Traveller's Guide: Oregon

The state that gives 'the great outdoors' new meaning
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The Independent Travel

Oregon's natural beauty rivals - if not surpasses - anything else you'll see in the Pacific Northwest. This, the 10th largest US state, is roughly rectangular in shape and most of the major cities are linked by Interstate 5 which runs north-south between the coastal mountains and the Cascade Range. Oregon is also a good place to shop: unusually for a US state, it has no sales tax. The state capital is Salem (not to be confused with Salem, Massachusetts, notorious for witches). But for the visitor the most important cities are Eugene, home of the University of Oregon and an excellent Saturday market, and Portland. Between Salem and Eugene, drive the smaller roads through the delightful Willamette Valley as opposed to the Interstate. This is Oregon's wine and hazelnut country (about 99 per cent of the US crop is grown here).

Oregon's natural beauty rivals - if not surpasses - anything else you'll see in the Pacific Northwest. This, the 10th largest US state, is roughly rectangular in shape and most of the major cities are linked by Interstate 5 which runs north-south between the coastal mountains and the Cascade Range. Oregon is also a good place to shop: unusually for a US state, it has no sales tax. The state capital is Salem (not to be confused with Salem, Massachusetts, notorious for witches). But for the visitor the most important cities are Eugene, home of the University of Oregon and an excellent Saturday market, and Portland. Between Salem and Eugene, drive the smaller roads through the delightful Willamette Valley as opposed to the Interstate. This is Oregon's wine and hazelnut country (about 99 per cent of the US crop is grown here).

AH, TELL ME ABOUT PORTLAND...

The City of Roses - Portland is home to three public rose gardens - is divided by the Willamette River. There are many excellent restaurants here: the one with the best view is Chart House (001 503 246 6963;

www.chart-house.com), perched high above the Willamette River. Portland's best-known hotel dates from 1912: The Benson (001 503 228 2000; www.bensonhotel.com; doubles from $199/£105 including breakfast) has a walnut-panelled lobby lit by crystal chandeliers. The city's most notable shop is the immense Powell's City of Books, but shoppers and people watchers should also wander the Saturday Market (held on Saturdays and Sundays, March to December). The city has a good live music scene and there is plenty else for culture-vultures, including the Portland Art Museum (001 503 226 2811; www.portlandartmuseum.org; closed Mondays; adults $10/£5.25). For more on the city, visit www.travelportland.com.

AND THE GREAT OUTDOORS?

For a good look at the mighty Cascade Range, take a scenic loop drive from Sisters through both the Santiam and McKenzie Passes: in addition to views of major Cascade peaks, you'll see pristine forest, waterfalls, lakes and lava fields. For those who like to plan ahead, this is one of the best drives in the state for seeing autumn foliage. Oregon's Pacific coast is wild and, since it is protected by no less than 80 State Parks, relatively unspoilt. As a result of the 1967 Oregon Beach Bill, all 400 miles of the state's coastline is public land. You'll see not only deserted coves and beaches, huge sand dunes, sheer cliffs, haystack rocks, natural arches and blow holes but also historic lighthouses, fishing harbours and seaside villages. The only drawback is that the water is almost always too cold for swimming. Of the array of scenic beaches, my favourites are probably those at Ecola State Park (near Cannon Beach); Sunset Bay State Park (near Coos Bay), where sometimes the protected waters here are actually warm enough for swimming; and those within the Samuel H Boardman State Scenic Corridor.

AND AWAY FROM THE COAST?

Melting snow from the mountain ranges feeds the Columbia, one of the great rivers of the Americas. It forms much of the border between Oregon and Washington, and is at its most scenic between the towns of Corbett and Hood River. Between Troutdale and The Dalles, the narrow and winding Historic Columbia River Highway climbs up high for a fine view of the gorge before dropping into forests where waterfalls pour off of basalt cliffs. You can lunch with a view at the Multnomah Falls Lodge (001 503 695 2376, www.multnomahfallslodge.com), and stay in stunning surroundings at the Columbia Gorge Hotel (001 541 386 5566; www.columbiagorgehotel.com; doubles from $199/£105).

A turning off the highway takes you to Larch Mountain, and a short climb from the parking area leads to a viewing platform. If it's clear, the panorama is one of the greats and includes vast tracts of forest and the snow-capped volcanic peaks of Mounts St Helens (46 miles away), Rainier (100 miles) and Adams (54 miles), all in Washington state, as well as Oregon's own mounts Hood (22 miles) and Jefferson (62 miles).

You can see much more of the area with the American West Steamboat Company, which offers seven-night paddle-steamer cruises on the river from $1,239 (£652) per person (001 800 434 1232, www.columbiarivercruise.com).

In southwest Oregon is Crater Lake National Park (001 541 594 3100, www.nps.gov/crla), the setting for a wonderful 33-mile drive around the rim of a huge volcano (this road is usually only open from mid-July to mid-October). At 1,932 feet deep, Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the US and its sapphire-blue waters have to be seen to be believed. You can stay right on the rim at Crater Lake Lodge (001 541 830 8700; www.craterlakelodges.com; doubles from $126 /£66).

For those who enjoy man-made sites, western Oregon is dotted with more than 50 photogenic covered bridges. Jacksonville is a 19th-century gold-mining town with more than 80 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And the fine Evergreen Aviation Museum (001 503 434 4180; www.sprucegoose.org; open daily; $11.50/£5.80) in McMinnville is now home to Howard "The Aviator" Hughes' Spruce Goose, the largest wooden plane ever built.

ANYTHING IN THE EASTERN AREAS?

The coastal and Cascade mountains tend to act as a rain-break, with most of the state's prodigious downpours falling on the western side of the ranges. Consequently, much of eastern Oregon is high desert and arid ranchland covered in sagebrush. But there are some wonderful forest-clad mountain ranges such as the Wallowas.

The High Desert Museum (001 541 382 4754, www.highdesert-museum.org; open daily; adults $11/£5.80) in Bend might be more a zoo than a museum, but it provides a good background into the vast and little-known high desert that stretches from the Cascades eastward to the Rocky Mountains.

Whether or not you're interested in fossils or geology, the three areas that make up the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument (001 541 987 2333; www.nps.gov/joda; open daily; admission free) are worth seeing for their bizarre and beautiful natural formations.

On the state's north-eastern border, Hell's Canyon is one of the deepest river gorges in the world. Two amazing - but very remote - sights are Steens Mountain (001 541573 4400, www.or.blm.gov/steens), 60 miles south of Burns, where you feel like you're standing on the edge of the world, and the Owyhee Canyon (south of Jordan Valley, which has a rich Basque heritage). Note that both of these sights necessitate driving 80 to 100 miles on dirt roads.

WHAT ABOUT OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES?

You can ski, year-round, at Mount Hood (001 503 337 2222; www.skihood.com), at 11,240 feet Oregon's highest mountain and an easy drive from Portland. The mountain also offers great hiking. Stay at Timberline Lodge (001 503 622 7979; www.timberlinelodge.com; doubles from $80/£42). Built during the Great Depression, this stately mountain lodge has a grand stone fireplace, exposed beams and wide plank floors. There are 70 rooms, 10 of which are dormitory-style with bunk beds. However, Mount Bachelor (001 800 829 2442, www.mtbachelor.com) is considered the state's premier ski area, with ski slopes dropping off the very summit of an extinct volcano.

Climbers flock to Smith Rock State Park, near Redmond. Even if you don't want to scale the heights there are some good hiking trails. Meanwhile, the winds that rage through the Columbia Gorge have meant that Hood River town vies with Maui in Hawaii for the title of Top US Windsurfing Location.

Still on a watery theme, Oregon offers numerous excellent white-water-rafting rivers, best known of which is the Rogue. Try, for example, Destination Wilderness (001 541 549 1336, www.wildernesstrips.com), which offers one-day excursions on the Rogue for $95 (£50).

HOW ABOUT SOME HISTORY?

In 1803-4, what became known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition was dispatched by President Thomas Jefferson to study and explore the unknown North-west. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set off from St Louis, Missouri, with 38 others. Travelling by foot and canoe through totally uncharted territory, the team crossed the Rocky Mountains and eventually reached the Columbia River, which led them to the Pacific coast. What was left of the group spent a long, wet, cold, sickness-ridden winter, based about eight miles south of present-day Astoria. In the spring, they turned for home, arriving in St Louis in September 1806.

What is probably the greatest migration in US history took place in the 1840s and '50s when more than 50,000 new settlers, attracted by the promise of free land-ownership, arrived in Oregon on the trail from Missouri. Learn about it at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center (001 541 523 1845; oregontrail.blm.gov; open daily; adults $5/£2.64) in Baker City. The Geiser Grand Hotel nearby (001 541 523 1889; www.geisergrand.com; doubles from $89/£47), which originally opened in 1889, is a good place to stay.

By the end of the 19th century, virtually the entire Native American population had been forcibly moved from their homelands and herded to reservations. For more on their history, visit the Favell Museum of Western Art and Indian Artifacts (001 541 882 9996, open 9.30am-5.30pm Monday-Saturday, adults $5/£2.64) in Klamath Falls, or, northwest of Madras the Museum at Warm Springs (001 541 553 1161, www.warmsprings.com; closed Mondays/Tuesdays in winter; adults $6/£3.15).

WHEN ARE THE BEST TIMES TO VISIT?

The mountains stay snow-covered for much of the year but unless you're going for the winter sports, the most popular months to visit are late-June to September. Coastal temperatures stay relatively mild year-round but make sure you've got rain gear with you, particularly outside the summer months. Even when the rain stops there can be dense coastal fog.

HOW CAN I GET AROUND?

Renting a car or motorhome is an ideal way to tour the state: this is superb driving country. Traffic is generally light and roads are good, scenic and often empty. Package deals to the area can be good value. US luxury coach operator Tauck ( www.tauck.com) offers an eight-day Oregon Explorer tour starting and ending in Portland from £1,195 per person through Bon Voyage (0800 316 3012), who can also arrange flights. Air travel from London is inclusive in the £1,329 cost of a Complete North America (0115 950 4555; www.complete-northamerica.com) 14-night trip to the Pacific Northwest, taking in Seattle as well as Cascade Range and Hells Canyon. The cost includes car rental and accommodation.

WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?

Contact Travel Oregon on 001 800 547 7842; www.traveloregon.com.

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