When you think of Oregon, what comes to mind? Hipster Portland? The birthplace of Nike? A hunk of land above California and below Washington State?
When I visit, what stands out is the diversity of its landscape. A journey that begins in snow-enveloped mountains might give way to desert and 42 miles of sand dunes. Winding roads snake across the state from the crashing waves of the Pacific to the calm of the deepest body of water in the US, Crater Lake. Then there’s the fauna along the way – and lots and lots of trees.
I arrive in May. The weather is perfect (warmer than usual, in fact), making the countryside sing. The land is a deep green – and vast, with a climate that has allowed part of the state to flourish as wine-growing country.
My first stop is Sokol Blosser, one of the many independent wineries in the region. Its main variety is Pinot Noir – for which Oregon is increasingly recognised – grown on vines that were planted in the Dundee Hills in 1971. Run by second-generation Sokol winemakers, the vineyard was founded with an intention to be “good to the earth.” The result is wine that tastes good, too.
From the winery, I pick up Highway 101 – best known for its iconic stint through Coastal California – and head for the Cape Perpetua Scenic Area, making a stop at Yachats, a small coastal city that’s full of galleries and quaint shops. Pronounced Ya-hots, the city’s name comes from the indigenous Siletz language meaning “dark water at the foot of the mountain”. The coastline feels never-ending, and the rocks and caves dotted along it remind me of Cornwall.
The road sits high above the sea, and I spot the two dramatic blowholes of Devils Churn and Spouting Horn below. From the Cape Perpetua Scenic Area Visitor Centre, miles of walking trails snake through the forests of Douglas fir and Sitka spruce leading to the 800ft summit.
The route is punctuated with nine lighthouses, the most impressive, Heceta Head Lighthouse which has been steering ships from danger from its 1,000ft perch since 1894.
Nearby, Darlingtonia State Natural Site is the only state park dedicated to the protection of a single plant species – the Darlingtonia Californica. This carnivorous, peculiarly shaped plant inhabits an 18-acre park with a boardwalk trail that weaves around the flesh-eaters. I’m grateful I’m not a fly.
Between here and the city of Coos Bay, around 50 miles south, the landscape takes another turn. The volcanic Cascade mountain range comes into view. With Pacific beaches and the 42 windswept miles of Oregon Dunes – the longest such expanse in North America – to one side and peaks on the other, I have travelled from Cornwall to the Scottish Highlands.
I weave through pine-cloaked folds inland to Ashland, a lovely, artsy town that’s home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival repertory theatre, currently showing Rent alongside Romeo and Juliet.
The ever-changing landscape plateaus into grasslands, bringing the Cascades into sharper focus. Lakes, rivers, and bridges come and go along the way.
From the old-fashioned luxury of the Ashland Springs Hotel, I set off for the big beast of Oregon – Crater Lake. This is one of the snowiest places in the US, but this winter delivered even heavier than usual snowfall and it’s still on the ground as I approach on the sinuous, pine-hugged road upwards.
The crater, born out of a volcanic explosion 7,700 years ago, is fed only by snow and rain, meaning its deep blue water is remarkably clear and clean. According to the legend of indigenous Makalak and their Klamath Indian descendants, the lake was created by a war between Llao – chief of the below world – and Skell – chief of the above world. Today, some Indigenous or First Nation Americans choose not to look directly at this sacred lake, and I sense its significance. Completely still and of the deepest blue, the sky and towering mountains are so perfectly reflected that it’s hard to gauge where land ends and water begins.
On to Bend, where the landscape becomes more arid. Following the meadering of the Deschutes River, I pass the lava landscape of Newberry National Volcanic Monument. The 1,200 square mile volcano remains very much active today.
In the city, dinner at Zydeco Kitchen is moments from the river where I enjoy possibly one of the best dishes I have had in my life – barbecue shrimp with southern grit cake.
In Smith Rock State Park, the forested landscape I’ve become so used to seeing, shifts to Oregon’s High Desert. Sheer cliffs soar skywards along the Crooked River Canyon. The immense scale is staggering. It could be too much sun, but as I look at this masterpiece of nature, I swear there are faces looking right back at me.
Epic volcanoes conclude my journey, on the border with Washington State. Here, the Mount Hood Railroad has refurbished historic train carriages that slip through the Columbia River Gorge, complete with conductors on board. I opt for the visceral thrill of a tandem railbike for a five-mile ride along the tracks (luckily, the pedal-assisted bikes are motorised). The journey is an incredible experience between pine trees and the Hood River, with volcanoes Mount Hood and Washington either side. It rounds off an astounding journey that has packed in geology, history and culture at every turn.
Hampton Court Palace Flower Show (4-9 July) will host an “America’s Wild” garden, recreating the great American outdoors, rhs.org.uk
How to get there
British Airways flies direct to Portland from Heathrow. Trailfinders offers an 11-night stay in Oregon from £2,169pp with flights, nine days’ car hire, hotel accommodation and a Portland City Tour, trailfinders.com
First Nature offers tours and activities around Oregon, firstnaturetours.com
Where to stay
Canopy by Hilton
Bay Point Landing
Ashland Springs Hotel
Oxford Hotel Hampton Inn and Suites
Where to eat
Restaurant O Peerless
Ferment Brewing Company
What to see
Crater Lake National Park
Smith Rock State Park
Mount Hood Railroad