Northwest Travel

The 7 Wonders of Oregon

Bonus: Two more not-to-be-missed places

By John Gottberg Anderson / For the Bulletin

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More information with Travel Oregon in Portland; call 800-547-7842 or visit

You may have seen Travel Oregon’s new promotional campaign in television commercials, print advertisements or on its website. It’s called “The Seven Wonders of Oregon.”

The Portland agency Wieden+Kennedy designed the campaign, but I think their efforts fell short of their mark: Certainly, there are more than seven wonders in our state.

Here’s how Travel Oregon announces the campaign:

“There are 7 Wonders of the World, and not a single one of them is here in Oregon. All we can figure is whoever came up with the list must have never set foot here. They must have never seen Mt. Hood or the grandeur of the Columbia River Gorge. They certainly didn’t explore the Oregon Coast. The exposed earth of the Painted Hills, Smith Rock’s towers of volcanic ash and the alpine peaks of the Wallowas were overlooked as well. Even Crater Lake, the deepest lake in America, was left off their list.

So we see your Wonders, world. And raise you 7 of our own. And we invite you to not just see them, but experience them. Because our Wonders aren’t just for taking pictures of — to truly say you’ve seen our Wonders, you have to get out of the car, hike down from the scenic vista and feel them beneath your feet.”

I agree with the sentiment. So to the original list, I have added two that I consider essential — Oregon Caves and Hells Canyon. Neither one of them can be seen from the safety of your car.

Mount Hood

When Captain George Vancouvers expedition first sighted Mount Hood in 1792, they called it a “very high, snowy mountain.' It remains so today, rising 11,245 feet. Its upper mile of elevation is best seen from historic Timberline Lodge, from which this photo was taken.

John Gottberg Anderson / For The Bulletin

There is no landmark that says “Oregon' to the outside world so much as 11,245-foot Mount Hood. The first sighting of the state’s highest peak by Europeans was by Capt. George Vancouver’s 1792 expedition, and this “very high, snowy mountain,' as it was described, has captured the imagination of travelers ever since.

Timberline Lodge, now a renowned national historic landmark, was built high on Mount Hood during the Great Depression. In just 22 months, laborers for the Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps built the remarkable lodge by hand, using stone and timber from the mountain itself, plus other recycled and repurposed materials.

Skiing, hiking, mountaineering and other outdoor sports now keep visitors coming year-round. Timberline is one of several ski areas, including Mount Hood Meadows — on the peak’s eastern flank — and Skibowl, just outside the hub community of Government Camp. In summer, Skibowl becomes an adventure park with zip-lining, alpine slides and other family activities.

The old Barlow Road, representing the last leg of the continental crossing for mid-19th-century Oregon Trail pioneers, circles the south side of Mount Hood. Numerous interpretive plaques and other historic markers recall the path.

Columbia River Gorge

As seen from Chanticleer Point, the Columbia River Gorge stretches many miles to the east. Designated as Americas first National Scenic Area in 1986, the Gorge is home to many spectacular waterfalls, including Multnomah Falls, second highest in the United States.

Barb Gonzalez / For The Bulletin

The first designated National Scenic Area (established in 1986), the Gorge surrounds the Historic Columbia River Highway, built between 1913 and 1922 and stretching 75 miles from Troutdale to The Dalles east of Portland. The highway is credited with introducing modern tourism to the Pacific Northwest, with campgrounds, roadhouses and lodges catering to tourists.

At its wetter western end, the highway weaves past the stunning Chanticleer Point scenic viewpoint and the classic Vista House at Crown Point State Park, 733 feet above the Columbia River. It also passes numerous spectacular waterfalls, including Multnomah Falls, second-highest falls in the United States, plunging 611 feet in two cataracts.

The eastern end of the Gorge beyond Hood River is much drier, but it is no less scenic. Just west of The Dalles, the highway winds through wildflower-rich Tom McCall Preserve and over Rowena Crest, with a descent along a series of graceful switchbacks. And near its east end, on the Washington shore, such enigmatic creations of Quaker leader Sam Hill as a war-memorial replica of Stonehenge and the Maryhill Museum of Art rise on bluffs above the river.

Today, tourism takes a different form than it did before World War II. The Gorge is home to highly regarded wineries and breweries, and prevailing winds on the Columbia River have made the Gorge world-renowned for wind surfing and kite boarding.

Oregon Coast

The sea stacks lining the Pacific coast at Cannon Beach add to the stunning view of the Oregon Coast from Ecola State Park. The 363-mile coastline, from the mouth of the Columbia River to the California border, is followed along is full course by U.S. Highway 101.

John Gottberg Anderson / For The Bulletin

The 363-mile-long coastline — from Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia River, south to Brookings, hard by the redwood forests of the California border country — is followed along its entire course by U.S. Highway 101.

En route, this national scenic byway follows long, rocky beaches and clings to seaside cliffs, overlooks picturesque lighthouses and derelict shipwrecks, passes miles of wind-sculpted sand dunes and more than 50 state parks and recreation areas, and visits dozens of charming communities — some of them tourist towns, others with bustling fishing harbors.

From the Columbia’s mouth, where explorers Lewis and Clark spent the winter of 1805-06 at Fort Clatsop, the highway visits the old-time resort town of Seaside, the arts community of Cannon Beach and the surfing center of Pacific City. Beyond Lincoln City, amid rugged headlands, is the whale-watching capital of Depoe Bay. Newport is famed for its bustling harbor and the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Near Yachats, Sea Lion Caves protect a remarkable grotto whose scores of denizens maintain a constant roar.

The Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, 50 miles long, extends from Florence to Coos Bay, the largest coastal harbor between Puget Sound and San Francisco Bay. Coastal scenery remains dramatic around the Bandon Dunes golf resort, the Cape Blanco lighthouse and Gold Beach, which sends jet boats up the wild and scenic Rogue River.

Painted Hills

The vividly striped bands of color in the Painted Hills, one parcel of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, are the legacy of 33 million-year-old lake-bed sediments and fossilized soils. The appearance of the colors change as clouds come and go.

Barb Gonzalez / For The Bulletin

Within the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, layers of lakebed sediments and fossilized soils have left an artist’s palette 33 million years old. In the Painted Hills, vividly striped hummocks, bands of burnt-orange and ocher-yellow, olive-green and rust-red, lay a unique veneer upon the arid landscape.

There are four short trails here. The Painted Hills Overlook Trail gives the best overall view of this vibrant landscape, its appearance changing as clouds come and go. The striations of paleosols, or fossil soils, layered between sediments left by ancient lakebeds, have created a colorful and mineral-rich canvas. Twenty-nine different minerals have contributed to the hues of these barren clay hills.

Not far away, the Painted Cove Trail winds through red and gold clay-stone hills on an elevated walkway; from this angle, they appeared as giant mounds of colored popcorn.

The Painted Hills are just one of three parcels within the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The Sheep Rock Unit contains several outstanding fossil quarries at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center. The Clarno Unit preserves subtropical plant fossils from more than 40 million years ago, including a diversity of fossil wood unmatched on Earth.

Smith Rock

The Crooked River winds beneath the towering basalt cliffs of Smith Rock State Park near Terrebonne. Internationally famed for as a mecca for rock climbers, Smith Rock is widely recognized as the “birthplace' of modern American sport climbing.

Barb Gonzalez / For The Bulletin

Central Oregon’s “wonder' is Smith Rock, north of Redmond. Embraced by Smith Rock State Park, it boasts sheer cliffs of tuff and basalt that rise hundreds of feet directly above the Crooked River, earning it acclaim as the “birthplace' of modern American sport climbing. Rock climbers of all ability levels, including many experts from foreign countries, gather at Smith Rock to test its cutting-edge routes.

First-time visitors might be forgiven for thinking they’ve been transported to the canyonlands of southern Utah: The view from the parking area is reminiscent of the red-rock gorges of Zion National Park, with precipices towering above the quietly meandering river. And nonclimbers may behold a similar panorama as they ascend the Misery Ridge Trail and wind around Monkey Face, an unmistakable sentinel above the High Desert.

Smith Rock has served as a film location for several notable features, including “Rooster Cogburn' (1975), with John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn; “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues' (1994), with Uma Thurman; “The Postman' (1997), with Kevin Costner; and “Swordfish' (2001), with John Travolta.

The Wallowas

Rider Nora Hawkins pauses for a view down the Lostine Valley in the Eagle Cap Wilderness at the summit of northeastern Oregon’s Wallowa Range. Nicknamed “America’s Alps,' the Wallowas cradle a deep-blue glacial lake and hundreds of miles of trails.

John Gottberg Anderson / For The Bulletin

In so many ways, Wallowa County is the proverbial end of the road. All alone in Oregon’s isolated northeastern corner, its lofty peaks surround a spectacular glacial lake, a nationally acclaimed community of bronze sculptors in Joseph and beautiful ranchland that spreads to the rugged chasm of Hells Canyon.

The summer tourist season is short, and even at the peak of that season, velvet-antlered mule deer sidestep small tents to graze in the state park’s campground. Meanwhile, the region’s No. 1 man-made tourist attraction, the Wallowa Lake Tramway to the top of Mount Howard, is lucky to fill every third cab.

Above deep-blue Wallowa Lake, nestled in the cradle of moraines, foot and horseback trails climb into the Eagle Cap Wilderness, long ago nicknamed “America’s Alps.'

Wallowa regional history has deep roots in the Nez Perce tribal culture. These people knew their homeland as “the land of wandering waters.' When American settlers began occupying their lands, father-and-son Chiefs Joseph led a resistance that remains one of the moist poignant episodes of Western history.

Crater Lake

The deepest lake in North America at 1,943 feet, Crater Lake was formed about 7,700 years ago by the collapse of the Mount Mazama volcano. Travelers on the 33-mile drive that circles the lake get many views of Wizard Island, to the left in this picture.

Barb Gonzalez / For The Bulletin

The deepest lake in North America at 1,943 feet, and the seventh-deepest on the planet, Crater Lake was formed about 7,700 years ago when Mount Mazama, then a peak of about 12,000 feet, violently erupted and collapsed into itself.

Ash — more than 150 times as much as spewed from Mount St. Helens in 1980 — scattered over eight Western states and three Canadian provinces. Later volcanism formed Wizard Island, the lake’s most unmistakable feature, and other features. The huge, bowl-shaped caldera cooled as activity subsided, and starting around 5,000 years ago, it began to fill with water from springs, rain and snowmelt. Today, evaporation and seepage balance the incoming flow.

Visitors to the national park, established in 1902, travel by vehicle around the 33-mile Rim Drive to view this spectacular, cobalt-blue lake. The more adventuresome may descend a steep trail to a boat dock, from which tour boats ply routes on the lake’s surface. On all sides, cliffs rise 1,000 feet or higher. The 1915 Crater Lake Lodge, a historic showpiece of the park, looks like a tiny lookout from this perspective.

Oregon Caves

Calcite features called draperies proliferate in a chamber called “Paradise Lost,' a memorable sight in Oregon Caves National Monument. Ranger-led cave tours descend to 220 feet below the earths surface, climbing up and down 526 steps in just two-thirds of a mile.

Barb Gonzalez / For The Bulletin

The Oregon Caves, south of Grants Pass, are formed of calcite that was deposited by sea water 250 million years ago. Buried far beneath overlying rock, the calcite metamorphosed into marble, a feature of only about 5 percent of the world’s caves. Water filtering from the surface over the past 2.5 million years created a carbonic acid that continues to seep through the rock, dissolving it and creating formations on the ceiling of the cave — stalactites, draperies and flowstone.

It is not only rock that lives within the cave system. Federally preserved as a site of “unusual scientific interest,' the Oregon Caves are home to 120 distinct, endemic species, more than any other cave west of the Mississippi River. Most of them are spiders, insects and eight different types of bats.

Ranger-led cave tours descend to 220 feet below the Earth’s surface. They travel two-thirds of a mile, featuring 526 steep steps and some passageways with ceilings only 3½ feet high.

The preserve was established as Oregon’s first national monument in 1909. Its 1934 chateau, a quaint 23-room hotel, is a national historic landmark.

Hells Canyon

A rafting guide secures his party’s gear before an early start down the Snake River through Hells Canyon, on the Oregon-Idaho border. At 7,913 feet, the canyon can claim to be the deepest river gorge in North America, half again deeper than Arizona’s Grand Canyon.

John Gottberg Anderson / For The Bulletin

Hells Canyon, through which the Snake River flows along the border of Oregon and Idaho, makes claim to being the deepest river-carved gorge in North America. At 7,913 feet (from the summit of Idaho’s Seven Devils Mountain, 9,393 feet, to the canyon floor at Granite Creek, 1,480 feet), it’s half again deeper than Arizona’s Grand Canyon.

Though not as colorful nor as spectacular as the Grand from a geological standpoint, it is a national recreation area of huge appeal to whitewater rafters and jet-boat enthusiasts, while backpackers, hunters and fishermen love the chasm as well.

On both sides of the northbound Snake, basalt cliffs rise in steps above the river. Here and there are gravel bars and alluvial streams, where Nez Perce once wintered and pioneer homesteaders built remote cabins and orchards. As recently as 1975, when the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area was established, sheep grazed the sparsely vegetated terrain.

Isolated overlooks of the canyon may be found off backcountry roads in national forests on both sides of the river. Sportsmen, however, may be isolated for days at a time, as access roads into the canyon are few and far between.

— Reporter:

Next week: Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills