Oregon’s natural world remains gloriously wild, whether you’re wandering along its rugged Pacific coastline or among the deserts, badlands, forests and snowy mountain peaks of its diverse interior. This diversity is studded with a handful of utterly unique sights, such as the deep blue caldera of Crater Lake and the natural evolutionary record of John Day Fossil Beds. So swing on your hiking boots and get out into these magnificent, untamed and wildly educational national parks and monuments.
A natural wonder tucked away in the wilderness of southwestern Oregon, Crater Lake is a ring of deep blue, exceptionally pure water bordered by sheer cliffs over 2000 feet high. These jagged crags once formed part of a great volcano, Mount Mazama, which erupted with such immense violence that the land collapsed beneath it, forming a caldera that gradually filled with water. The resulting lake is now is the deepest in the United States, and the ninth deepest in the world, reaching a staggering 520 meters at its deepest point. For most of the year, the rocks and pines around the rim are covered with ice and snow, but for a few short summer months the park bathes in warmth and sunlight, which is when most visitors come to hike, fish, swim and camp.
This National Park, spanning the border between Oregon and Washington, preserves both a pristine natural world and a history of adventure. In the early 19th century, Thomas Jefferson commissioned an expedition to cross the north-western half of the United States. An epic 4000-mile journey followed, led by U.S. Army officers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. 18 months later the expedition reached the Columbia River estuary and, shortly afterwards, looked out over the blue Pacific. Their namesake park covers the terrain they traversed through the final stages of their journey, encompassing the mudflats, marshes, wetlands, temperate rainforests and coastal dunes around the mouth of the Columbia River. It also contains a replica of Fort Clatsop, the encampment in which the expedition endured the harsh winter of 1805-6.
High in the northern Siskiyou Mountains, an opening in the rock leads to an intricate cave system that tunnels 4600 meters into the heart of the mountain. The walls, covered with strange and eerie formations, are carved from marble which was dissolved by rain water dripping into the mountain from the forest above, creating the cave’s subterranean passageways. Visitors can take 90-minute tours into this shadowy underworld, led by park rangers who provide an informative overview of the cave’s natural history. Outside, several hiking trails wind through the surrounding old-growth fir forest, adding an open-air dimension to the monument’s terrain.
Oregon’s prehistoric world is preserved amid spectacular surroundings in John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Embedded in a rough and rugged terrain of bare hillsides, deep ravines and jagged rock formations is a unique fossil record demonstrating the evolution of plants and animals that took place between the late Eocene, around 45 million years ago, and the late Miocene, about five million years ago. Illumination into what these remains can tell us about Oregon’s past can be gained in the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, which has exhibits and a working lab that has been studying the area’s fossils since 1984.
Encompassing a region of rolling green grasslands and forested hillsides where the Cascade and Siskiyou Mountains meet, this was the first U.S. national monument to be created solely for the purposes of protecting biodiversity. Over 200 species of bird inhabit the park, including falcons, kestrels and the endangered Great Grey Owl. The area is also valued for its immense botanical diversity, as well as for several striking geologic features, such as Pilot Rock, the inside of an extinct volcano, and Table Rocks, two craggy mesa buttes that tower over the Rogue River. The area’s human history is also writ large on the landscape, seen in Native American dwelling and root-gathering sites and the mining cabins of the white settlers who took over their territory. The Pacific Crest Trail runs through the Monument, which is particularly excellent for hiking.