Natural Wonders

Take a fall road trip around Oregon for foliage, mountain views and more

Forget summer – fall is road trip season in Pacific Northwest.

With roads open, crowds sparse and the landscape changing color for the season, early autumn is a perfect time to explore the natural beauty of Oregon.

Whether you’re traversing scenic byways from the comfort of your car, or getting out and exploring the many trails and attractions around the region, the fall road trip is an alluring opportunity to explore without the crush of summer crowds – a more tempting option this year, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage the country.

And while you can still expect to see some crowds (especially on beautiful weekends), there is a very real drop-off once summer turns to fall.

Crater Lake National Park, for example, sees its monthly visitor counts plummet come October. Last year, the park saw 61,613 people in October – far higher than usual for that month, yet much less than the 222,638 who showed up that August. The same story can be seen at state parks on the Oregon coast and busy trails in the Cascade Mountains.

Part of the exodus of crowds from natural places is the inevitable turn in the weather. Snows typically arrive at higher elevations by the start of fall, and some mountain passes close by the end of October. That means the window of opportunity — when crowds have left, but snows have yet to arrive — can be small.

However, those who are dedicated to fall road tripping (and who don’t mind a little inclement weather) will find a long season of opportunity. Hit the road and you can find resplendent fall color, quaint covered bridges, amazing natural attractions and some of the most scenic drives anywhere.

Here are 10 fall road trip ideas to get you started.

A mountain over a forested lake

A view of South Sister from Elk Lake, Cascade Lakes Highway, west of Bend.Terry Richard/The Oregonian


Running past several stunning lakes in the central Cascade Mountains west of Bend, the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway is known not only for the scenery it provides, but the sheer number of adventures found along the way. Those who want to get out of the car can find hiking opportunities in the Three Sisters Wilderness and along the Pacific Crest Trail, with skiing on Mount Bachelor at the end of the season. Many lakeside resorts close down for the fall, but with lodging in nearby Bend and along Willamette Pass, there’s no shortage of places to stay.

Must-see places: Sparks Lake, Three Sisters Wilderness, Bend

Crack in the Ground

Crack in the Ground is an ancient volcanic fissure near Christmas Valley in the high desert of central Oregon. An easy hiking trail leads through the fissure that measures more than two miles long and up to 70 feet deep.


Perhaps one of the least-visited regions in Oregon, Christmas Valley is a remote destination that is teeming with under-the-radar natural attractions. Located roughly between Bend and Burns, south of U.S. 20, the high desert valley is home to several volcanic wonders, including Fort Rock, Crack-in-the-Ground and Glass Buttes. Getting to these spots requires a lot of time on long gravel roads, so bring a map and plenty of patience, and get ready to settle into the desert landscape.

Must-see places: Fort Rock, Crack-in-the-Ground, Christmas Valley Sand Dunes

Fall color and a cliffside observatory in a deep river gorge

The Columbia River Gorge during Fall 2019. Photo taken from Chanticleer Point, also known as Portland Women’s Forum, Oct. 23, 2019, in Corbett, Oregon.Mark Graves/The Oregonian


Is there a more scenic road trip in Oregon than the drive up and down the Columbia River Gorge? Conveniently located near Portland, and short enough to complete in one day (though why not stay a night or two someplace beautiful?) the Columbia Gorge is best experienced by driving along both sides of the river, making a scenic loop along Interstate 84 and Washington State Route 14. With parks, viewpoints, hiking trails and waterfalls on either side of the river, there’s a whole lot to enjoy.

NOTE: The Dalles Bridge will be closed 8 p.m. Thursdays through 6 a.m. Mondays until Memorial Day 2022.

Must-see places: Oregon’s “waterfall corridor,” Hood River, Cape Horn Lookout

A white covered bridge on the edge of a lake

The Lowell Covered Bridge is one of many covered bridges found in Lane County.Terry Richard/The Oregonian


Oregon has a whopping 54 covered bridges around the state, and while they’re scattered all around the Willamette Valley and Coast Range, there’s a particularly dense concentration of bridges found in Lane County. Head southeast of Eugene to find most of the bridges, clustered around the town of Cottage Grove and along Oregon 58. Finding all the bridges requires navigating many of the smaller back roads just outside the valley – a worthy scavenger hunt for fall.

Must-see places: Goodpasture Covered Bridge, Mount Pisgah Arboretum, Eugene

Crater Lake Sept. 13, 2018

Wizard Island, seen from the Watchman Overlook. Views from Rim Drive in Crater Lake National Park. Jamie Hale/The OregonianJamie Hale/The Oregonian


Undoubtedly one of the greatest natural wonders in Oregon, Crater Lake is a must-visit destination for all tourists and locals alike. But situated more than 4 hours from Portland, it’s definitely a haul to get out there. To make the drive worth it, plan on spending at least a night or two at or near Crater Lake, and consider stopping off at some other places along the way. Those traveling on Oregon 58 can find hot springs, lakes and great viewpoints of Cascade peaks between Eugene and the national park.

Lodging at Crater Lake closes Oct. 10, and Rim Drive usually closes by the end of October. Rim Village is accessible year-round, as long as the roads are plowed.

Must-see places: Cleetwood Cove, The Watchman viewpoint, Rim Village

John Day Fossil Beds

A cloudy sky casts gray light on the colorful Painted Hills, in the John Day Fossil Beds of central Oregon.Jamie Hale/The Oregonian


The 286-mile Journey Through Time Scenic Byway runs from Biggs Junction to Baker City, and passes by some of Oregon’s best high-desert attractions on the way. The highlight of the drive is the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, where visitors can learn about the prehistoric past of eastern Oregon. The byway also offers the opportunity to break off for a couple of scenic state parks: the Cottonwood Canyon and Deschutes River state recreation areas, found near the western terminus of the route.

Must-see places: Painted Hills, Thomas Condon Paleontology Visitor Center, Baker City

The Dee Wright Observatory.

Scenes at McKenzie Pass, the 5,325-fort high pass on Oregon 242 through the central Oregon lava fields that is open for travel usually June to October.LC- Terry Richard/The Oregonian


McKenzie Pass typically closes in late October to November, so if you’re going to visit make sure you do it in the first part of fall. The scenic highway connects the town of Sisters with Oregon 126 east of Eugene, and is home to the famous Dee Wright Observatory and trailheads for the Mount Washington and Three Sisters wilderness areas. The drive alone offers spectacular mountain views, as well as the fields of black lava rock that the mountain pass is known for.

Must-see places: Dee Wright Observatory, Sisters, Mount Washington Wilderness

Crissey Field

The beach at Crissey Field State Recreation Site on the southern Oregon coast crosses state lines and turns into California’s Pelican State Beach, both popular places to soak up the sun.Jamie Hale/The Oregonian


If you want to chase those summer feelings, your best bet is to drive the south Oregon coast, where temperatures tend to skew a little warmer, and where a sunny day can illuminate some spectacular ocean views. The south coast technically runs from Reedsport to Brookings, but you might as well continue across the California border to visit Crescent City and the Redwood National and State Parks while you’re down there.

Must-see places: Bandon, Samuel H. Boardman Corridor, Harris Beach

Steens Mountain fall

Fall foliage and snow converge in early October on Steens Mountain, a fault-block mountain in the far southeastern corner of Oregon.Jamie Hale/The Oregonian


A remote southeast Oregon destination, Steens Mountain is one of the best places to see fall color in the Pacific Northwest, with deep canyons that are full of aspen trees. Because it’s such a far drive from the Portland area, it’s wise to pair a trip to Steens with some other nearby attractions, like the Alvord Desert, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge or Crane Hot Springs. Make sure to get there before too much snow falls, and be prepared for long stretches of gravel road.

Must-see places: Kiger Gorge Overlook, Alvord Desert, Crane Hot Springs

Wallowa Mountains in fall

Sacajawea Peak rises above the trees along Hurricane Creek. Scenes from the trail along Hurricane Creek in the Eagle Cape Wilderness of the Wallowa Mountains.Jamie Hale/The Oregonian


A road trip to Northeast Oregon and Southeast Washington is ripe for adventure, between the spectacular Wallowa Mountains outside the tourist town of Joseph, the incredible vistas above Hells Canyon and the great food and wine scene in Walla Walla. While it’s a long trip out there from the Portland area, the towns of Joseph and Walla Walla are only two hours apart, making them a perfect pairing if you have some time to spend in the region.

Must-see places: Wallowa Lake, Joseph, Walla Walla wineries

–Jamie Hale;; 503-294-4077; @HaleJamesB

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