Search ‘Oregon’ on travel website www.RoadTripAmerica.com and a substantial majority of forum threads are concerned with whether there’s anything to see on a West Coast road trip from San Francisco to Seattle.
From this admittedly unscientific survey it would seem that many people view it as a state on the way to somewhere more interesting, rather than a destination in its own right. (Even notable exceptions Lewis & Clark were more interested in reaching the coast than stopping to admire the scenery.)
The reality is of course something entirely different. Look beyond the stunning rugged scenery of the coast road and you have one of the most diverse areas in North America. Sand dunes, vineyards, ski resorts, lakes and canyons all within a few hours’ drive of one another. From the majestic Columbia River, the Cascades that form the spine of the state and the outback and high desert of the east to the jewel in the crown, Crater Lake, this is a state that really does have everything.
So the first thing I did on collecting my Chevrolet Trailblazer rental from Portland International was pick up Interstate 5 and head north to Washington.
Mount St Helens
To be fair, my destination – Mount St Helens – is part of a range that transcends state boundaries and had such an impact on me the first time I’d seen it that the opportunity to visit it again, this time in winter, was too good to miss.
However, the problem with a Pacific Northwest winter is that the best views can be hidden by clouds. And so it was as I reached Castle Rock and turned right onto Highway 504. Stunning views alternated with dense fog, reducing visibility to a matter of yards. At one point I did seriously consider turning back but reasoned that not seeing Mount St Helens due to low cloud was preferable to not seeing some anonymous freeway due to low cloud.
Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center is the closest you can get to Mount St Helens in winter (Johnston Ridge Observatory is closed from November to the middle of May) and offers sensational views out over Coldwater Lake: deep blue/green water reflecting snow-covered slopes – just how you want lakes and mountains to look – but there was something missing. Squint as you might (and I was later to realise that I’d been squinting in entirely the wrong direction), spotting a snow-filled crater in snow-white clouds was impossible.
Half an hour of squinting later, things hadn’t improved so I bought a coffee and resigned myself to choosing a book of someone else’s photographs. At which point the cloud lifted.
Anyone who’s been to the blast zone will testify to MSH’s incredible impact. In May 1980, an earthquake triggered a huge explosion out of its northern side. Winds of 670 mph and temperatures exceeding 800°F destroyed everything in their path. 230 square miles of forest vanished in a matter of seconds. As did 57 people and all wildlife other than those living underground. Where moments before there’d been a peak, there was now a crater.
View it in summer and it’s impressive enough. Visit it in winter and its impact is even greater, the contrast between snow and rock emphasising the scale and shape of the crater, and the wisps of grey smoke emanating from the new lava dome easy to see against the now clear blue sky.
Visiting Mount St Helens is a moving, even spiritual, experience for many people. The couple I met on the timber walkway that extends out onto Coldwater Lake told me they’d been here more than 50 times and their very apparent love for the place suggested that the views weren’t the only mutual enjoyment they’d shared here over the years.
With the clouds now all but gone, the drive back along Highway 504 offered a series of incredible vistas, not least that of the 650-strong elk herd that has moved into the mudflow area of the Toutle River Valley, viewable from the Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center.
Such was the high from seeing the volcano is all its glory that it wasn’t until I returned to the Interstate that I remembered that I had no firm destination that night. So I headed back south, turned right at Kelso/Longview onto Hwy 30 and followed the Columbia River westwards along its Oregon bank. A good deal of this route is through dense moss-covered forest so the views of the river are limited, but if you’re into trees it’s the perfect drive.
Turn left at Astoria and there I am on Highway 101, the Pacific Coast Highway. I know international travel’s no good for the environment but there really is something special about finding yourself somewhere so different from home, quite so easily. So it’s ironic that the place I find myself that night – the wonderfully named town of Seaside – is possibly the most British-like resort I’ve ever visited, full of souvenir shops, ice-cream parlours, bars, seafood restaurants, cheap hotels and people on the beach wrapped up against the wind.
It came as a surprise to discover there were no tattooed, vaguely threatening-looking men offering overpriced rides on malnourished and very obviously miserable donkeys (this being the main attraction of England’s No.1 resort, Blackpool). Instead there is a huge, sandy and absolutely spotless beach, extending for what looked like miles (the fog was coming in again).
The Pacific surf rolls in, children dare one another to run in and out, mums carry dry towels, dads stamp on the sand in the hope of persuading razor clams to surface and visitors marvel at just how clean and picturesque it all is.
The Pacific Coast
An early start, a drive just a few miles south and the first tantalising glimpses of Cannon Beach’s 235 feet Haystack Rock appear between the trees. Much of Oregon’s coast warrants its ‘rugged’ label but Cannon Beach has a different feel to it, with the majesty of the rock, the emptiness of the beach and the soft glow of the sun trying to force its way through the sea mist creating the perfect conditions for a relaxing Sunday morning stroll.
A few miles and half a dozen photo opportunities at scenic pull-ins later and my next stop is the recommendation of my server at the Lil Bayou restaurant the previous night. “You must take a hike at Oswald West State Park. It’s only a mile or so from the road to the beach. Promise me you’ll do it? So many people drive past and it’s just so beautiful.”
And it was. Old growth trees dripping with bright green moss; the sun glistening through the canopy; spring flowers beginning to bud; recently toppled giants, their splintered timbers still golden; a rope bridge across a crashing stream; huge piles of pale driftwood on the upper reaches of the beach … and out to sea five or six surfers waiting for the next big wave (which didn’t actually materialise in the 20 minutes or so I sat watching).
It’s a lovely walk, certainly not strenuous but enough to make you think you’ve got some air in your lungs, and it’s hard to imagine one more beautiful.
The road continues down the coast, through Wheeler (very pretty, great oatmeal and cranberry muffins); Rockaway Beach (a old-fashioned holiday resort famous for its seven mile beach) and Garibaldi (a more residential-looking city with its own marina).
My real destination though was Tillamook, not for its ‘famous cheese factory’ (which, I admit, held limited appeal) but for the air museum housed in a seven acre hangar to the south of the city. Two years previously we’d driven past and I’d had to forego this pleasure because … well, because there are so many other things to see and do in Oregon. But this time I was on my own and the ‘largest clear-span wooden structure in the world’ was mine for the next few hours.
Or it would have been had it not been closed for winter renovations and would not be opening again until – would you believe it? – tomorrow. There is one plane situated on the grass outside the hangar so I walked around that for longer than it deserved before sulkily weighing up my options. To head east to Vancouver, WA (where I would be working for the next 3 days) and watch Judge Judy in my hotel bedroom or retrace my steps a little and visit the dreaded cheese factory?
To be fair it wasn’t quite as bad as I’d feared. There was an acceptable cafe, the obligatory gift shop and a few panels explaining the history of Tillamook, its lush valley and the dairy farms that provide the raw materials. And you can watch as people press buttons on stainless steel vats and push lumps of processed cheese into plastic bags. If you’re looking for half an hour’s diversion before lunch, fine, but if I were you I’d try the air museum first.
Heading back east, Highway 6 makes its way through Tillamook State Forest and sweeps up through the mountains as the Wilson River crashes down in the opposite direction. And that really was the end of the first leg of my trip: once you’re over the summit the road is fairly unremarkable and before you know it you’re negotiating the traffic on the Portland Interstate.
The Columbia River Gorge and Mt Hood
Three days later, I’m back on the road and heading east out of Portland. The Historic Columbia River Highway begins at Troutdale and soon reaches the first of a series of strategically situated overlooks. To be honest I was left disappointed by these viewpoints. Maybe it was the fog that had once again restricted the extent of the views or simply the lack of sun that meant that what you could see was all a bit ‘flat’.
And the beauty of the winding, luscious, waterfall-lined route that forms the next stage of the highway confirms the feeling that it probably just wasn’t the right day for big views. Latourell, Shepperd’s Dell, Bridal Veil, Wahkeena … four waterfalls, one spectacular, another picture-book pretty, the next hidden from view until you reach the end of a half mile or so walk through the woods, each as beautiful as the last. And then you reach the daddy, Multnomah Falls.
Plunging 620 feet, these are the second highest year round waterfalls in the States and are genuinely spectacular.
This is one of those places you’ll have seen in photographs before you arrive (certainly if you’ve spent any time in Oregon) but the reality is far more impressive. Maybe it’s the Simon Benson Bridge that sits a third of the way up that provides scale and perspective; whatever it is Multnomah is a memory that will stick with you. And if your visit coincides with lunch, the historic lodge at the foot of the falls offers surprisingly good value for money.
Continuing east, Hwy 30 rejoins Interstate 84 briefly until reaching Cascade Locks when the scenic route crosses the Bridge of the Gods into Washington and offers perfect views over the river (plus, if you’re a European, the excitement of being passed by goods trains longer than some of our countries).
Fifteen miles or so later, the Hood River Bridge delivers me back into Oregon and I’m heading south on Highway 35, through the trees, snow and silver blue rivers of Mt Hood National Forest.
Earlier in the day, I’d decided that there was only one place to stay if you were in this part of Oregon and had booked into the Timberline Lodge, 6,000 feet up Mount Hood itself. And as I made my way up the six mile driveway that leads from Hwy 26 to the lodge, it seemed that this was going to be a very expensive way of observing clouds from the inside.
But the higher I climbed, the clearer it became and soon I was enjoying the most wonderful views up to the peak of this 11,245 feet mountain. Timberline Lodge is everything I’d hope it would be too. Constructed in the 1930s using massive wooden beams and local stone, this National Historic Landmark has an incredibly solid feel to it.
I get a cosy room with an unforgettable view over the Cascades, there’s an outdoor pool (great to swim in, not so much fun to exit – the temperature is 27ºF) and the Cascade Dining Room offers award-winning cuisine (Dungeness Crab, French Onion Soup, Pear Riesling Granita, Ribeye Steak, Apple Tart and a bottle of house red if you’re asking). It’s not cheap by any stretch of the imagination but it’s one of those places that you really ought to experience if you get the chance.
Mount Hood to Crescent
Friday morning starts with a long, scenic drive southeast through the Warm Springs Indian Reservation on Highway 26. Warm Springs itself is home to what I later read up as being a must-see museum chronicling every aspect of tribal history, but in my haste to get miles under my belt today I pass it by, which I reckon was a mistake.
Picking up Highway 97 at Madras, I continue south through plains and empty-looking grassland. Worth stopping for are the three bridges at Crooked River, a deep chasm that must have been every pioneer’s worst nightmare. The newest (and the “first major high gorge cast-in-place segmental concrete arch bridge in the USA”), is the Rex T. Barber Veterans Memorial Bridge. This opened in 2000, replacing the steel arch Crooked River High Bridge as the route of Hwy 97. The original bridge, a certified historic landmark and still accessible to pedestrians, was completed in 1926 and stands 295 feet above the canyon floor. If you’re even slightly susceptible to vertigo, don’t go anywhere near the edge.
Also a steel arch and at 320 feet the highest of the three is the Crooked River Rail Bridge, built in 1910 for the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railroad. It’s hard to imagine something so elegant being capable of carrying today’s immense goods trains but right on cue a five-loco BNSF giant makes its way across.
At Redmond I take a quick detour to Sisters, so named for the three volcanic peaks – or Sisters – of 10,000 feet plus that tower over the area. The town itself is all western-style storefronts and raised wooden boardwalks, and unlike many places, it all seems perfectly natural. To the west is Metolius Recreation Area and beyond that Mount McKenzie. Sadly, this is the one occasion when the clouds fail to lift so, after stopping for lunch by the side of Suttle Lake, I pick up Highway 20 to Bend.
Just a few miles south of Bend is a real treasure, The High Desert Museum. A combination of nature trail, zoo, sawmill, museum, settlers’ homestead and art gallery, this has something for everyone and everything about it appears to have been designed to provide education and entertainment in equal measure.
Inside there are dioramas that take you through mineworkings, early settlements and a High Desert town. One entire wing is dedicated to the Indian Nations of the Columbia River Plateau. There’s a Desertarium, a photographic collection and an exhibit that looks at the work of the US Forest Service.
Outside there’s a working sawmill, a reconstructed homestead and covered wagons. There’s a nature trail complete with sculptures, a trout pond and a children’s play area. And as well as the eagles, owls and falcons of the aviary, there are porcupines, otters, a fox and a bobcat – and every single one is being cared for here as it would be unable to survive in the wild for one reason or another.
It’s a wonderful place, somewhere I really couldn’t recommend highly enough and, in terms of its dedication to the protection and preservation of wildlife, a complete contrast to the bar I find myself in that evening. The Mohawk Restaurant is situated in the town of Crescent on Hwy 97, and its claim to fame is an unbelievable collection of taxidermy mounts. You name it, they’ve got it: black bear, arctic wolf, bison, moose, armadillo, wolverine, even a two-headed calf.
The Mohawk is also home, this evening at least, to Steve, his son Bubba (really) and two friends, Brent and Jesse, who’ve come here to drink beer, play pool, flirt with the barmaid and shoot a few rabbits. They buy me beer, I reciprocate and within a couple of hours they’ve invited me to stay at their cabin that night and join them hunting the next day. As I’m already booked into the Woodsman next door (possibly the nicest, cleanest and most luxurious motel I have ever stayed in) I have to decline, explaining that I’m planning to visit Crater Lake in the morning.
“So what’s your route?” “Well, straight down 97 then turn right I thought.” “Naaaah. You wanna head back up north to La Pine, come down via Silver Lake then cut across country through Klamath Marsh. It only adds, what, another 120 miles and you get to see a whole different side of Oregon, plus all kinds of wildlife.”
Which is why the following morning I found myself setting off a couple of hours earlier than I’d originally planned and in entirely the opposite direction.
Crescent to Crater Lake (via Silver Lake)
Restricted visibility had been a fairly consistent aspect of my journey to date, so it didn’t come as a huge surprise to find myself in an icy early morning mist. Quite atmospheric in fact. However, as I headed south on Highway 31 it seemed, if anything, to be getting worse. And by the time I took the short detour to ‘see’ Fort Rock, it had created a weird blanket that sat about 12 feet off the ground.
I’ve just Googled Fort Rock and the Parks Dept describes it as follows: “Like a desert mirage, this National Natural Landmark rises huge out of the barren, immense flatness of Oregon’s high desert. An enormous near-circle of towering jagged rock walls make it seem like a fort.” Sounds amazing, doesn’t it? Sadly, I’ll have to take their word for it because all I could see was, quite literally, the first 12 feet. Nothing more.
Heading back onto the Outback Scenic Byway (talk about rubbing your nose in it), the views remained limited to maybe a hundred feet of road ahead. Turning west onto Bear Flat Lane and through Deschutes National Forest, I came across occasional splashes of sunlight but it wasn’t until I reached Klamath Marsh National Wildlife Refuge that it began to lift properly. And as far as the promised wildlife was concerned, I reckon Steve, Bubba et al had been there before me, because all I saw was one scared-looking coyote.
Never mind though. All this had done was heighten my excitement about finally seeingCrater Lake. This had been the focus of my entire trip ever since I’d started planning it a couple or months ago. I’d booked a ranger-guided snowshoe walk, I’d checked the National Park Service site for road conditions every week and I’d pictured its legendary blue water framed by snow-covered pines.
And you know what? None of this prepared me for the reality of the place. It really is staggeringly beautiful. And once again the weather gods of Oregon smiled down upon me: the sun shone, the snow dazzled and blue water glistened.
At this time of year, the lake is only accessible from the south and you can’t travel beyond Rim Village on anything other than skis or snowshoes. The annual snowfall is 44 feet and a huge amount of work goes into reopening the 33 mile Rim Drive by the beginning of July each year.
This is the deepest lake in the US (1,943 feet deep) and was formed around 7700 years ago when Mt Mazuma erupted and then collapsed into itself, forming the caldera in which the lake now sits. There are no rivers – it is fed entirely by rain and snow – so it is incredibly clean.
It’s one of those places where you’re torn between the desire to take as many photos as possible and the feeling that you should really just put your camera(s) away and allow your senses to take in all its beauty.
Two hours and a good snowshoe walk later (you don’t half notice the extra effort that exercise takes at over 7000 feet) and I’m heading back down the mountain with a sense of elation at having had my expectations exceeded so spectacularly, but also a slight sadness that it was over.
So, heading first north and then west on the Rogue Umpqua Scenic Byway proved a delightful and totally unexpected surprise. Mile after mile of huge conifers, jagged high cliffs and white rapids crashing down through the mountains – I’d never heard of it before but it has to be one of America’s great drives. Even the ‘Sorry, Full’ sign at the Steamboat Inn where I’d been advised to stay that night failed to wipe the smile off my face.
Roseburg to Portland (via Depoe Bay)
The final leg of my trip was intended to be a quick blast up Highway 5, but this proves so uninspiring after yesterday’s excitement that I decide to head for the coast in the hope of spotting some whales (or at least give myself a goal other than not-falling-asleep-on-the-Interstate).
And as soon as I reach the coast I know I’ve made the right decision. It’s blowing a gale, the skies are grey and the Pacific even more so, but it’s back to being a trip rather than just a road.
Pull in at Otter Crest and spot neither whales nor otters. Pull over a mile or so further north at the appropriately named Cape Foulweather and not for the first time admire the American way of assigning such literal names to places. And then I read the sign that explains that this particular cape was named by English explorer Captain James Cook, a fellow Yorkshireman, during an expedition in 1778.
Next stop is Depoe Bay, self-styled whale-watching capital of the world. There’s even a whale-watching centre complete with resident whale-watcher to answer any questions about the whales you may or may not spot. Somewhat ill-advisedly I feel, they have a blackboard at the entrance where they chalk up the number of whales spotted each day. I know it was only lunchtime but today’s total was still lagging behind yesterday’s solitary cetacean, so I didn’t hold out much hope. And it proved a good decision.
Within no time at all I was heading inland again, along Highway 18, with just one more attraction to visit – the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville. I’d failed to visit one so I was definitely going to visit the other – and this was the big one, home of Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose.
“Good afternoon, sir. Are you here for the Wine & Food Fair?” “Er, no, I’m here to see the planes.” “Ah, really?” he replied, in a manner that prepared me for disappointment. “Well there are some still in there but we’ve had to move many others out to make way for the fair. I’m afraid the parking and entry fees are higher than usual too. Perhaps you could come back next week?”
Despite the fair, the Evergreen was wonderful. The Spruce Goose, or, more correctly, the Hughes H-4 Flying Boat was/is the World’s Largest Wooden Aircraft (no qualifying statements or footnotes to that claim) and was brought here in 1993. Eight years of restoration later and it became the centrepiece exhibit of this amazing museum.
Of the planes that remained in the hall, a Lockheed SR-71 (better known as the Blackbird) and WWII Spitfire both caught my eye. But perhaps most interesting of all was the 1945 Boeing B17G or Flying Fortress. When I made plastic models as a kid I always imagined the Flying Fortress to be a huge machine, one that would shrug off anti-aircraft fire without a second glance. But it’s nothing like that at all. It is a strikingly attractive piece of engineering, all bright, unpainted metal, but smaller and far less sturdy than I’d imagined.
Believe it or not – and I realise that the evidence suggests otherwise – I actually have little or no interest in planes and had never visited an aviation museum before in my life. What I am interested in however is seeing, trying and experiencing the different things every town and city has to offer.
Of course not every place has a High Desert Museum or a Crater Lake on its doorstep but it’s a rare place that has nothing to offer.
Some might have a dusty collection of stuffed animals in a bar, others might offer the sight of girls packing cheese. And I’ve yet to come across a community that doesn’t have a bar where a group of hunters (or skiers or dentists or students or whatever) will say hi, buy you beer and share their company for a while. And that, for me, is the whole point of getting out there.