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The Oregon Trail, Part I: A Few Of Your Favorite Places

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Note: I’m starting up this series to spark some conversation during the lean months before fall camp starts – most of the topics will be tangentially related to Oregon and/or UO, basically using that as a springboard for folks to chat & reminisce. If you’ve got any ideas for future topics, feel free to email me at robertiv@gmail.com or drop them in the comments.

Oregonians (and PNWers in general) are notoriously proud of where they live. And rightly so, because it’s straight-up one of the most beautiful regions on the continent.

As a former East Coaster who grew up amidst urban & suburban sprawl I didn’t really know what to expect moving out here – back in the mid-90s the PNW was a better-kept secret – so it was awesome to gradually explore the state & discover the huge diversity of environments & landscapes in its borders. You can spend a lifetime exploring Oregon & not get to everything.

Below I’ve listed 5 of my favorite spots (at least the ones well-known enough to share, gotta keep the secrets in your back pocket especially in this era of Google & Tripadvisor), in no particular order. Tough to narrow down to those 5, but I’m guessing some of my Honorable Mentions will end up on your lists too.

1. Steens Mountain summit

Steens isn’t a classic mountain as most people know them (i.e. the Cascades, Rockies, etc). It’s a fault block, basically a great wedge of rock in the middle of the desert driven upward by tectonics. The western side is a very gradual slope over the course of 10-15 miles rising to a nearly 10,000’ elevation, then in the east it plunges directly down into the totally barren & sun-baked Alvord Desert. It’s a pretty breathtaking sight – the land just utterly drops away and you can’t see this edge until you’re right there.

A stone’s throw north of the summit is Kiger Gorge, which another ATQer once described as Nature’s Biggest Half-Pipe (complete with a herd of wild mustangs). Plus other spectacular canyons, high mountain lakes, etc, it’s sort of a lush island of life rising from surrounding desert for hundreds of miles.

Bonus points for its remoteness – you *really* have to want to get there, and this cuts down on the number of Californians brandishing small dogs & Instagram that festoon the landscape closer to the Willamette Valley these days.

Kiger Gorge
Kiger Gorge on Steens Mountain
Robert Stewart

2. The headlands at Cape Falcon

Short Sands beach gets most of the visitors – and it is a great little beach, even with the occasional dead whale – but my favorite spot in that area is the short-ish hike out to Cape Falcon, which winds through huge spruce trees and then emerges on exposed basalt headlands covered with salal a couple hundred feet above the ocean.

Like any place exposed to ocean weather, you can’t help but feel a weird sense of urgency there as the wind & spray whips off the water & the big Pacific waves crash below you. Sure-footed folks can clamber down some of the rocky outcrops & hang out with the cormorants, other spots are treacherous enough to be off limits to humans.

In the late winter if you’re lucky you can catch a pod of whales off the coast migrating north, usually grays but I’ve heard of orcas there too.

Cape Falcon
Cape Falcon
Robert Stewart

3. Afloat on Crater Lake

Crater Lake is obviously amazing to just hike/drive around & look at, but I highly recommend getting in it. There’s one trail on the north side with public shore access, last I was there just a switchbacking path leading to a dock where they launch the boat tours. The water’s extremely cold & clear, and filled with trout & crayfish among the rocks.

It’s worth it to swim out a ways and look down occasionally – because it’s a caldera rather than a conventional lakebed, the bottom is made of jagged crags that descend almost immediately and you’re left looking into impossibly deep blue.

You can somehow sense that the floor is almost 2,000’ away down there, and here you are, a tiny warm-blooded & air-breathing thing suspended above it simply by the power of your own limbs (which come to think of it are getting cold & tired). The deep blue starts calling to you. Then get the hell out of the water, crack open a beer, & warm up in the sun.

Crater Lake
Crater Lake
National Park Service

4. Illinois River swimming holes

The Illinois winds its way through barren hills near Cave Junction (which is its own interesting mix of hippies, meth heads, and Oregon pioneer stock), in the summer it can seem pretty hot & uninviting around there. But drive a ways in and you find some of the most perfect river swimming holes possible. Emerald water in deep-but-not-too-deep pools, reasonable temps because it’s been traveling thru a hot canyon, sandy bottom, groves of trees near the bank, etc. If there’s a better place in Oregon for a picnic & swim, I haven’t found it yet.

5. Because of course:

Autzen Stadium Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

What about you all? Let’s hear yo’ spots!