Oregon: A Geographic Kaleidoscope

When I was a child growing up in Illinois, my imagination of Oregon was limited to the “Oregon Trail” computer game we played in school. It was a far-away, desolate land marred by a never-ending dirt trail littered with sun-bleached ox skulls. Who would want to brave treacherous river crossings and cholera to go there?

It wasn’t until years later that I discovered that the Oregon Trail ends in a nature lover’s paradise – a geographic kaleidoscope.

The Cascade Mountains split Oregon in two, creating distinctive regions in the east and west.

Eastern Oregon is a high desert, experiencing extreme temperatures, little precipitation, and sparse vegetation. It is home to impressive fossil beds and the Painted Hills:  hills that have thick bands of orange, red, and brown which come to life just before sunset. Smith Rock, a river canyon with large red-orange rock walls, is a famous destination for rock climbers.

Where eastern Oregon is dry and brown, western Oregon is lush and green. For about eight months, western Oregon is blanketed by gray clouds, frequent fog, and sprinkled with a delicate drizzle. It rarely gets cold enough for snow in the wintertime. All that rain and relative warmth mean that the grass grows quickly in the winter and needs to be cut frequently.

Summertime is the dry season in western Oregon, with pure blue skies rarely hosting a single cloud. As the season progresses, the grass begins to dry out, dust is common, and the chance of forest fires increases. In the past, summer temperatures were mild, so few homes had A/C units. Now with climate change, summers are becoming more intense, so each year there is a scramble to get A/C units and fans when the temperature reaches 90 degrees and stays there for a while.

No matter the time of year, Portlanders go to Washington Park for hiking. This popular urban park in Portland’s western hills is home to forest trails where people can spot Douglas Fir and Vine Maple trees. The winter is uniquely beautiful, with tree branches draped with bright green moss glistening with moisture. Emerging from the fog, giant fern fronds rise up from the forest floor.

When I hiked in winter, I would get the feeling that I was no longer in the 21st century but back in the Jurassic period, sharing the forest and ferns with the dinosaurs. The vibrant green of the forest, along with time-traveling fantasies, are the reward for having countless damp and cloudy days.

Besides its trails, Washington Park is home to the International Rose Test Garden. June is the perfect time to visit as the roses are in full bloom. Some roses are small and delicate, while others are as big as a child’s head! Most of the roses have a light fragrance, but if you pay close attention, you will be able to find some that are richer and more powerful than any perfume. Each year Portland celebrates this flower at the joyful Rose Festival with music, parades, a Rose Court and more. Unsurprisingly, Portland is known as the City of Roses, with roses not only flourishing in gardens but also alongside the expressway.

Not far from Washington Park and the Rose Garden is Pittock Mansion. This Mansion was built in the early 1900’s as a private residence, but it is now an historic site open to the public. In addition to learning about the Pittock family, visitors can discover the history of Portland. Located on a great hill, this destination offers a spectacular view of Portland. On clear days, you can see not only the snow-capped peak of Mt. Hood, but also the peak of Mt. St. Helens in Washington.

When Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1980, its ash traveled into Oregon as far as Salem, which is over two hours to the south. I know a few Oregonians who lived through the eruption and have kept a little ash that fell by their homes on that day as a reminder of the power of nature. These lands are still shifting and changing with a power greater than we can imagine.

Separating Washington from Oregon is the Columbia River, one of the largest rivers in North America. When I moved to Oregon in 2012, I drove out there with my dad. I vividly remember driving along the Columbia River’s curves and seeing the dark blue waters glistening in the summer sun. The river was wider than I thought possible. I felt small and humbled by the river’s expansiveness and the towering hills that rolled on, one after another, for miles.

The Columbia Gorge nestles the river where it cuts through the Cascade Mountains. This gorge is a famous scenic area known for its steep cliffs, thick forests, abundant wildflowers, and a high concentration of waterfalls.

The historic Columbia River Highway is carved into the gorge’s twists and turns, offering easy access to at least five impressive waterfalls. Multnomah Falls is the highest waterfall in Oregon and attracts over a million visitors each year. In late winter and early spring the falls are at their peak. Wearing a raincoat or having spare clothes handy is recommended if you get cold easily, as the spray can get visitors wet easily in the viewing area.

While Multnomah Falls receives most of the attention, I love visiting some of the smaller falls that have fewer crowds and require a little more hiking to access. I like sitting by smaller waterfalls and letting the sound of the water drown out everything around me and wash away my thoughts, too.

In 2017, the Eagle Creek Fire, started by reckless fireworks usage during a fire ban, burned down thousands of acres of forest in the gorge. As a result, access to some sections of the historic highway and waterfalls was restricted. Oregonians were deeply saddened by the damage. It will take decades for the trees to grow back.

The Columbia River empties into the Pacific Ocean. Oregon’s coast is rugged and beautiful. There are stretches of jagged cliff, swaths of smooth sand, and areas with golden dunes.

Even in the summertime, the waters are too chilly for the average swimmer, but not cold enough to deter small kids and surfers in wetsuits. There are plenty of cute coastal towns that have fun candy shops, tasty restaurants and boutique shops selling pieces of local artwork.

There is so much to explore in Oregon that once your trip winds down, you’ll be planning your next trip there before you even leave.

[As it happens, you have an almost immediate opportunity to visit Oregon with OLLI’s June 6 through 11 trip there.  For details, contact Pat Dodge at dodgej821@bellsouth.net.  Or check Page 41 of the current OLLI Course Catalog.   Payment deadline is March 23.–Editor]

Amy Smetana is a regular traveler. In 2018 she was fortunate to visit eight states and nine countries with friends and family. Amy lived in Oregon for six years where she developed a school-based mentor program and supported youth experiencing homelessness. She currently resides in Illinois and is planning to return abroad to develop her foreign language skills.  Amy is the niece of OLLI member and OLLI Connects volunteer, Diane Russell.


2 Replies to “Oregon: A Geographic Kaleidoscope”

  1. Thanks for sharing your tips on Oregon’s special places, Amy. You can tell that it remains a special location for you.

  2. Hello,
    I noticed that you mentioned Washington Park in the southwest hills of Portland. It is actually Forest Park you are referring to.

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