A sampling of the state’s scenic byways, which reward motorists with unforgettable panoramas.
By Rhonda Ostertag
As the 10th largest state in the country, Oregon is expansive enough to offer a variety of scenery: seashore, desert, fertile valley, forest, meadow, mountain, plateau, and lava land. It also boasts an amazing collection of scenic byways from which to explore these many realms. The routes introduce the bucolic, the rugged, the delicate, and even the bizarre. The following four selected, paved routes uncover some of Oregon’s best secrets.
To obtain a brochure map that depicts all of the state’s 18 scenic byways and gives brief descriptions of each route, contact the Oregon Tourism Commission at (800) 547-7842, (503) 986-0000; www.traveloregon.com.
Be sure to take your time as you travel on these scenic routes. Don’t attempt to drive any of them in only one day. Scenic routes, after all, are meant to be savored, not rushed. Find campsites by referring to your favorite campground directory or by using information from the Oregon Tourism Commission, and plan accordingly. State parks and Forest Service sites offer camping as well.
West Cascades National Scenic Byway
This 215-mile byway runs north and south along the western slope of the Cascade Range, rounding up beautiful rivers that are visible from the road, and waterfalls that can be driven to in short order.
The route travels between Estacada (southeast of Portland) and Oakridge (southeast of Eugene). It can be taken in smaller portions, of course, and easily can be divided into thirds: the Clackamas-Breitenbush segment (State Route 224 and Forest Road 46), the McKenzie River segment (state routes 22 and 126), and the Robert Aufderheide Memorial Drive (Forest Road 19).
Traveling south from Estacada on State Route 224, drivers follow the Clackamas River. Fast riffles, deep pools, isolated rocks, mossy boulders, gravel bars, and glassy stills characterize the river. When the steelhead salmon run, so do anglers.
At the Ripplebrook Ranger Station, Forest Road 46 takes over, and a pair of trails graced by old-growth trees await nearby: the Alder Flat Trail, just west of the station, and the Riverside Trail, between Rainbow and Riverside campgrounds. At the point Forest Road 46 crosses the pass into the Breitenbush drainage, travelers find the Breitenbush River often isolated by steep, vegetated banks, but the forest bower enchants.
Drivers emerge at the Detroit Lake State Recreation Area and continue south on State Route 22. Camping is available at the lake. The road continues southwest on State Route 126, where visitors enter the grandeur of the Clear Lake-McKenzie River area. All along this part of the road, the river is a mesmerizing treasure, paired with a national recreation trail of marathon length (26 miles).
Clear Lake forms the headwaters of the McKenzie River. It was created by lava flows approximately 3,000 years ago, and its crystal-clear water is a constant 43 degrees. If you enjoy waterfalls, stop here to see the acclaimed McKenzie River unfurl into two major falls: 63-foot Koosah Falls (reached at tiny Ice Cap Campground) and 100-foot Sahalie Falls (0.2-mile to the north of Koosah). Both falls are drive-to attractions, but hikers and mountain bikers prefer reaching them via the McKenzie River National Recreation Trail.
The byway continues south via Forest Road 19/Aufderheide Memorial Drive to State Route 58. This forest sojourn captivates with crystalline waters, access to trails, and freedom from the bustle beyond the insular woods. This particular part of the drive grew out of a wagon trail from the late 1800s.
This byway stretch travels along the South Fork of the McKenzie River and its impound, Cougar Reservoir. As it continues south, it parallels the North Fork of the Middle Fork of the Willamette River. Constitution Grove, about midway between State Route 126 and State Route 58, has a roadside turnout and a short trail, enabling exploration of a grove of 200-year-old trees.
The drive concludes near Office Bridge, at 180 feet Oregon’s longest covered bridge, located in the one-time timber mill town of Westfir. Signs point travelers to Oakridge and State Route 58.
Rogue-Umpqua National Scenic Byway
Sometimes called the “Highway of Waterfalls,” this 172-mile route is named after the wild and scenic Rogue and Umpqua rivers. The byway loops east off of Interstate 5 between Roseburg (exit 124) and Gold Hill (exit 40), following state routes 138, 230, 62, and 234. Stunning waterfalls; Diamond Lake; volcano views; and convenient access to Crater Lake National Park (off state routes 138 and 62) make this byway even more appealing.
East of Roseburg in the little town of Glide is the Colliding Waters Viewpoint. Stop by the viewpoint to see the clash of the Little River and the North Umpqua River. Nearby a historical American Indian village site offers insight into long-ago residents of the area. The lower part of the North Umpqua is open to anglers casting for steelhead salmon, and the 31 miles above Deadline Falls is restricted to fly fishing. The river’s steelhead sport is world-renowned; fishing guide services cater to enthusiasts.
Continue east on State Route 138 to Swiftwater Park, Susan Creek Recreation Site, and Steamboat Falls, where steelhead and other salmon can be seen jumping the falls between May and October. Swiftwater Park also marks the western terminus to the 79-mile North Umpqua National Recreation Trail; a dozen trailheads allow hikers to break the trail into day-length segments.
State Route 138 hugs the North Umpqua River and offers frequent spectacular views. Look for features such as Eagle Rock, Rattlesnake Rock, and Old Man Rock on the forested slopes. Farther on, ashy cliffs record the fallout of Mount Mazama, an ancient volcano that collapsed more than 7,000 years ago, creating Crater Lake.
Waterfall turnouts are situated along the road in spots where the drive veers away from the North Umpqua River. Well-marked trails lead to cascades such as Susan Creek Falls, Toketee Falls, and 272-foot Watson Falls. Elegant Whitehorse Falls and 30-foot Clearwater Falls also are located along the way.
About midway into the trip is Diamond Lake Recreation Area, with its popular natural lake, metropolis of shoreline campgrounds (both public and private), and access to trails. Pointy-topped Mount Thielsen and rounded Mount Bailey watch over this 3,000-acre lake. A paved lakeshore trail provides ample viewing, and boats are available for rent.
Crater Lake National Park is accessible from here. Take State Route 138 south from the lake to reach the north entrance of the national park.
The national byway heads west from here onto State Route 230. It follows the legendary Rogue River, which is born at the outskirts of Crater Lake and flows to the Pacific Ocean. Crater Rim Viewpoint, on State Route 230, launches the Upper Rogue National Recreation Trail. Cascades, waterfalls, sterling tributaries, turbulent gorges, and vanishing waters are just some of the river’s tricks.
From Union Creek, a small town listed on the National Register of Historic Places, side trips lead to the Rogue Gorge Viewpoint as well as Natural Bridge, where a lava tube swallows the river whole before releasing it 200 feet downstream.
Waterfall lovers should make plans to stop near Prospect, a town only slightly larger than tiny Union Creek. Just to the south of Prospect, take the marked turnoff called “Mill Creek Falls” and follow the signs. The 173-foot Mill Creek Falls and equally tall Barr Creek Falls spill into the Rogue River at this point.
Continue south to see the Peyton Bridge; Lost Creek Reservoir, which is part of a state park; and the Cole Rivers Fish Hatchery.
Where State Route 234 continues the tour, rural scenes and scents engage travelers, and Siskiyou Mountain images replace views of the Cascades. The tiny town of Gold Hill, named for an early gold discovery, caps the tour.
Oregon Outback National Scenic Byway
This is a road motorhomes can use as a means to get to or from Redmond, the site of FMCA’s 72nd International Convention, August 16 to 19. It follows Oregon’s western frontier and features ponderosa pine forests, bunchgrass, sagebrush, lowing cattle, and alfalfa. The 171-mile byway also explores a unique geological area with volcanic and fault features, vast alkaline lakes, long fault-block rims, hot springs, and even a geyser.
When traveling north to south, start on State Route 31, which leaves U.S. 97 just south of La Pine (approximately 50 miles south of Redmond). Lightly used, State Route 31 follows the same 1843 exploration route taken by John C. Fremont. Basalt rims, small cinder cones, and isolated buttes interrupt the expanse. Eagles, owls, cranes, coyotes, deer, antelope, and elk can be spotted.
Fort Rock State Monument lies seven miles off the route. The rock is the remnant of a volcano that rises conspicuously, 325 feet above the flat plain. A living history museum called Fort Rock Homestead Village can be visited along the way.
At milepost 63, the route tops Picture Rock Summit, elevation 4,830 feet. From the large turnout, a footpath on the road’s south side leads to petroglyphs “” markings on the rock made by long-ago residents.
Next along the way is Summer Lake, which sits at the base of Winter Ridge; both were named by the Fremont Expedition. Summer Lake is, like the Great Salt Lake in Utah, very alkaline in nature “” and pleasing to water birds. At the southern end of the community that shares the lake’s name is the 18,000-acre Summer Lake State Wildlife Area. Its auto tour (passenger vehicles only) follows levees through the marsh, salt flat, sagebrush, and open water channels; maps are available at the headquarters. Sightings vary but can include trumpeter swans, snow geese, white pelicans, sandhill cranes, ducks, terns, great horned owls, and avocets, as well as miscellaneous mammals. A relaxing soak at private Summer Lake Hot Springs can make for a pleasant delay.
At Valley Falls Junction, the drive follows U.S. 395 south to Lakeview. Established in 1888, Lakeview engages with small-town appeal and a giant cowboy welcome. A pair of local history museums featuring pioneer and Indian artifacts can help while away an hour or two. Lakeview also is home to Oregon’s only geyser: Old Perpetual. It’s located at a resort a mile north of town and can be seen belching steam 60 feet skyward every minute or so.
At New Pine Creek, drivers reach the turnoff to Goose Lake (Oregon) State Recreation Area, where a campground offers electrical hookups, a dump station, water, and other amenities. California and Modoc country stretch to the south.
Hells Canyon All-American Byway
As its name suggests, this 208-mile route offers views into the deepest river canyon in North America. But it also features plenty of high-mountain grandeur. For outdoor recreation, the region teems with opportunity: camping, hiking, horseback riding, rafting, and fishing are just some possibilities.
Beginning at La Grande and traveling clockwise on State Route 82, you will first note the Grande Ronde Valley, the largest completely enclosed circular valley in the world, framed by the Wallowa and Blue mountains. As you continue along State Route 82 the Wallowa Mountains come more closely into view.
The towns of Wallowa, Lostine, Enterprise, and Joseph serve as northern gateways to exploring the Wallowas. Eagle Cap Wilderness encompasses 361,000 acres of this mountain prize. The surrounding ranchland clears the way to grand mountain panoramas. Crystalline rivers, high lakes, hanging valleys, ice fields, steeple-topped conifers, and alpine meadows seal the invitation.
The town of Enterprise is home to the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest Visitors Center. Stop there to enjoy the view of the mountains and learn about the area. Joseph, the next town on the route, offers opportunities to stop and admire local artwork, which includes life-size bronze sculptures. Joseph, by the way, was named after Old Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Indian tribe.
Wallowa Lake, just south of Joseph, is a large, natural glacial-moraine lake capped by high peaks. A state recreation area, a campground, and wilderness trails are available. Nearby, Wallowa Lake Tram, a four-passenger gondola lift, ascends 3,200 vertical feet to the summit of Mount Howard.
From Joseph, take Forest Road 39 toward the Hells Canyon Overlook. Turn off onto Forest Road 3965 (which is accessible by motorhome) and travel three more miles to the overlook, situated on the canyon brink. A paved walk and benches afford a spectacular view of Hells Canyon. With a depth of 1.5 miles, it’s the deepest gorge in North America.
From there, retrace your drive back to Forest Route 39 and then follow State Route 86 south and west to Interstate 84 and the town of Baker City.
Be sure to conclude this byway tour with a stop at Flagstaff Hill and the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. This fine facility offers a museum, trails, and original wagon ruts. From Baker City, travel 41 miles north to close the loop at La Grande.
Oregon Fun Facts
- “Oregon” is believed to have been the original Indian name for the Columbia River.
- Each side of Oregon’s state flag is different: on one side is an insignia with items symbolizing aspects of the state; on the other is the likeness of a beaver.
- Oregon and New Jersey are the only states in the United States without self-serve gas stations.
- The border between Oregon and California was established in a treaty between the United States and Spain in 1819.
- Oregon is known as the “Beaver State.”
Famous Native Oregonians
- “The Simpsons” creator and producer Matt Groening
- Actress Sally Struthers
- Band leader and trumpeter Doc Severinsen
- Chemist and Nobel Prize winner Linus C. Pauling
- Actress and singer Jane Powell
Oregon’s Agricultural Riches
- Oregon ranks number one in the United States in production of blackberries, hazelnuts, Christmas trees, and certain types of grass seed.
- The state’s most financially lucrative “crop” is greenhouse and nursery plants, valued at $714 million in 2002.
- Oregon ranks third in the country in pear production.
- Overall value of the state’s agricultural production totaled $3.6 billion in 2002.
World War II History, Oregon-Style
- Troops were trained at U.S. Army Camp Adair, north of Corvallis, and Camp Abbott, south of Bend. The Army also built hangars and airfields around the state.
- By 1944 nearly 50,000 workers were building 16 airplanes every 24 hours at Boeing manufacturing plants.
- A Japanese submarine surfaced off the mouth of the Columbia River in June 1942 and fired 17 shells at Fort Stevens.
- Residents of Oregon coastal communities faced nightly blackouts, wherein shades and blankets covered windows, and many people painted over the top half of their car headlights.
- The many jobs created in Oregon during World War II attracted an estimated 194,000 new residents.