The Oregon Bucket List
I’ll be honest, it was extremely difficult to narrow this list down to only ten things; Oregon is freaking amazing. In our opinions it’s one of the coolest states to live in—yet we’ve lived in only two, so what do we really know? It has diversity in nature and unlimited recreational opportunities, an amazing food and booze scene, legal weed, laidback vibes, mild weather—there’s just lots to love about Oregon! And it’s pronounced ORE-uh-g’n or ORY-gun. We had no clue until we moved here, but calling it OR-e-gawn will quickly identify you as an out-of-towner, and it just sounds weird. In fact, there are many city, town and park names all around the state I was pronouncing wrong until someone corrected me or I heard it said out loud. Check out this handy Oregon names pronunciation guide for some tips, courtesy of the University of Portland.
Depending on how long you’re visiting Oregon, it is possible to visit all of these locations in one trip. But we highly recommend visiting more than once so you can really take your time exploring all the amazing things the state has to offer. We’ve narrowed our list down to include some of the most popular attractions, but know that there are many, MANY more awesome things to do and see in the state. Feel free to reach out to us directly for Oregon travel suggestions and trip itineraries, seriously, we LOVE showing our state off! Travel Oregon is also an excellent and comprehensive resource for all things Oregon.
Be sure to plan and call ahead before visiting your destinations, as hours and availability have likely been impacted to ensure safety due to COVID-19.
1. Portland, Oregon
Obviously you need to visit Portland, Oregon’s largest city. With a moderate climate, marked by warm, dry summers and cool, rainy winters, it’s a city that can be enjoyed virtually all year round. (We’re from New York, so a “cool rainy” winter is nothing compared to freezing cold, snowy winters, so we think it’s enjoyable year round!) Even if you’re not a “city person,” Portland is home to a plethora of green spaces, gardens, and parks like the lush Forest Park, one of the largest natural areas located within a major metro location. The food scene in Portland is banging, from pub food to fine dining, it’s all good! The city is well known for its hot food cart scene where the carts are often found clustered together in pods instead of roaming the streets. Portlanders very much appreciate their happy hours and brunches too. When it’s not “COVID times” there are endless events, music festivals and activities taking place throughout the year. The city is home to tons of museums (some really weird ones too), historic sites, and a thriving art scene. Portland truly has something for everyone— check out our list of 50 things to do in Portland for more ideas. The Travel Portland website is also an awesome resource for Oregon’s “weird” city.
2. The Oregon Coast
Known as the “People’s Coast,” all 363 miles of Oregon’s coastline are free and open to the public. And with more than 80 state parks and recreation areas along the coast, there’s ample opportunity to stop and enjoy its splendor. Characterized by huge cliffs, headlands and rocky outcrops, along with flat sandy beaches and dunes, the Oregon Coast is one of the most rugged, wild and scenic stretches of coastline we’ve ever experienced. Pretty much the entire coast is prime for wildlife viewing, including a variety of whales, seals, sea lions, and tide pools filled with colorful sea stars and anemones. Go fishing for crabs or digging for clams, the world is your oyster (ha, pun intended)! And if you’re into lighthouses, Oregon has 11 to explore. There’s rock hounding, hiking, historic sites and so many awesome and unique small beach towns to explore, full of delicious food and drinks, fresh seafood, local art and craft merchants—AH, there’s just so much to love about the Oregon Coast! It’s divided into three regions: the North Coast from the Columbia River to Cascade Head; the Central Coast from Cascade Head to Reedsport; and the Southern Coast from Reedsport to California.
Some of the North Coast highlights include Astoria, the shipwreck of Peter Iredale, Cannon Beach, and the Three Capes Scenic Loop. The Central Coast has the town of Newport, it’s historic bayfront and Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, Yachats (our favorite coast town), the Cape Perpetua Scenic Area, and the largest sea cave. Last but not least is the less visited or possibly our favorite of the three, the Southern Coast. Its treasures include the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, the beaches at Bandon, and the stunning Samual H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor. No matter which area you visit on the Oregon Coast, we guarantee you will not be disappointed!
3. The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area
The Columbia River Gorge National Recreation Area is a spectacular canyon in the Columbia River that lies 30 miles east of Portland. Within this 80-mile stretch of wonder, the landscape transitions from rainforest to woodlands to grasslands moving east. The Columbia River Gorge is widely known for its waterfalls, with over 90 on the Oregon side alone; there are more across the river in Washington! Check out this list of the easiest-to-see waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge. The gorge provides plenty of opportunities for recreation, like hiking, biking, windsurfing, fishing, sightseeing and picnicking. Springtime brings some of the most impressive wildflower blooms imaginable, when the hillsides literally explode with yellow balsamroot between April-May. Within the boundaries of the scenic area are yet more specially designated areas, including a Wilderness area, two Wild & Scenic Rivers, and a National Scenic Trail, a.k.a. the Pacific Crest Trail. Because of its close proximity to Portland we always take our guests to the gorge and recommend it to anyone visiting the city for a few days. With over two million visitors each year, the Columbia River Gorge is quite popular, so we recommend visiting weekdays instead of weekends, if possible. And if you get the opportunity to visit the gorge town of Hood River, only an hour from Portland, we recommend that you do; it has so many great breweries, wineries, shops and restaurants, and it’s just cool. Grab a pint and some snacks along the waterfront and watch the windsurfers tear up the Columbia, you won’t regret it!
4. Mount Hood
The majestic Mount Hood is a dormant (but possibly active) stratovolcano in the Cascade Range located about 50 miles east/southeast of Portland. Measuring over 11,200 feet, Oregon’s tallest mountain offers four seasons of fun. It’s surrounded by an expansive national forest sprinkled with waterfalls, hot springs, alpine lakes and other treasures. The options for outdoor recreation seem endless, to include camping, climbing, biking, and hiking. Snow sports are highly popular on this mountain which hosts six ski areas. Timberline Lodge, located near the town of Government Camp, is a National Historic Landmark and ski resort with the longest skiing season in the U.S., staying open for all 12 months! The weather conditions can change rapidly on Mount Hood so be sure to check before planning your trip. Some popular and fairly easy hikes on Mount Hood include Tamanawas Falls, Lost Lake and Trillium Lake. And this is just one of Oregon’s mountains, the state has 3,764 total!
5. The Willamette Valley
The Willamette Valley is probably most famous for being Oregon’s wine country, but the region has so much more to offer (see the guide formerly referenced for pronunciation of Willamette). The Willamette Valley Visitors Association has provided this awesome map that features all there is to do and see within each region of the Willamette Valley. In just 150 miles the region sports more than 500 wineries, exceptional farm-to-table cuisine, tons of farm stands and U-pick options, charming small towns and historic sites. Oregon has a surprisingly high number of covered bridges, at least 54, and many of them can be found within the region. Then there’s the Willamette National Forest, covering 1,700 miles and offering a wonderland of scenic drives, viewpoints, alpine lakes, wildflower blooms, stunning waterways, waterfalls and mountains. The famous 26.5-mile McKenzie River Trail passes by some pretty epic Oregon scenery, including Clear Lake, Sahalie and Koosah Falls, and the Tamolich Blue Pool. Near the city of Salem lies the gem of the Oregon State Park system, Silver Falls, which we’ll describe down below.
6. Smith Rock State Park
About 30 minutes from the town of Bend, Smith Rock State Park sits about 3,000 feet high in elevation and covers over 650 acres in the high desert of Central Oregon. This iconic park was formed by ash, volcanoes, lava and carved by the Crooked River. With views of deep river canyons and mountains in the distance, Smith Rock is magical, and a great place to visit for the adventurous. It’s a world-renowned rock climbers paradise, with over several thousands routes throughout the park. But don’t worry, you can still enjoy this place if you’re not into climbing, there are miles and miles of hiking and mountain biking trails, horseback riding, and even slack-line walking, or you can simply take in the gorgeous scenery and watch the native wildlife like golden eagles and river otters. To get a feeling for the whole park and how truly awesome it is, we highly recommend this four-mile loop that combines three trails: the River Trail, Mesa Verde and Misery Ridge. After walking down into the canyon, cross the bridge and turn left onto the River Trail. After about two miles, veer right onto the Mesa Verde Trail for a short while before turning right onto the Misery Ridge Trail, which loops around the famous Monkey Face rock and then back down to the bridge where you started. Check out the park trail map for details.
Smith Rock State Park is open from the hours of dawn to dusk, with a $5 day-use fee. Dogs are allowed on the trails with a leash. There is first-come, first-served walk-in camping available onsite at the bivouac campground—the “ivy” area— for $8. This website provides a pretty thorough description of the park, its history, maps and recreational activities.
7. Bend, Oregon
Surrounded by mountains and high desert plateaus, the Central Oregon town of Bend is well known for its outdoor recreation and general awesomeness. Opportunities for recreation are seriously endless in Bend, with plenty of activities to entertain oneself year round. The Deschutes River flows right through the middle of town, offering plenty of water activities like fishing, inner tube floating and boating. The hip mountain town has over 80 public parks with miles of trails for walking, hiking and cycling. Don’t worry, there’s a great shopping district too if you’re not feeling all the outdoorsy stuff. Bend also has a reputation for offering excellent options for dining and imbibing, with a culinary scene that attracts foodies from all around. Dubbed “Beer Town USA,” Bend has a brewery for every 4,500 people in town, awarding it the most breweries per capita in the state of Oregon. It’s also home to the Bend Ale Trail for having the largest beer trail in the West.
Plenty can be found on the outskirts of town too, like cave tours in ancient lava tubes and the Newberry National Volcanic Monument. Hike to stunning waterfalls like the magnificent 97-foot Tumalo Falls. Mt. Bachelor is only 20 miles aways, with more than 4,300 acres of terrain for snow sports, making the location uber-popular for skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing. Bend is near perfect; I’ve spoken with so many native Oregonians who say Bend is their favorite town in the whole state because it offers such a bang for its buck. It’s so Oregon.
8. John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
I’m not even sure the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is on planet Earth. Divided onto three separate units—Painted Hills, Sheep Rock and Clarno—the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument covers 14,000 acres in north Central Oregon. The monument is known to be one of the richest fossil beds on earth, its otherworldly, colorful rock formations preserving a record of the changing climate, past ecosystems and plant and animal evolution that covered a timeline of 40 million years—WOWSER! The Thomas Condon Paleontology and Visitor Center, which is located in the Sheep Rock unit, has hundreds of fossils found in the region on public display. The Painted Hills is by far the most well known and popular unit, and for good reason, as its striped and vibrant hills are unreal, seemingly putting on a different display depending on the season and weather conditions. It’s even considered to be one of Oregon’s seven wonders. Personally I find the funky green canyons of the Sheep Rock unit to be more interesting, and considerably less crowded. At the Clarno Unit, walk amongst tall cliffs where a couple short trails lead to ancient fossil displays. The driving time from Portland to the John Day Fossil Beds is roughly four hours. In a two-day trip you could easily visit the national monument, Smith Rock, and Bend.
9. Crater Lake National Park
Crater Lake is Oregon’s only National Park, and it is pretty dang amazing. SO awe-inspiring in fact, it literally brings a tear to Bob’s eye; every time we see it, not even kidding. Admittedly there’s something about the crystal blue lake that stops you dead in your tracks: the crisp water, the silence, the geology, and history, it’s almost unbelievable even though it’s right in front of you. Crater Lake is filled only by rain and snow, and it’s the deepest lake in the United States reaching 1,943 feet at its deepest point. Once a mountain named Mount Mazama, the volcano erupted and collapsed about 7,700 years ago, and the Native Americans literally watched it happen. The Makalaks, now known as the Klamath Indians, believed that Crater Lake was so sacred that just looking at it would cause death, and even today some Native Americans won’t look at the lake.
Available activities at Crater Lake will depend on the season and park weather conditions. The cinder cone in the lake’s center, named Wizard Island, was formed when Mount Mazama collapsed. Today the park service offers boat tours to the island. There is a 33-mile loop road you can drive around the rim of Crater Lake with facilities along the way (keep in mind not all services are available during the winter) and access to trails. In summer months there is a trolley car operating that provides a two-hour ride around the lake. The Rim Drive is also a popular route for cyclists. The National Park has multiple hiking trails, some popular ones include the Pinnacles Trail and Cleetwood Cove, which provides the only access to the shore of Crater Lake. It’s a fairly steep trail that’s not recommended for wheelchairs or anyone with health problems. The park offers several lodging options within its boundaries, including the Crater Lake Lodge, cabins and campgrounds, which are all well sought after and should be reserved in advance. No fear, there is lodging available outside the park too. (We enjoy camping at the nearby Diamond Lake—we’ve always scored a walk-in campsite, we tend to witness stunning sunsets there often, and once an eagle flew overhead carrying a fish, and that was SUPER SWEET!) Crater Lake National Park is a four-hour drive from Portland.
10. Silver Falls State Park
With a reputation as the “crown jewel” of the Oregon State Parks system, how could you not want to visit Silver Falls State Park? Having visited a few times, we can attest that it is a true Oregon gem. The park is only a one-hour drive south from Portland, near the city of Salem. The state park offers more than 35 miles of backcountry trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. We 1000% recommend hiking the Trail of Ten Falls, which is designated as a National Recreation Trail. The moderate 7.2-mile loop hike provides the best overall experience of the majestic park, and even takes hikers behind four waterfalls, including the famous and picturesque 177-foot South Falls. There are a few other trails that can be combined to make shorter loops if you’re not feeling the whole 7+ trail. The South Falls day-use area has lawns, barbecues, picnic shelters, tables, a playground, horseshoe pits, and an area for dogs, making it a popular place for events and hanging out. The Silver Falls State Park main campground has tent sites, RV spots and cabins available.
Thanks so much for reading this blog. If you’ve never visited Oregon, we hope this post made you want to book a vacation, and if you live here or you’ve been here before, we hope it gave you some new ideas. Please let us know what else you want to know about Oregon, we love to show off our state!