A Guide to the National Parks of Oregon

In the Pacific Northwest, there's a national park for every nature-lover.

A Guide to the National Parks of Oregon
Photo: Thomas Winz/Getty Images

Being outdoorsy is a major part of the culture in Oregon, and this coastal state has no shortage of national parks to help you get in touch with nature, whether you prefer to bike, hike, ski, snowshoe, or run. Chip Jenkins, Deputy Regional Director for the Pacific West region and a 30-year veteran of the National Parks Service, walked us through the charms of the state’s parks.

Head into the Blue

Formed by a volcanic eruption more than 7,000 years ago, Southwest Oregon’s Crater Lake is—at nearly 2,000 feet—the deepest in America. The reason it draws visitors from around the world to gawk, however, is its extraordinary, renowned hue. So profoundly blue it seems almost unnatural, the lake also boasts a stunning clarity. “It’s among the clearest water in the world,” says Jenkins, because it's all snowmelt and rainfall. He recommends taking a boat ride so you can appreciate the color and clarity up close. You can drive up to the rim most days to look down, but in the winter when Crater Lake is perhaps most stunning, with a knockout blue-white contrast thanks to snow, “some hard-core adventurers like to ski around the perimeter,” says Jenkins. And a pro tip for cyclists: There are several car-free days every year in more pleasant weather when you can bike around the rim.

Follow the Great Explorers

Lewis and Clark's footfalls can be seen across Oregon, from the sprawling trail itself to the multi-part national park and eevn the college named for the explorers. But one of the most interesting pieces of the narrative, says Jenkins, is Fort Clatsop, a section of the national park near Astoria in the state’s northwest corner. It was a winter encampment site for the Corps of Discovery (aka Lewis and Clark) in the winter of 1806. The visitor site includes a replica of the explorers' quarters, and it’s a great place for families—particularly younger children. The log cabins are “a size and scale that’s very evocative for kids,” says Jenkins. To burn off energy with the whole brood, go for a walk along part of the extensive trail network nearby. “It’s a great place to go out and see heron and eagles, and salmon spawning,” says Jenkins.

Check Out Prehistoric Fossils

If you visit national parks for the archeological intrigue, John Day Fossil Beds in eastern Oregon is right up your alley. It’s home to the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, which Jenkins says is “state-of-the-art,” and where you can “watch paleontologists prepare fossils that have come out of the earth—about 40 million years’ worth of life.” The center handles an amazing array of fossils, says Jenkins, from plant life to small invertebrates and giant beaver. Visitors come from all over the world to get their Jurassic Park fix. In August of 2017, Eastern Oregon is expected to be among the ideal places to see a full solar eclipse. Photographers will come in droves, expects Jenkins, to capture the landscape at dawn and dusk during the celestial event.

Bed Down in a Cave

If you’re tired of roughing it on campgrounds and hiking through the woods, travelers should seek out Oregon's surprisingly romantic caves. There’s a chateau at the Oregon Caves, built in 1934, and it’s all towering wooden pillars, giant stone fireplaces, and peaked European-style gables. Although you can do ranger-led tours of the caves, through which winds the gorgeous River Styx, Jenkins suggests setting up camp at the chateau, drinking wine, wandering through the woods, reading, and relaxing. Revenue from the chateau supports the caves, so it’s a win-win.

Brush Up on Your History

Nez Perce National Historical Park, which spans four states, was established in 1965 to chronicle the tale of the Nez Perce (Nimi’ipuu) people. They're famous for, among many other attributes, having helped the Lewis and Clark expedition. This four-state park follows the route of their 1877 conflict with the United States government, in which these people were forced from their homeland. Joseph, Oregon has gained renown as the eponymous grave site of Chief Joseph, the Nez Perce leader, who shepherded his people on the thousand-mile-plus odyssey. The park was “specifically established to preserve [the] heritage of the Nez Perce people,” says Jenkins, who are “still with us, and still a vibrant tribe.” The Nez Perce park itself sprawls across 33 different units and four states—Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington—and remains a sobering reminder of the region’s history.

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