As one of the last “cool” states I had yet to visit, I knew I would love Oregon, but was waiting for the chance to do it right. With images of waterfalls, glass-bottom breweries where sea lions come to play, and food trucks dancing through my head, when CU-Boulder (my beloved alma mater) was slated to play the Ducks on a Friday night, I knew I finally had a golden opportunity to spend a long weekend exploring. And while I love a good college town, there was so much beyond Eugene I was itching to see.
A great base to fly into, Eugene is right in the middle of the state with plenty of gems in either direction. Less than two hours from Portland, it’s a straight shot north on I-5, but if you have time, the more scenic route is to head due west and drive the coast. Highway 101 is a National Scenic Byway and the Coast and Columbia River Gorge are two of the seven wonders of Oregon, both easily accessible on a road trip. Here’s how to see as much as possible in one epic weekend.
The University of Oregon is a gorgeous campus in the Willamette Valley. Known as TrackTown USA (thanks to that Nike money), sports are one of the biggest draws, but the farm-to-table food, wineries, breweries, and outdoor attractions are also plentiful so spend a few hours tasting your way around town and walking it off. Cut by the river, the PNW is gorgeous in the fall with deep auburn shades like you’ve never seen before.
Sweet Creek Falls (1 hour, 30 minutes)
The best hike in the state according to an Oregon outdoor guidebook author, Sweet Creek Falls looks and feels like you just stepped into Fern Gully. An easy 2.2-mile jaunt through a cool misty forest, giant mossy trees envelop you as you walk across catwalks and bridges past rippling creeks and tiered plunge pools, each waterfall larger and more impressive than the next.
Alternate: Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area (1 hour, 45 minutes)
Take a quick detour south and you’re at another otherworldly landscape. The Oregon Dunes are an area of shifting sands you can explore on foot, but the more adventurous souls prefer to rent dune buggies or try sandboarding, which is like snowboarding through quicksand.
Sea Lion Caves (1 hour)
The largest sea cave in America, take an elevator 200 feet underground to see marine life from a whole new perspective — under the sea. Winter is the best time to see sea lions in the cave as hundreds gather for warmth, but they’re also in and out frolicking along the coast in the summer and spring months. Any time of year, the overlook offers one of the best views of Heceta Head Lighthouse from afar.
Heceta Head Lighthouse (5 minutes)
On the National Register of Historic Places, Heceta Head is a working lighthouse, the most photographed on the West Coast and the brightest light on the Oregon Coast. There’s a short half-mile hike from the beach to the lighthouse, which you tour daily or spend the night in the keeper’s cottage if you like quirky accommodations.
Cape Perpetua (10 minutes)
Arguably the prettiest stretch of the Oregon Coast, Cape Perpetua is the highest viewpoint accessible by car and a protected Marine Garden shoreline. The area is known for its insane tide pools, which spray mist, spout water, and create cascades as the waves roll over them.
Spouting Horn and Thor’s Well are two of the most famous to seek out but can be extremely dangerous at high tide and hard to find at low tide (think 1-foot waves vs. 7-foot monsters). Just look for a circle where people are milling about and stay far enough back to observe from a safe distance.
Devil’s Punchbowl State Natural Area (50 minutes)
Another visit that has to be timed with the waves; Devil’s Punchbowl’s secret sea caves are only accessible at low tide. A half-mile trail along the sandy shore, peruse the oversized cavernous rocks as the waves toss and turn around you. If you’re lucky, you may even spot a whale or other sea creatures.
If you’re tired, set up shop around here and continue on in the morning.
Three Arch Rocks National Wildlife Refuge (1 hour 40 minutes)
One of the Oregon Coast’s most recognizable landmarks, three large and six smaller rocks encompass one of the smallest designated wildlife refuges in the country and the first protected natural area on the West Coast. A breeding ground for baby sea lions and puffins, the reserve is technically offshore but can be viewed from afar.
Cape Meares Lighthouse (25 minutes)
Another scenic viewpoint along the coast, Cape Meares is no longer an operational lighthouse, but still an iconic beauty in Tillamook Bay. Home to one of the largest populations of seabirds on the continent, you can hike the three miles of trails under a cover of overgrown spruces, the largest in the state, and look for migrating whales or tour the lighthouse seasonally.
Tillamook Creamery (30 minutes)
Cheese to please, take a self-guided tour through the farmer-owned cheese factory. You’ll learn everything from how to milk a cow to the production process with all the free samples you could possibly want. Overdose on dairy in the food hall with homey comfort food like mac and cheese, grilled cheese, and ice cream flights (try the signature Marionberry Pie). The creamery gets rather packed around lunchtime so come either early in the morning (yes, they serve breakfast) or later in the day.
Portland (1 hour 30 minute)
The city of bridges, Portland is one of America’s top foodie cities, known for its food truck scene (try Alberta Ave. and 5th Avenue downtown) and for the biggest Saturday Market in the country. Mississippi Avenue is one of the most walkable neighborhoods to get a quick “taste” and feel for the city.
Columbia River Gorge (30 minutes)
If you’re like me and more of an outdoor enthusiast than a city girl, I loved the fact that I could get more nature porn just half an hour from Portland. The largest National Scenic Area in America, Columbia River Gorge is GORG-geous (pun intended). A 4,000-foot canyon that stretches over 80 miles with the greatest concentration of waterfalls (more than 90) in North America, you could spend an hour or weeks here and still not scratch the surface.
Make it a point to see Multnomah Falls, the tallest waterfall in Oregon, one of the most photographed, and one of the most accessible from Portland. The main viewing platform is right behind the visitor’s center, but you can also hike the 2.4-mile trail up to the bridge. Depending on how much time you have, continue to Hood River or explore some of the other waterfalls in the area like Bridal Veil and Latourell – they get more insane the further east you go.
What I Thought of Oregon: Portland is definitely weird, but the state as a whole is also loveably quirky. The most Oregon thing we experienced was the “scouts” (not girls or boys, gender-neutral, obviously) sell meat sticks (Tillamook, of course) instead of cookies. Secondly, every time the Ducks score a touchdown, they plant a tree in their honor. They got six new trees on our behalf…so while the game was rough at least we did our part to keep Oregon green. I can’t wait to come back and see the southern portion of the state – hit Crater Lake, the Natural Bridge, and some of the other more photogenic spots.
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