cliff overlooking the ocean where grey whales are often spotted.

Smith Rock

Smith Rock State Park, Oregon with clouds in the sky
Smith Rock State Park, Oregon.

Thousands of people from across the country visit the towering spires of volcanic ash which shoot skyward from the windswept desert at Smith Rock State Park. Newberry basalt cliff bands formed by eruptions more than 20 million years ago punctuate the skyline, where you can spot golden eagles. Located in Central Oregon, the park receives over 300 days of sun each year, perfect for rock climbing. Smith Rock is the birthplace of American sport climbing. There are over a thousand preset routes, and cliffs of both tuff and basalt provide varied difficulty for newcomers and veterans alike. The 623-acre park is truly an outdoorsy person’s paradise with its hiking, mountain biking, birdwatching, and picnic opportunities. To recharge, Baldy’s BBQ and the Terrebonne Depot offer hearty meals to weekend warriors with closing anabolic windows. Smith Rock is a must-visit for those looking for an unforgettable follow-up to frolicking in the Pacific Ocean.

Mount Hood

Snowcapped Mount Hood with homes at the base.
Snowcapped Mount Hood with homes at the base. Image credit tusharkoley via Shutterstock.

The territory of Mount Hood is an awe-inspiring natural wonder bursting with superb rivers, lakes, and valleys. The area has almost endless activities for visitors looking to digital detox and burn calories in the great outdoors on the West Coast. Visit Estacada Lake and paddle through it with a kayak, canoe, or stand-up paddleboard. Timber Park, and Milo McIver State Park, on opposite sides of the lake, are amazing ways to reset one’s natural rhythms. Bring a tent and camp between the Douglas-firs and Western Reds. See the Molalla River Corridor Recreation Area afterward, hike the Hardy Creek Trailhead, and fish Chinook salmon in springtime. During colder months, the Mt. Hood Skibowl offers winter sports of all stripes, including Cosmic Tubing. If the amenities of civilization begin to beckon, visit the historic streets of Oregon City at the end of the Oregon Trail for a guided tour of Willamette Falls. Sit and clap along to the Live Music on the Water concert to cap off an unforgettable adventure through the Pacific Northwest wilds.

The state of Oregon has many natural wonders. Previously, pioneers who traveled west had to trek through the plains and across the Rocky Mountains to see the Pacific Northwest’s beauty. Today, large portions of the wonders mentioned above are reachable by bus. From crystalline lakes to towering pillars of volcanic ash to breathtaking old-growth forests which thrum with life, there is no corner of Oregon without merit and wonder. All one needs is a good pair of hiking shoes and the desire to get it done.


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