There is nothing more fulfilling than packing up your car and hitting the road in search for beauty, tantalized by the freedom that comes with the journey of exploration. Recently, my old army friend Jordan and I packed up his Toyota 4 Runner and went on the adventure of a lifetime around Oregon’s most beautiful spots; from the high desert of Smith Rock State Park to the crashing waves of the Oregon coast. It was an impromptu trip with little guidelines or time hacks, giving us the ability to adventure wherever our compass pointed. In this guide we will outline our amazing trip, with information on the best sites, best campgrounds, and best gear for the journey, so that you too can head out on your own amazing trip to explore the beauty of the Pacific Northwest.
Itinerary: 8 Days/7 Nights 996 Miles
Start/ Finish: Portland, OR
- Columbia River Gorge
- Mt Hood Wilderness
- Smith Rock State Park
- Bend, OR
- Umpqua Hot Springs
- Crater Lake National Park
- Oregon Caves National Monument
- Samuel H. Boardman State Park
- Thor’s Well and Devil’s Punchbowl
- Cannon Beach
Columbia River Gorge
Just a few minutes East of Portland, OR lies one of the most scenic and iconic spots of the PNW, the Columbia River Gorge. Following Interstate 84 along the Columbia River will take you to countless waterfalls and scenic viewpoints all accessible via car. This stretch of road is great for people looking for easy hikes with spectacular waterfall views. Some of the more difficult hikes and backcountry waterfalls are still closed off due to the 2017 Columbia River Gorge Fire, however, there are still numerous spots to be able to pull over for a quick photo and a bite to eat. Our favorite quick waterfalls were the following: Bridal Veil Falls, Multnomah Falls, and Laturell Falls. For more information on all the amazing waterfalls in the CRG please check out our Best of Columbia River Waterfalls Guide here.
MT Hood Wilderness and Ramona Falls
Continue East on Interstate 84 to Hood River then head South down an amazing stretch of road with some of the most breath-taking views of Mount Hood in the area. It is an easy 45-minute drive from Hood River to Government Camp, that will take you through the famous Oregon Fruit Loop and up into the heart of the Mount Hood Wilderness. We decided to set our sights on an awesome waterfall near the base of the mountain called Ramona Falls. Ramona falls is an easy 7-mile round trip hike with plenty of forest scenery to keep you engaged. The trail head can be a little tricky to find, as there is no GPS in the area, but after an hour of dirt road driving, we were able to find the parking area and start our exploration. The dirt roads to the trail head can be a little bumpy so make sure you’re in a vehicle with AWD or 4WD and a few inches of clearance. The journey was worth it though, as Ramona Falls boats a unique look, formed on cubic igneous rock and covered in lush green moss. There is a small log bridge at the base which is perfect for setting up a small picnic as a good mid-hike reward. Although there are weeks’ worth of beautiful exploration in the Mount Hood National Forest, Ramona Falls is a MUST SEE.
After an amazing day checking out the Columbia Rover Gorge and Ramona Falls, we went for a beer at Mount Hood Brewing Company and headed off to set up camp. My beer recommend is the Ice Axe IPA, which tasted great after a long first day, while Jordan recommends the Hogsback Oatmeal Stout. There are camping sites littered all over HWY 26, or if you are feeling fancy you can take a trip up to the Timberline Lodge for a swanky mid-mountain. Either way you’ll be immersed with incredible views of the mountain and the fresh forest air.
Tips: Make sure you have the directions on your phone or a map before entering the national forest.
Have a vehicle that is capable of very light off-roading. (Not a sports car)
Smith Rock State Park
Starting off day 2, we packed up our campsite and headed 90 miles south to Smith Rock State Park near Terrebonne, OR. The drive quickly takes you out of the forest and into the high desert where you will feel like you’re more in the canyons of Utah then the lush rainforests of Oregon. With much of the scenery created by volcanic activity during the formations of the Cascade Mountain Range, this 2-hour drive will not disappoint while bringing you to a whole new climate. Smith Rock State Park was acquired by the State of Oregon in the 1960’s and has since become one of the most visited climbing spots in the Northwest. Formed nearly 30 million years ago by layers of basalt flows and clarno ash, Smith Rock is an amazing valley of smooth rock face, making it a climber’s paradise. While Jordan and I forgot our climbing gear, we were able to hike around for the day and observe both the vast beauty of the park as well as the numerous monkey-like people hanging from the 600ft cliffs. Our quick day hike took us up Misery Ridge, to the summit of the park, and then back down to the River trail. The 4-mile loop offers great elevated views as well as a fun stroll along the river that cuts its way through the incredible rock formations. While not an “expert” hike by any means, the trail can be steep and slippery. When we made it to the summit, we cracked open some 10 Barrel Trail Beers and enjoyed the warm sun and spectacular views.
If you’re in need of climbing gear, a cold beer, or a delicious morning espresso, be sure to hit up Redpoint Climbers Supply, just five minutes outside of the park. When Jordan and I went there we were greeted by a very friendly staff who recommended an amazing swimming hole and alpaca farm to visit before we headed to our next stop. The alpaca farm at Crescent Moon Ranch was a complete blast. Despite being two big tattooed Army vets, we had an incredible time running around like toddlers feeding the alpacas and taking pictures of their funny antics. A definite recommend for families with kids, or big dumb adventurers like us.
After our brief outing with the alpacas we needed to clean up, so we headed to a local swimming hole at Steelhead Falls. Located 20 minutes from Smith Rock, Steelhead Falls is a short 1.5-mile round trip hike that takes you to an awesome 15-foot waterfall. The cliffs surrounding are perfect for a quick front flip into the water to cool off when its warm. Beware, the water is freezing cold, flowing from the Deschutes river and the continuous snow melt, so make sure you have a towel to quickly dry off with.
Camping at Smith Rock State Park is incredibly easy. For only $8.oo a person you are able to snag a “first come first serve” Bivouac Site. The camp area has bathrooms, showers, and a sink to clean any dirty dishes. If you get there early you can secure yourself a campsite on the side of the ridge overlooking the park, making for an amazing morning coffee view. More information can be found at: https://smithrock.com/campground-bivy.
Umpqua Hot Springs
Starting Day 3 on the road we began our 3.5-hour trip south through Bend, OR to Umpqua Hot Springs. We stopped in Bend for a quick slice of pizza and a stroll through town. While we didn’t spend a very long time there, it is a definite recommend as a main hub for hiking in the Deschutes National Forest, as well as a great place to explore the craft brew scene (22 local breweries). Off we drove, back into the forest to arrive at the Umpqua Hot Springs and the abundance of small local waterfalls. (Be advised, the cell service is limited in the Umpqua National Forest area, so plan accordingly.)
The Hot Springs are a great place to sit and relax, and let your body be rejuvenated with the revitalizing minerals found in the springs. The varying pools start at 112 degrees Fahrenheit at the uppermost pool, and cool as you work your way down. It is a clothing optional hot spring, so if you have children you may want to reconsider. We spent a few hours soaking in the sun while drinking some cold Trail Beers, meeting a handful of amazing people during our time there. Although it never seemed overcrowded, towards the late afternoon it did become a little busy. Getting to the hot springs is an easy 0.5-mile hike from the parking lot, making it easily accessible for anyone who wants to enjoy the amazing wonders of nature.
Located just south of Umpqua Hot Springs, is Toketee Falls. Carved from ancient columnar basalt, Toketee Falls drops approximately 120 feet into a 270 degree rock faced bowl, giving them an incredibly unique and personal feel. There is an overlook that the trail will take you to, or if you are daring (and I do not suggest) you can work your way down the steep sides, past the overlook, to the bottom of the falls.
We camped at the Toketee Falls Group Site Campground, just a few minutes from the Umpqua Hot Springs trailhead. It is only $15.00 for a tent site on a first come first serve basis. When we were there (mid week) the campground was empty, however it is always recommended to call ahead of time just to be sure. There are numerous other campgrounds in the area, so do not be deterred if this one fills up. The contact info for Toketee Falls Campground is: (541) 498-2531.
Tips: Don’t Forget a Towel!
Crater Lake National Park
Day 4 marked our first National Park of the trip, Crater Lake National Park! While Jordan and I both have explored numerous national parks across the country, we had no idea how larger than life Crater Lake really is. Established in 1902, Crater Lake is the fifth oldest National Park, and encompasses over 180 thousand square acers. The rim of the crater sits between 7,000- and 8,000-feet elevation, while the lake itself is over 1,000 feet deep at its deepest point. Unlike most lakes, Crater Lake has NO streams or rivers flowing from it, meaning that any water lost from the lake occurs naturally from evaporation. The Rim Loop which drives you around the entire crater is an amazing way to spend a few hours and provides nonstop breathtaking views of the lake inside the crater. Sitting in the middle of the lake is Wizard island, a very unique cone shaped land mass which is accessible by boat tour. We were fortunate enough to set up our cameras and take some incredible star trail photography shots from the rim of the crater, really taking in the incredible beauty that the park offers both during the day and at night. Remember, you are at elevation, so the temperature drops at night, and it is best to brings some layers to stay comfortable.
Scattered on HWY 138 leading to Crater Lake National Park are many great waterfalls which can serve as a quick photo op or a nice spot to have a picknick. On our drive into Crater Lake we stopped briefly at Whitehorse Falls and Clearwater Falls. Both spots were short walks from the parking lot and offered some very magical early morning sun beam views.
We camped at Lost Lake Campground, located to the southeast of the park. The campground was small, so if you are going in peak season I highly suggest you call to set up reservations if possible. Unfortunately, none of the campgrounds in the park are located on the crater rim, so be prepared for a 15-20 minute drive back to your campsite (albeit a beautiful one). The campground cost $5.oo per night, and has bathrooms and showers. More info can be found at: https://www.nps.gov/crla/planyourvisit/lost_creek.htm.
Tips: Bring Layers!!!
Oregon Caves National Monument
Starting off early on day 5, we continued to explore a little bit more of Crater Lake then hit the road once again to head southwest to Oregon Caves National Monument. It’s a 3.5 hour drive, and there are set tour times for the caves, so be sure to plan your day accordingly. The caves were an awesome change of pace, taking us from the mountains and forests, to inside our prehistoric earth. Stalagmites and stalactites cover the floors and ceilings of the cave, and with the brilliant lighting set up throughout, it is still relatively easy to get some great photos. The cave, discovered in 1874 by Elijah Davidson, was formed by the erosion of 180-million-year-old limestone and marble. The cave itself boasts over 160 different species of wildlife throughout its multi-mile tunnel system. Although the 90-minute tour of the caves does take you down a few hundred feet in elevation, it is a trip that can be made by anyone of decent health. It is a dry cave, maintaining a 40-50-degree temp year-round, so be sure to bring a jacket or two! Set up your tour now at: https://www.nps.gov/orca/index.htm
Tips: Bring a headlamp and a flash for your camera!
Samuel H. Boardman State Park
Another 3.5-hour drive from Oregon Caves National Monument is Samuel H. Boardman Scenic Corridor. Without a doubt, Samuel H. Boardman was our favorite stop on the Oregon Coast, filled with awesome seaside hikes as well as amazing views of the Park’s infamous natural bridges. We quickly set up camp and spent the night looking out over the beauty of Secret Beach, a small “not-so-secret” cove hidden off the beaten path. Find the trail entrance to Secret Beach about 1/3 mile south of milepost 345 on U.S. 101 in Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor. There is a small gravel parking area that leads to the 3/4 mile trail down to Secret Beach. Be sure to use the trail to the RIGHT of the parking lot, as the left most trail will take you to the side of a small waterfall. While camping isn’t permitted on the beach, you will often find some campers in the parking lot. Outside of the State Park there are many RV and Tent campgrounds ranging from $20-$40 dollars per night. Be sure to make reservations for these campsites in advance, as during peak summer season it is almost impossible to snag a site day of.
Samuel H. Boardman could easily be a trip in itself, offering hundreds of miles of beach front hiking, as well as unique rock formations that set it apart from any other PNW coastal area. Be sure to bring a camera with a zoom lens if you want to capture some killer photos of the natural bridges.
For more info on camping in the area, be sure to check out a great spot just south of Samuel H. Boardman called Brookings RV.( www.brookingsrv.com or (541) 469-6849)
Thor’s Well and Devil’s Punchbowl
Day 7 had us move up the coast to a small town called Yachats. On the outskirts of this small quintessential town is one of the most epic ocean performances you’ll ever witness, Thor’s Well. Thor’s Well is a beach front attraction, embedded within the sharp volcanic rock of the coastline. Over thousands of years, water from the ocean has carved out underground caves as well as holes to the mainland. Thor’s Well is one of these geological formations, which during high tide will fire water out of the “Well” and into the sky, before slowly receding back in. If you time it right, you can see these oceanic ballets during sunset, providing a truly special photography experience.
Camping is very easy, with the Cape Perpetua Campground located just a mile away. The campground abuts a small brook, giving it a calm atmosphere, but beware as it can also lead to some atrocious mosquitoes. The campground costs $24, but is well worth it due to its close proximity to both attractions and the town of Yachats. More info can be found at: https://www.recreation.gov/camping/campgrounds/233900.
Continuing up HWY 101, you will pass through Newport, OR, a touristy beach town filled with t-shirt shops and bars. However, towards the north of town is the photogenic Yaquina Head Lighthouse. Its only a mile off HWY 101 and requires a cheap entry fee. (They also accept the National Parks Pass). Pushing another 30 minutes North is the Devil’s Punchbowl. Named for its orange, bowl shaped appearance, Devil’s Punchbowl is a spectacular natural rock formation that becomes a beach explorer’s paradise at low tide. Be sure to check you tide tables, as the inside of the bowl is only accessible during low tide. If your willing to venture down inside you’ll be rewarded with some amazing photographs of a truly fascinating spot.
Tips: Wet Weather Gear is a must! Thor’s well will leave you soaked if you get too close.
Bug Spray will save your life!
Stop for a cold Thor’s Well IPA at Yachats Brewing
Our last day was spent at one of Oregon’s most iconic beaches, Cannon Beach. Sitting a few hundred feet off the shore lies Haystack Rock, a larger than life seastack that stands alone, towering over the sandy beach. The beauty of the beach pairs perfectly with a nice lunch in town. Our suggestion is an outdoor table at The Wayfarer Restaurant and Lounge. Only 90 minutes from Portland, Cannon Beach can be very busy during the summer time, but if your unafraid of some small crowds, Cannon Beach will reward you with an amazing time. Jet up to Ecola State Park and to find some solitude or rent a sea kayak and investigate Haystack Rock up close. With endless activities, Cannon Beach is sure to please, and an amazing final stop on our Oregon Road Trip.
Once we shook the sand out of our shoes, we packed up the truck and headed back home to Portland. Be sure to fill up in Cannon Beach, as after 5pm there is no gas for much of the drive home. And you don’t want to be like us stranded on the side of the road waiting for gas at 11pm, lol!
Tips: Avoid the crowds and head to Ecola State Park
Fill up on gas BEFORE you head home