The United States is a big country, spanning an incredible diversity of ecologies and biomes, from evergreen forests to grassy plains to snow-covered mountains to barren deserts. Visiting all these regions can take a long time and a lot of resources and all of them, surprisingly, can be seen in just one place: Oregon.
Oregon is the jewel of the Pacific Northwest, from its jagged coastline to its frozen peaks, but it’s also home to canyons, deserts, and a bucolic countryside. For photographers, Oregon holds a little bit of everything to suit any style or discipline. The hardest part is knowing where to start, so let’s take a short look at the natural and visual wonders the state has to offer.
Oregon Coast Photography
The Oregon coastline is among the most rugged and picturesque to be found throughout the entirety of the West Coast. Here, the irresistible might of the Pacific has carved away at the basalt bluffs of ancient lava flows, slowly moving the tideline inland over millions of years. Left behind are an array of crooked towers and massive islands—“sea stacks” like Haystack Rock which jut from the sand and surf, crowned with coastal scrub and warped cypress like sculptures in a Japanese garden. In the dark sands which border the roaring waves, colorful round stones and the famous Oregon agates can be found below the guiding glow of the state’s many beautiful lighthouses, adding a touch of delicacy to this raw borderland.
Oregon Sand Dunes
South of Newport and Waldport, just inland from the sculpted coast is the Oregon Sand Dunes National Recreation Area. Here, unique wind and tidal patterns have conspired to bring huge quantities of sand inland, dropping it among the pines and firs in mountains up to 500 feet high. The resulting landscape is surreal and offers unique artistic and recreational opportunities. In some places, of course, the dunes also take on a more classically desert-like image, forming vast undulating barrens between forest and sea.
The Forests of Oregon State
Also bordering the coast, and spreading into the valleys, up the slopes of the mountain ranges, and across the Columbia Plateau in the north are vast wild forests which make up nearly 50% of the state. Oregon has twelve national forests: Deschutes, Fremont-Winema, Klamath, Malheur, Mt. Hood, Ochoco, Rogue River-Siskiyou, Siuslaw, Umatilla, Umpqua, Wallowa-Whitman, and Willamette. Each is a haven for wildlife, old growth timber, and wildflowers and home to rivers, lakes, mountains, and stunning scenery of all types. Endless trails and OHV paths crisscross these wildernesses, offering intimate access to environments whose personality changes with each passing season.
Oregon Rivers | From the Columbia To The Sea
The two greatest rivers in Oregon are the Columbia and the Snake. The Columbia begins in Canada and gains tributaries and precipitation as it moves south until, by the time it reaches the Columbia Plateau, it measures half a mile across and carves a deep and picturesque canyon along the whole border between Oregon and Washington. The Snake begins in Wyoming, at nearly the same spot where Ansel Adams captured his famous image of the Grand Tetons. Surging through the prairies of eastern Oregon, it detours back into Washington before finally joining back up with the Columbia on its way to the sea.
Oregon State Waterfalls
Any state with great rivers is bound to have waterfalls, and Oregon is popular for its wide variety of majestic cascades. Some, like the Multnomah Falls on the Columbia, Watson Falls in Umpqua National Forest, or Tumalo Falls near Bend are known for their size, allowing visitors to witness tonnes of water plummeting through empty air to the rapids below. Others, like Punch Bowl Falls (Columbia River) and Proxy Falls (Willamette National Forest) offer a greater sense of mystique and fantasy, trickling over emerald beds of moss or bubbling down into secret crystalline pools.
To complete the trifecta of aquatic scenery, Oregon is also known for its many lakes. Detroit Lake’s 3500 acres offer ample opportunities for water sports and hiking while Timothy Lake boasts fantastic views of the slopes and glaciers of Mount Hood. Oregon is also, of course, home to the king of all lakes. 7,700 years ago, Mount Mazama obliterated itself in an incredible eruption, creating a deep caldera that gradually filled with rainwater to become Crater Lake. Crater Lake is now a national park and home to spectacular vistas and the clearest water on Earth. Visitors can travel the length of the crater’s rim or travel by boat out to Wizard Island, the micro-volcano in the lake’s center.
The Cascades | Mountains of Oregon
The western half of Oregon is broken by two great mountain ranges: the Oregon Coast Range and the Cascades. The former belongs to the family of subalpine mountain ridges which run all along the West Coast and, like its relatives, is marked by a wetter climate and lush evergreen forests. Oregon is also one of the few places where the native ranges of the coast redwood and western red cedar overlap, resulting in huge swaths of old growth timber. The Cascades, on the other hand, are true glacial peaks and home to famous summits like Mount Hood, Mount Jefferson, and the Three Sisters. Climbers, hikers, skiers, photographers, and more all flock to the Cascades for their challenging landscapes and unrivaled alpine and glacial scenery.
Willamette Valley Oregon
In between the two main ranges in Oregon and spread along the various river valleys of the state are peaceful valleys with warm summers and foggy winters. Here, small towns, drowsy farms, and scenic country roads offer a more relaxed and social side to Oregon’s natural beauty. The Willamette Valley, especially, is a must-see for its rolling hills of vineyards and fruit trees that change to gold each fall. Portland, Eugene, and Salem also all fall within this region, so it’s a great base-camp or jumping-off point for any more serious adventure into the surrounding backcountry.
Volcanic Landscapes of Oregon
On the eastern side of the Cascades, the landscape gradually becomes flatter and more barren. This doesn’t mean there is less to see here, however, as eastern Oregon is actually one giant geological showroom for the volcanic processes which helped form the entire West Coast. Grasslands are covered with jet-black boulders, and spine-like ridges mark the path of ancient volcanic mudflows. The best place to get a taste of the region’s geologic history is to visit the obsidian fields near Bend. Here, visitors can walk across and between huge piles of the glassy black rock that seem to burst out of the surrounding scrub forest.
As touched upon above, Oregon is also known for its canyons. Most famous among these is the Columbia River Gorge, stretching inland from the meeting place between Washington, Oregon, and Pacific. Beautiful forests, majestic cliffs, fragrant orchards, and quaint towns all surround the mighty Columbia, making it a great destination for photographers and tourists alike. Lesser known but just as grand are the Owyhee Canyonlands, bordering another of Oregon’s great rivers. A much drier and desert-like landscape, the Owyhee Canyonlands are a maze of sage and stone with opportunities for climbers, hikers, photographers, and anyone with an ATV.
Even with all the regions described above, this list covers only a fraction of the destinations, biomes, and beauty Oregon has to offer. Wherever and whenever you go, you’re bound to be inspired and have a memorable experience that will draw you back again and again for years to come.