Hiking & Backpacking in Oregon

Whether you are a white-knuckle scrambler in fighting trim or an avid, observant stroller who won’t leave home without binoculars, spectacular views awaits you in Oregon, home to hundreds of trails with dozens of hiking books dedicated to them. In the span of one trip, you can follow cliff tops overlooking the Pacific Ocean and then descend through forests to the sand beach below; calculate every footfall on mountainsides in the Cascade Range; scramble hand-over-foot on wild trails up steep slopes and over running water in the Columbia River Gorge; or just meander along a wooded urban trail long enough to make way for a calorific first-class meal, rich with fresh ingredients from the Willamette Valley.

The Columbia River Gorge’s Rock of Ages Loop is a rewarding place to start if you’re willing to bushwhack a little and sweat for thrilling views that may include volcanic activity from the gorge’s disruptive neighbor, Mt. St. Helens. The hike starts at the Horsetail Falls, a popular tourist spot, but from there the 10-mile (16km) loop gets much more challenging, on overgrown trails shooting 900 feet (270m) uphill within the course of a mile; across a creek on slippery rocks; and through a tangled network of poison oak. Carrying a backpack makes it all the more difficult. Notable landmarks include the manmade-looking Rock of Ages Arch, accessible via a steep spur trail from the main path (snap a photo on your cellphone, so you can send an “I was here” photo to your friends). The apex of this trail—the ridge known as the Devil’s Backbone—affords spectacular views down into the Gorge. On a clear day you might even spot the notorious cone of Mt. St. Helens.

The Central Cascade Range near Bend is home to many more moderate hikes along the Corral Swamp Trail. You can hike trips of varied length, including a nice easy walk of approximately 4 miles (6.5km) through old growth, with an elevation gain of less than 500 feet (150m). It’s not heavily traveled by humans, though wildlife is common along the path. You will traverse the Three Sisters Wilderness Area on this trail, but a permit is required, available for purchase from the Forest Service in Bend, Oregon. (I prefer to make this hike in the fall. The mosquito may be the “state bird” of Alaska, but it has lots of cousins here early in the season.)

In the Oregon Dunes National Recreation area, marching lines of waves crash against the shore, and dunes, sculpted by wind and water, rise almost 500 feet (150m) above the Pacific Ocean. In this amazing landscape, more than a dozen designated hiking trails encompass evergreen forests, open dunes, wetlands, and ocean beach, providing an entertaining variety and good photo opportunities.
Many of the trails are designated moderate to difficult.

Oregon Peak Adventures offers halfday hikes in Portland’s Forest Park to fullday trips to the Central Oregon Coast, the Columbia River Gorge, and other locations. Trips include door-to-door transportation and experienced guides. The company also offers several yearly backpacking trips.

Portland makes a good base for day hikers who want to retreat to the city after all that nature. Stroll through Portland’s Arboretum, or the Japanese and Rose gardens. Browse the art galleries and the boutiques in the thriving Pearl District. Wander through the arts and crafts section in the Saturday market in the Old Town historic district. And replenish all those calories you burned in one of Portland’s many inventive restaurants, stocked with food and wine from the bounty of the Willamette Valley about 45 miles (73km) away.