Things to Do in Oregon
It’s hard to believe you can drive and walk through the area of a 500-square-mile volcano that remains seismically active today. Up in the high plains of central Oregon, these lava lands are filled with lakes, lava tubes and fascinating geological patterns. Within the Deschutes National Forest and from the highest point, Paulina Peak, there is more than 50,000 acres of unique landscape to explore.
Once the site of the Newberry Volcano, which exploded 75,000 years ago, all that remains today is the caldera and visual evidence of the past lava flows. Here is where you’ll find the most recent lava present in Oregon (around 1,300 years ago) at the Big Obsidian Flow, a large field of shiny, black obsidian rock covering 700 acres. You can also visit the two alpine lakes of the caldera, Paulina and East, which are popular fishing sites, or explore the unique scenery with a hike on one of the many area nature trails.
About 16 miles east of Portland, the Columbia River Gorge stretches from Troutdale to Biggs on the Oregon side, and from Vancouver to Maryhill on the Washington side. An 80-mile canyon ranging from sea level to 4,000 feet, this National Scenic Area separates the two states in a wide, rocky and leafy ribbon which runs between the Columbia River and the Cascade Mountains.
In 1805, the Lewis and Clark Expedition used the Columbia and its craggy banks to reach the Pacific; these days, two smoothly-paved highways on the Oregon side would greatly simplify the explorers' epic journey. Interstate-84 parallels the achingly wide, cornflower-blue Columbia, wending past dense, dark forests and jagged, lavender-grey mountains. Beside the Columbia River Highway (which runs adjacent to I-84 from Troutdale to Dodson), the Gorge is webbed with hiking trails and more than 90 waterfalls, including the 620-foot-high Multnomah Falls.
Set alongside the beautiful Cascade Mountains of the Pacific Northwest, the Deschutes National Forest is a scenic natural forest and recreation area in central Oregon. The alpine and evergreen forest, lakes, and streams draw those interested in hiking, fly fishing, hunting, river-rafting, mountain biking, camping, and more. An extensive amount of nature trails provide many options to explore the outdoors. The green trees, clean water, and fresh air abound here. In the winter months skiing and snowboarding are popular in the mountains. The five designated wilderness areas, including six Wild and Scenic Rivers, each offer something different. Meadows, caves, and even desert areas are also a part of this diverse landscape. Camping is available during the warmer months of the year at over 125 developed campsites. Overall the forest covers around 1.7 million acres of land, so there’s much to explore.
Roughly 30 miles east of Portland along the Columbia River Gorge is one of Oregon's iconic symbols – Multnomah Falls, the tallest waterfall in the state. The water actually falls in two stages, so there are technically two waterfalls.
There's a small bridge – the Benson Footbridge – that spans the top of the second waterfall, and offers an excellent view of the taller of the two waterfalls. There are lots of great hiking trails in the Columbia River Gorge, and some start nearby – including the Mark O. Hatfield Memorial Trail.
At the base of the falls is the Multnomah Falls Lodge, which has a restaurant, some snack vendors, and visitor facilities. The Multnomah Falls Lodge (built in 1915) and footpath are on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
Cannon Beach is a small town on the Oregon coast, but it's got a big reputation. And yes, there's an actual cannon.
Part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition visited what became Cannon Beach in 1805-1806, and a settlement called Elk Creek grew there in the mid-1800s. In 1922, the community was renamed Cannon Beach after a U.S. Navy ship's cannon that had washed up on the shore in 1846. The actual cannon is on display in a city museum, with a replica perched near the coastal highway.
Today, Cannon Beach is known for its art galleries, fine restaurants, boutique hotels, and beautiful beaches. The iconic Haystack Rock – a National Wildlife Refuge – juts out of the ocean very close to shore, and at low tide the tide pools around its base are otherworldly. Nearby, Ecola State Park offers spectacular hiking and views overlooking the Pacific.
Portland's most popular commercial area, "The Pearl", as it's locally known, is north of downtown between West Burnside Street, the Willamette River, NW Broadway and the Interstate 405 freeway. Once a lonely industrial district of decaying warehouses and rail yards, a boom in urban renewal in the late 1990s to the early 2000s prompted an allusion to the area's scruffy architecture as crusty oysters containing pearls. These "pearls" were initially artists' lofts and galleries, but the neighborhood now teems with upscale eateries, small performance venues and independent boutiques as well.
The Pearl's biggest attraction is also one of the most-visited spots in Portland: the flagship Powell's City of Books. Spanning an entire city block (between NW 10th and 11th Avenues, W. Burnside and NW Couch Streets), Powell's bills itself as the world's largest independent bookstore.
The Mt. Hood National Forest covers more than one million acres, including lakes, wilderness areas, mountains, and of course – a vast forest.
First established in 1892 as the Bull Run Forest Reserve, the area was expanded and eventually the name was changed to its current Mt. Hood National Forest in 1924. The forest area extends into six different Oregon counties, is managed by four district offices, has eight designated wilderness areas, and includes 170 recreation sites. Visitors can go hiking, mountain biking, boating, fishing, hunting, camping, mountain climbing, skiing, and horseback riding in the National Forest, among other things. Part of the Pacific Crest Trail crosses into the National Forest. The towering peak of Mt. Hood – the tallest point in the state – sits in the northern part of the National Forest, and Timberline Lodge has year-round skiing. The forest area stretches from the Columbia River Gorge south about 60 miles through the Willamette Valley.
More Things to Do in Oregon
Designed for science fans of all ages, OMSI features five separate halls, eight hands-on science labs, a real submarine, an OMNIMAX giant-screen theater and a planetarium. Over 200 interactive exhibits focus on subjects like global climate change, chemistry, the human body, technology and more.
For older children, Turbine Hall encourages building, engineering and problem-solving, and for kids six and under, the colorful Science Playground offers art materials, a cave to explore, water and a huge sandbox in which to frolic. On the five-story-high OMNIMAX theater screen, you can see blockbusters and nature documentaries that have been formatted for IMAX, allowing you to virtually soar over mountains and swim to ocean depths.
Located about 50 miles (81 kilometers) outside of Portland, Mt. Hood sits majestically at 11,249 feet (3,429 meters), making it the highest mountain in Oregon. As it is a dormant volcano you’ll constantly see steam rising from its fumaroles, adding to the serenity of the scene.
Mt. Hood offers a range of experiences, like hiking, fishing, camping and skiing. Of Mt. Hood’s five ski lodges, the most famous is the Timberline Lodge, a designated National Historic Landmark that’s home to the only year-round ski season in North America. Additionally, there are over 1,200 miles (1,931 kilometers) of hiking trails in the Mt. Hood National Forest, with options from beginner to expert and chances to see waterfalls, lakes, woodland and wildlife.
For true adventure-seekers, Mt. Hood is the second-most climbed mountain in the world with over 10,000 climbers each year, and mixes thrills with natural beauty.
Driving around the bend from Portland, the first view many see of the Columbia River Gorge is from the corner of land called Crown Point. The outlook provides an overview of the dramatic scenery and surrounding canyon. On a clear day there is a panoramic view of the heavily forested area, the mountains, and the Columbia River. The point itself is an enormous rock formation that was caused by multiple lava flows, which once altered the course of the river. Looking to the west, you can see Rooster Rock, another well-loved rock formation that slopes down into the canyon.
With the Vista House constructed on Crown Point at the same time the highway was being formed, it remains one of the best loved visitor stops on the historic Columbia River Gorge Highway and is considered the gateway to the area. Crown Point was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1971. It remains a popular stop for both views and refreshments.
The most popular landscape in Washington Park, the International Rose Test Garden was originally conceived as a means of capitalizing on Portland's nickname: "The City of Roses." This moniker was coined during the 1905 Lewis & Clark Exhibition, when city officials, eager for their young town to make a good impression on visitors, had many of Portland's streets planted with dozens of rosebushes.
Opened in 1917 during the height of World War I, the Rose Test Garden soon became a safe haven for European rose hybrids that would otherwise have been destroyed by battles and bombs. It's still a working test garden, with bulbs and cuttings sent here from around the world to be monitored for color, scent, disease resistance and more. Now one of the largest rose gardens in America, the Test Garden has over 600 rose varieties and more than 9,500 bushes.
Forty miles east of Portland, the Bonneville Lock and Dam spans the Columbia River, providing electricity and flood control, as well as creating recreational areas.
The dam was started in 1934, replacing locks and a canal built in 1896, as part of President Roosevelt's New Deal construction projects. It was completed three years later, with a second powerhouse added in 1974. The dam produces an enormous amount of hydroelectric power – more than 1,180 megawatts between the two powerhouses.
The Bonneville Reservoir was created behind the dam, and is a popular spot for summer activities like boating and swimming. Fish ladders installed at the dam are intended to help salmon, steelhead, and other native fish navigate past the dam in order to spawn upstream – and that journey is also a tourist attraction during spawning season. There are “fish cams” you can see on the dam's website, and large viewing windows at the dam itself.
Inner Northwest Portland – specifically around NW 21st and NW 23rd – is one of the most popular in the city center for shopping, entertainment, and dining. It also has a memorable nickname: the Alphabet District.
You might not notice the reason for the name immediately, especially if you're taking your time meandering from one shop-lined block to another, but the streets in the quadrant that run east-west are in alphabetical order – from Burnside, Couch, Davis, Everett, and Flanders on up through Wilson. There's an A street further east (Alder), but it doesn't continue up far enough to be part of this district. The Alphabet District is historically one of Portland's most desirable neighborhoods – there are beautiful Victorian-style houses in the residential blocks and sought-after condo buildings. One of the city's oldest independent movie theaters, Cinema 21, is on NW 21st Avenue.
From 1909 to 1919, this 22-room French Renaissance-style estate was the home of Portland's original power couple, Henry and Georgiana Pittock; Henry's business empire included The Oregonian newspaper, and Georgiana championed women's rights and the city's then-burgeoning Rose Festival. The Pittocks' former property, set on 46 acres and perched 1,000-feet above downtown Portland, offers one of Oregon's most sweeping views of the city and the Cascade Range.
By the mid-1960s, the Mansion had fallen into disrepair, the Pittocks' remaining family members couldn't find a buyer, and it seemed fated for bulldozing; but local preservationists managed to raise the necessary funds to save it, and by 1974 it was named to the National Register of Historic Places. The Mansion now attracts over 800,000 visitors a year.
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