A Tourist Guide to the Natural Sights of Oregon

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Nature, the predominant element around which life in Oregon revolves, results in the state’s topographical diversity and rugged, natural beauty, and dictates the experiences the tourist is likely to have.

The 362-mile-long coast, for instance, comprised of rain forests, sand dunes, black sand beaches, and unique rock formations, is splintered by some dozen rivers, which flow into the Pacific.  The spine of the Coast Range and the Klamath Mountains provides a westerly skeleton, while the Columbia River defines the border between Washington and Oregon in the north.  The Cascade Mountains, black basalt formations densely-carpeted with thick, green forests and capped with snow-covered volcanoes, cradle alpine lakes and a national park, and extend form Mt. Hood in the north to Hayden Mountain in the south, serving to separate the western half of the state with its central high desert plateau.  In the northeast, the 10,000-foot Wallowa Mountains invert themselves into 6,600-foot-deep Hells Canyon, the world’s deepest river-carved gorge.

Abundant vineyards produce an array of excellent wines, while locally grown marrionberries figure in Oregon cooking, along with the bounty of the land’s fruits and vegetables and the rivers’ salmon. 

Columbia River Gorge 

Formed by volcanic activity and both basalt lava and glacial floods, the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, spanning 80 miles from Troutdale in the west to the Dalles in the east, and encompassing 292,000 acres on both the Washington and Oregon sides, had been created by Congress in 1986.  The Columbia River itself, at 1,243 miles in length, is the second largest such artery in the continental United States and the only nearly-sea level passage through the mountain range stretching between Canada and Mexico.  Originating in British Columbia, it flows through the mountains, before turning south and finally west where it releases 250,000 cubic feet of water per second into the Pacific.  Topographically featuring Douglas fir, hemlock, and western red cedar in the west, the gorge transforms into drier pine forest and grassland in the east.

Its primary Native American residents, the “Watlala,” who had been more commonly known as the “Cascades,” had lived on both sides of the river between Cascade Locks and Sandy River, using it for sustenance and trade by fishing for salmon, steelhead, sturgeon, and eel.  The land provided berries and roots and the nearby mountains facilitated hunting for deer and elk.  Living in structures made of cedar planks, the Watlala seasonally traveled down the river to fish and gather plant foods, such as “wapato” and “camas,” in cedar-carved canoes, while wood and mountain sheep horns had provided the raw materials for tools, bowls, and pots.  Wrap-twined baskets sported intricate decorations of nature, people, and animals.

Controlling the portage round Cascade Falls, which had been too treacherous for canoe or boat passage, they collected tolls in the form of traded goods in exchange for access.

The Watlala-signed Willamette Valley Treaty ceded their southern bank of the Columbia River to the US in 1855, and they had subsequently been relocated to the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation two years later.

Of the gorge’s numerous waterfalls, Multnomah Falls, plummeting almost 620 feet from its origin on Larch Mountain, constitutes the second-highest year-round waterfall in the US.  “Multnomah,” translating as “those closer to the water,” with “water” referring to the Columbia River itself, cascades down a cliff in which five flows of Yakima basalt are visible, and its spray, freezing in early-winter and melting in late-spring, causes the rock over which it travels to crack and break away.  The falls are accessed by several hiking trails.

The adjacent, Cascadian-style, natural stone Multnomah Falls Lodge, designed by architect Albert E. Doyle in 1925 to serve travelers arriving by car, train, or steamboat, sits on land donated by the Oregon and Washington Railroad and Navigation Company to the city of Portland.  The lodge’s east end, which includes the later-added Forest Service Visitor’s Center in 1929, had preceded its post-war remodeling and 1946 reopening.  On April 22, 1981, the lodge, along with the first 1.1 miles of its Larch Mountain trail, had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the day facility sports two second-floor, fireplace and stone dining rooms overlooking the falls and the Columbia River.  An extensive gift shop is located on the main level.

The Columbia River Interpretive Center, located across the Columbia River-spanned, erector set-appearing Bridge of the Gods in Stevenson, Washington, provides snapshots of life in the area in a modern, two-level museum, with exhibits such as a horse-drawn buckboard from 1890, a wooden fish wheel, a 1921 log-carrying Mack truck, an 1895 Corliss steam engine used to drive saw carriages and conveyors in a Cascade Locks lumber mill, hand-crafted canoes, and a 1917 Curtiss JN-4 Jenny biplane, which had facilitated local transportation.

Further east, and back on the Oregon side, the Columbia Gorge Hotel, built on a scenic cliff overlooking the Columbia River, is a stately, neo-Morish structure listed on the National Register of Historic Places by the US Department of Interior unofficially dubbed the “Waldorff of the West.”  Constructed in 1921 by timber tycoon Simon Benson as a tribute to America’s post-war prosperity, it had hosted social and political dignitaries, presidents such as Coolidge and Roosevelt, movie stars like Clara Bow and Rudolph Valentino, and musicians from the Big Bands, having played an integral role during the Roaring Twenties when Model T Fords had traveled the roads and steamers had plied the rivers.  Voted one of the world’s top 500 hotels by Conde Nast magazine, the hotel, sitting on meticulously manicured, tiny waterfall-dotted grounds, features an elegant, chandelier- and fireplace-adorned lobby and restaurant.

The Mount Hood Railroad, located a short distance from the hotel, traces its origins to 1905 when Utah lumberman David Eccles laid track in order to transport timber between the forest and his lumber mill by a steam engine-powered logging train, and today offers daily excursions along the 8.5-mile stretch between Hood River and Odell through predominantly forested and fruit orchard topography and less frequent runs the full 22 miles to Parkdale, gateway to Mt. Hood. 

Mt. Hood 

Mt. Hood, named after British admiral Samuel Hood in 1792 and part of the Cascade Mountains, is an inactive volcano whose last, although minor, eruption, occurred between 1845 and 1865.  At 11,235 feet, it is Oregon’s tallest peak.  Glacier- and river-sculpted over the years, the snow-covered mountain, rising above Trillum Lake, features a 50-degree slope at its last, 2,000-foot rise, and offers year-round hiking and skiing.

Its story, however, is every bit that of the lodge designated “Timberline” and nestled on its south slope at the 6,000-foot level.  The result of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the federal agency created in 1933 to provide gainful employment to Americans who had been rendered idle by the Great Depression, it had been constructed by a predominantly inexperienced workforce which had used natural, Oregon-indigenous material.

Its initial site survey, made in the spring of 1936 under 14-foot snow accumulations and only accessible by a primitive road which terminated a half mile from the actual location, yielded to the first drawings and subsequent groundbreaking on June 11 of a European chateau and alpine-style lodge designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood and constructed entirely of gray, almost rock-resembling wood whose roof line echoed that of the steep mountain slope behind it.

Oregon had provided its foundation in the literal sense by supplying the mountain it had been built on and the natural materials which had been severed from their wombs and reduced to the individual buildings blocks which had been intricately reassembled into the lodge itself, inclusive of the forest-supplied wood for its exterior structure and interior furniture and carvings, and the mountainside- and quarry-yielding andesite stone for its walls and fireplaces.

Featuring a hexagonal core known as the “head house,” which had been inspired by the outline of the mountain peak behind it, and a single, angled wing extending from either of its sides, it had been designed as an extension of, as opposed to obstruction to, its surroundings.

Completed in only a 15-month period, it had been dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on September 28, 1937 and opened to the public the following February.

The hexagonally-shaped head house, subdivided into the lower lobby, upper lobby, and mezzanine, features a truncated, 55-foot-high “timberline” arch supported by carved sides and a top crossbeam, in the center of which is a six-sided stone chimney which sports three, railroad track andiron-adorned fireplaces.  Hexagonal ponderosa pine columns, each weighing seven tons and milled from a single tree, surround the lodge, while Oregon white oak provides its floor planks.  The hexagonal pattern is repeated in the hand-forged wrought iron chandeliers and floor lamps, and floor-to-ceiling windows (attempt to) provide views through the 21-foot-high snow banks.  Some 820 pieces of wooden, hand crafted furnishings and carvings were made in the WPA woodworking shop in Portland.

The Cascade Dining Room, located off the main lobby and thresholded by wrought iron gates made in the WPA blacksmith shop, exudes rustic, early-1900s elegance with a polished, wooden floor; a wood-beamed ceiling; a relief carving-adorned stone fireplace entitled “Forest Scene,” and a bar.

Guest rooms, varying in size and appointment from bunk beds to fireplace suites, are rustic with heavy wooden doors; wrought iron latches; leather-and-iron lamps; heavy, wooden beds; and knotty pine panelings.

Timberline Lodge, the only public building of its size constructed entirely by hand with original craft work in wood, wrought iron, mosaic, painting, and carved linoleum, and, since 1978, a National Historic Landmark, is every bit a “sight” as an overnight lodge.  It serves some two million annual visitors, only a small percentage of whom are actually skiers.

Returning to a roaring fire which castes warmth and light into the wooden lobby from its central stone fireplace after a day of skiing and enjoying award-winning cuisine in the rustically elegant Cascade Dining Room, and then cacooning oneself in quilts in a knotty pine paneled guest room on the other side of whose wall the half, snow-buried pine trees surround the base of Mount Hood whose jagged, black granite, snow-blanketed peak is periodically shrouded in cloud and mist throughout the night, is a quintessential Oregon experience. 

Central Oregon 

Because the Cascade Mountains mostly drain traditional storm fronts of their moisture, and therefore provide distinct climactic zones on either of their sides, Central Oregon, to the east of them, forms a high desert plateau and enjoys 300 days of sunshine, as contrasted with the rain-drenched coast.  Access is via winding, ascending Route 20 through the dense, needle-thin ponderosa and lodgepole pine of Willamette National Forest, over Tombstone and Santiam Passes, and finally through Deschutes National Forest, all of which are often shrouded in low-altitude cloud, and lead to an area of snow-capped mountains, 150 mountain lakes, and 500 miles of rivers.  They afford a variety of recreational opportunities, including golfing, fishing, biking, horseback riding, hiking, climbing, rafting, and skiing.  Bend, an accommodations base and once a booming timber town, capitalizes on the area’s attractions with hotels, resorts, restaurants, and services.  The area is alternatively served by nearby Redmond Airport.

Sisters, one of Central Oregon’s attractions, is a quintessential western town of about 1,000 with 1880s-style storefronts and wooden boardwalks named after the Three Sisters Mountains in the southwest.  Initially accessed by trails forged through the Santiam Pass to the high desert by those hoping to strike it rich in the gold mines of Eastern Oregon and Idaho, it had developed into a small town after the trails had evolved into wagon roads.  Wood from the surrounding pine forests had established lumber as its principle economic activity, although tourism plays an increasingly important role.  Bronco Billy’s Saloon, built in 1912, is an historically important building in Sisters.

The High Desert Museum, located a few miles south of Bend on Highway 97, is a modern, continually-expanding facility which showcases the wildlife and landscapes of eight western states in both indoor and outdoor exhibits, including those of western exploration and settlement, the Columbia River plateau Indians, a “desertarium,” an 1880 homestead ranch, a working sawmill, and a raptor center.

The area’s geology can be studied in nearby Newberry National Volcanic Monument.  One of the largest “shield”-shaped volcanoes in the Lower 48 states and located along the Northwest Rift zone of faults, the 500-square-mile Newberry Caldera, whose most recent eruption, the Big Obsidian Flow, occurred 1,300 years ago, cradles two trout- and salmon-abundant lakes: Paulina Lake, at 250 feet one of Oregon’s deepest, and 180-foot-deep East Lake, are both fed by hot springs below them.  Once believed to have existed as a single entity, Paulina and East Lakes had been divided by pumice and water deposits 6,200 years ago.

Paulina Peak, the crater’s highest at 7,985 feet, provides views of the High Desert plateau and the Cascade Mountains.

The Deschutes River, a federally designated Wild and Scenic River, flows through the monument’s northwest corner, and offers fishing, kayaking, and white water rafting, while more than 100 miles of trails, interspersing the monument, facilitate hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, skiing, and snowmobiling.  Area wildlife includes deer, elk, black bear, ducks, osprey, geese, tundra swans, and bald eagles.

Aside from the caldera, three separate areas can be visited.

The Lava Lands Visitor Center, the first of these, depicts Central Oregon’s geology, archaeology, history, and fauna.  Ranger-led interpretive hikes take visitors through the volcanic landscape.  500-foot-high Lava Butte, whose crater had been formed 7,000 years ago when it had erupted and spewed lava over a nine-square-mile area, is accessible by a perimeter road and affords views of the Newberry Volcano and Cascade Mountain Range.

The Lava River Cave, a one-mile-long lava tube, had been created when a river of molten lava had formed a channel whose sides hardened, creating a roof, but the hot lava had continued to flow through the tube, leaving it hollow.  Its interior temperature is now a constant 42 degrees Fahrenheit.

Finally, the Lava Cast Forest had been created when Newberry Volcano vent-originating lava had flowed through a miniature ponderosa pine forest, enveloping the trees and forming molds round their now-burned bases when they had cooled.  A one-mile trail leads through the forest, which is being progressively reclaimed by young pines.

Aviation-Related Northwest Oregon

Northwest Oregon features two significant sights, which not only center round aviation, but also retain the state’s nature-oriented theme.

The Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum, the first of these, had been created by Delford M Smith, founder of Evergreen International Aviation, and his son, Captain Michael King Smith, who had served as Second Lieutenant in the US Air Force and had been an F-15 Fighter pilot and the head of the 123rd Fighter Squadron of the Oregon Air National Guard.  Centerpiece of the museum’s three modern, A-frame, aviation, space, and IMAX buildings, located in McMinnville, is the Hughes H-4 Hercules, the world’s largest transport flying boat, designed and built by the Hughes Aircraft Company entirely of natural, laminated birch wood due to World War II-imposed metal usage restrictions and hence given the unofficial nickname of “Spruce Goose.”

Designed to fulfill the 1942 US Department of War requirement for a very large aircraft to transport personnel and war material across the Atlantic where aircraft had hitherto been frequent targets of German U-boats, it had originally been intended as one of three stipulated by the contract, which had dictated a two-year development period.  Powered by eight, 3,000-hp Pratt and Whitney Wasp Major radial engines, the H-4, with a 218.8-foot overall length and a 319.11-foot wingspan, accommodated 750 fully-equipped troops in its cavernous, dual-deck fuselage and had a 400,000-pound maximum take off weight.  The only airframe ever completed, and thus serving as the prototype, it had first flown on November 2, 1947 when Howard Hughes himself had covered less than a mile at a 70-foot altitude while maintaining a 135-mph air speed.  It became its only flight.

The museum retains its natural theme by cultivating its own vineyard in front of it appropriately named “Spruce Goose Vineyards,” and a wine-tasting room and gift shop, where one can sample the wines of the area’s abundant other vineyards, is located in the aviation building.

The second aviation-related sight, the Tillamook Air Museum, is located on the Oregon coast and is accessed by Route 6, which curves through Tillamook State Forest’s dense, multiply-shaded pine and pinnacles at the 1,586-foot summit of the Coast range.  One of 17 US Navy, coastline-constructed hangars to house k-class blimps used for anti-submarine coast patrol and convey escort, the 1,072-foot-long, 296-foot-wide hangar, made entirely of wood due, again, to war-restricted metal use, had been commissioned in December of 1942 at Naval Air Station Tillamook to serve the Oregon-Washington corridor.   

Of the two hangars constructed here, Hangar B had been the first to have been completed in the spring of 1943, followed one month later by Hangar A.  Housing Squadron ZP-33’s eight k-ships, it features six, 30-ton, railroad track-guided door sections covering the 120-foot-high, 220-foot-wide opening which thresholds the 15-story-high, seven-acre internal space.  The 251-foot blimps, attaining lift with 425,000-cubic-foot helium bags, could remain aloft for three days and cover 2,000 miles.

After the air station had been decommissioned in 1948, the two hangars had been used for several purposes, including those of hay bail storage, and the material in Hangar A had unexplainably sparked and ignited in 1992, destroying it.  Two years later, Hangar B had been developed into the current, nationally historic aviation museum displaying a vintage collection of restored, exclusively flyable aircraft.

Here, wood, the natural element of Oregon’s forests, had been used to build the hangars in which dirigibles, using the natural gas of helium to attain lift, had been stored, in an ultimate act of history preserving history, and of nature serving man, which is, in essence, the story of Oregon.

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