Oregon’s Parks and Best Scenic Locations
Oregon may only be home to a single national park, but that by no means equates to there being few natural wonders to explore. This Pacific Northwest state abounds with natural scenic locations where you can easily get back to nature and enjoy the great outdoors.
Oregon offers up hundreds of state parks, nearly a dozen national forests, over twenty wildlife refuges, and over 350 miles of coastline to explore. Whether you’re looking to do some remote backcountry hiking and camping or simply want to visit a park closer to the big cities like Portland, here are some of Oregon’s best parks and natural spaces to experience.
Columbia River Gorge
Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area may be just minutes outside Portland, but it feels like a million miles away. Humans have enjoyed this slice of natural heaven for more than 13,000 years, with remnants of Indian petroglyphs still present within the area.
It is here where one of Oregon’s most recognized natural landmarks can be found. With a height of over 600 feet, Multnomah Falls is one of the most visited natural recreation sites in the Pacific Northwest, attracting millions of visitors every year. The falls are accompanied by others in the area as well such as Latourell and Bridal Veil Falls.
Latourell Falls are just as photogenic as Multnomah and offer really impressive basalt columns. Unlike Multnomah Falls which tumbles over a cliff, the Lower Latourell Falls are a single plunge waterfall that drops straight down without touching rock for most of the way. The parking lot for Latourell Falls also doesn’t close like the one found at Multnomah, which automatically closes when the lot becomes too full.
There’s also a hundred-year-old observatory with killer viewpoints to check out or you may want to do a bit of mountain biking or Hood River windsurfing. One popular hike to tackle is the Dog Mountain climb.
Currently celebrating its 150th anniversary, Washington Park is one of the oldest public parks in Oregon. Not just your average park, Washington Park combines a mix of attractions including 15 miles of trails, the Oregon Zoo, a conservatory, museums, and gardens, all of which combine to cover an area around 460 acres.
Considered to be Portland’s natural crown jewel, it’s no wonder why so many people who are looking to relocate to the city and are searching Portland houses for sale are enticed by the park’s surrounding multi-million dollar homes and modern condos in upscale neighborhoods like Portland Heights, Arlington Heights, and Goose Hollow/Goose Hollow Southwest Hills.
In addition the park’s own 15 miles of trails, it also connects with a larger 40-mile-loop that will take you to Forest Park and the famous Pittock Mansion. Be sure to also pay visits to one of the country’s finest Japanese Gardens, one of America’s oldest rose gardens, and the more than 2,500 animals that call the park’s Oregon Zoo home.
Described as a potentially active stratovolcano, Mount Hood is both a big winter and summer outdoor recreation area just two hours outside of Portland. Mount Hood is of course Oregon’s tallest peak, towering 11,000 feet over the state.
Winter skiing isn’t restricted to just a few months, rather Mount Hood’s Timberline Lodge and Ski Area enjoys one of North America’s longest ski seasons if not the longest. There are also opportunities to go snowshoeing and snowmobiling.
Come summer, Mount Hood attracts hikers and mountain bikers looking to take advantage of Mount Hood Skibowl’s lift-assisted Mountain Bike Park. There is also a fun summer alpine slide as well as the opportunity to do a bit of whitewater rafting or kayaking on rivers like the Upper Clackamas and Willamette.
Located in one of the country’s largest urban forests, you’ll find abandoned ruins that locals often refer to as the Witch’s Castle. While there are around 80 miles of trails to explore in Forest Park, the hike to the Witch’s Castle is only a mile round trip that will take you about an hour.
The building isn’t actually a castle or ancient witch’s house, rather it was constructed in the mid-1900s by the park service where it was used as a ranger station and public bathrooms often used by hikers. It was later abandoned after a large storm and now sits covered in moss with a collapsed roof.
Some say the ranger station was abandoned because it was haunted, the toilets often said to have flushed by themselves. The site is also said to be haunted by the ghosts and was featured in the TV show Grimm. You can access Witch’s Castle by parking at the Upper Macleay Trail parking lot and following the Balch Creek along the Wildwood Trail east until just before it joins with the Lower Macleay Trail
Wapato Access Greenway State Park
The largest island to be found along the Columbia River is Sauvie Island. The island covers 26,000 acres, making it one of the largest river islands in the country. The island is known as a natural escape from the city that is just 20 minutes away.
The island is rich in wildlife and offers numerous hiking trails, but it can be difficult to know where to start since the Sauvie Island Wildlife Area covers an expansive 12,000 acres. You can get a great introduction to the island’s wild inhabitants by checking out the Wapato Access Greenway State Park Trail.
The trail is located just a short distance up NW Sauvie Island Road after you come onto the island. The trail is very easy to manage and runs in a roughly a 2.5 mile loop. The trail winds around a seasonal lake which offers incredible birdwatching opportunities. Common species seen include bald eagles, great blue herons, cormorants, and numerous species of waterfowl.
Far from the lush temperate rainforests and wild coastline you may picture when you think of the Pacific Northwest, Oregon’s Painted Hills within the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument provides a semi-desert mountainous landscape to explore.
Different colored layers of soil ranging from shades of brown to reds and oranges are what give the Painted Hills their name. They are said to be extra vivid at sunrise, sunset, and after recent rains.
Two additional units can be found within the John Day Fossil Beds NM and they include Sheep Rock and Clarno. Popular hiking trails in the area include the Overlook Trail, Painted Cove Boardwalk Trail, and Red Scar Knoll Trail. While on the trails, you may encounter fossils from the Eocene and Miocene periods due to the area’s richness in fossils.
Heading to the Coast, Cannon Beach is one of the state’s most popular. Much of its hype comes from being home to one of the world’s largest sea stacks which is the 235-foot-tall Haystock Rock. There’s also an additional roughly ten miles of coastline to walk in the nearby Ecola State Park.
Search the various tide pools for close-up encounters with a variety of sea creatures such as colorful sea anemones, starfish, and crabs. Be sure to check out the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse Lookout and maybe seek out the tufted puffins which can often be spotted during the spring and summer months at the close by Indian Beach.
Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge
Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge is not only Portland’s first wildlife refuge, but it’s also the city’s first migratory bird park. The refuge sits just a few miles from downtown and offers several easy to manage trails that wrap around wetlands. The site was once home to a construction waste landfill but has been restored to offer a wetland habitat that is frequented by nearly 200 species of birds.
The refuge is home to hawks, ospreys, shorebirds, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, waterfowl, and egrets, many of which can be seen year round. Some of the refuge’s most notable visitors are the many great blue herons that fly over from the nearby rookery located on Ross Island.
Hiking the 4-mile Oaks Bottom Loop Trail will allow you to see a great deal of the refuge, or you can simply take the Bluff Trail around the lake. The longer loop trail also takes in a portion of the Springwater Corridor Trail that can be used by both bikes and pedestrians.
High Rocks Park
Just 20 minutes south of Portland, you’ll find one of the closest natural swimming holes to the city. High Rocks Park sits along the Clackamas River, offering a deep swimming hole and cleaner water than both the Colombia and Willamette Rivers.
The park takes its name from the 20 foot cliffs that attract local cliff divers, but it’s advised that you refrain from diving yourself unless you really know the area. Diving can be dangerous if you aren’t familiar with the water depths and dangerous river obstacles below. You can access the water by wading in, so there’s no need to dive in.
During the summer months, there are lifeguards on duty that patrol the waters and provide life jackets for those needing them. The area is incredibly scenic despite being just west of the Interstate 205 bridge. Just to the west of the park, a beautiful former rail bridge spans the river allowing you to cross since it has been converted into a pedestrian bridge. The bridge offers a great lookout point over the river.