It is with some shame that I admit that it took me 10 years of traveling the rest of the world to realize how special my home state of Oregon truly was. Although it was a travel lesson well learned!
With endless waterfalls and mountain ranges, savagely beautiful coastline, volcanic remnants, and countless one-of-a-kind geographic marvels, the hardest thing about making a list of the best (natural) places to visit in Oregon was deciding which places would NOT be on it!
The entire state could seemingly be considered a National Park. With international travel looking near-impossible for the foreseeable future, it might be time to consider a staycation exploring Oregon’s inspired natural beauty.
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Best Places to Visit in Oregon
Realistically, this list could be a LOT longer. There are so many spectacular places to visit in Oregon that the list could be endless. However, I’ve tried to be decisive and have included what I consider to be the top 15 natural wonders of Oregon, all of which are deserving of a place on your Pacific North West itinerary.
I’m sure everyone’s list would differ slightly, so leave me a comment and let me know if you think I’ve missed somewhere or what you’d include on your list!
15. Table Rock
Photography Destinations: Kirtland Road Pear Orchards
Perhaps it is with some Southern Oregon bias that Table Rock has made its way to the 15th spot on our list of the best natural places to visit in Oregon. After all, I have driven by this eye-popping feature more times than I can count growing up in the Rogue Valley.
Then again, as I scroll through the images above, my confidence is restored in the integrity of this ranking. The volcanic plateaus known as Upper and Lower Table Rock are a beautiful place to hike, picnic, or just marvel at from afar.
14. Florence Sand Dunes
Photography Destinations: Jessie M Honeyman State Park
The Oregon Sand Dunes of Florence are one of the most popular places to visit in Oregon for motor-enthusiasts looking for a weekend adventure.
While most of the Oregon coast is famously rocky, the coastline along this stretch is filled with hills of silky white sands and sparse vegetation. There are many access points for those looking for adventure sporting, but fewer options for landscape photographers and family picnickers.
As a kid, one of my earliest memories of Oregon is laboring to climb up to the top of the dunes, only to descend with giant leaps into pillowy soft landings. To this day, it is the closest I have felt to being able to fly!
13. Mckenzie Pass
Photography Destinations: Proxy Falls, Tamolitch Blue Pools
The Mckenzie Pass is only open seasonally. However, it still sees its fair share of visitors when the snow has thawed and the sun is shining!
The most popular reason for visiting used to be the idyllic waterfalls for which Oregon is known. Sahalie and Koosah Falls, being the most accessible and extremely impressive, perhaps saw the most tourists, while the magnificent Proxy Falls was a favorite destination for landscape photographers.
That all changed some years ago when a viral video surfaced bringing the often-neglected Tamolitch Blue Pools to the public eye. Since that time, this small but impossibly-blue forest oasis has become one of the most popular places to visit in Oregon.
12. Mt Mcloughlin
Photography Destinations: Willow Lake, Fish Lake
This may once again be a Southern Oregon bias, but I boast confidence in the decision to honor Mt Mcloughlin, formerly Mt Pitt, in the 12th spot.
While far from the tallest mountain peak in Oregon, what makes Mt Mcloughlin so marvelous is its isolation. The first time most people will experience its grandeur is on an otherwise inauspicious drive South on the I5 freeway. As you arrive at the top of Blackwell Hill, the view opens up and there you see the snow-capped peak looming majestically above the Rogue Valley.
There are a few trails available for visitors interested in summiting the mountain, but I personally prefer to photograph at it from the ground. If you are looking to explore the region, Willow Lake and Fish Lake are my favorite places to visit in Oregon for viewing Mt Mcloughlin.
Planning a trip through Southern Oregon? Find inspiration in our guide to:
Southern Oregon Photography Locations
11. Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway
Photography Destinations: Sparks Lake, Devils Lake, Todd Lake
Central Oregon is a legitimate treasure trove of natural beauty. Rather than trying to pick out individual places to visit, I opted to rank them by region.
One of the most popular vacation destinations in the state is Sunriver. Located at the base of Mt Bachelor, Sunriver is a maze of older homes that are rented out for visitors hoping to enjoy seasonal outdoor activities.
Sadly, so many of these travelers fail to realize the beauty they are missing off the slopes! The Cascade Lakes is either a scenic detour along Hwy 46, or a 61-mile loop beginning and ending in Sunriver.
Explore a myriad of pristine lakes with stunning mountainous backdrops along the drive. Of note, my runner-up prizes for “most beautiful” go to Todd Lake and Devils Lake.
If you are a nature or landscape photographer, the one place you must visit on the Cascade Lakes drive has to be Sparks Lake. As popular as it is for sunset and even night photography, I feel sunrise is by far the best time to visit. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Sparks Lake is the best place in Oregon to photograph sunrise!
10. Oregon High Desert
Photography Destinations: Three Sisters, Volcanic Legacy
Piggy-backing off the last selection, the Oregon High Desert region generally encompasses much of Central Oregon near Bend and Sisters. This is truly one of the most beautiful places to visit in Oregon for nature lovers, and somewhere I hope to one day call home.
Anyone who has ever been to Bend and explored the area has surely felt the jaw-dropping, nose-to-glass feeling as every twist in the road seems to reveal another snow-capped mountain or cinder cone or other visual wonders. This, and its world-renown beer scene (aka the Ale Trail), contribute to Bend being one of the fastest-growing and most expensive cities in the country. On top of that, Bend makes a great home base. You’ll find a range of accommodation in Bend and one of the best glamping spots in Oregon!
Come for a week or a lifetime, as no amount of time will ever be enough to truly appreciate everything the Oregon High Desert region has to offer in natural beauty.
9. Umpqua National Forest
Photography Destinations: Toketee Falls, Watson Falls
If you ask someone who has never been to Oregon what they would expect it to look like, they will unknowingly describe the Umpqua National Forest. Unspoilt wilderness, towering waterfalls, looming mountains, and endless rivers and streams abound.
I will touch on the absolute must-see places to visit in Oregon’s Umpqua National Forest here, but I highly recommend making this part of a road trip. To that end, we have created this guide to the Waterfalls in Southern Oregon. In it, you will find the perfect road trip route as well as all the highlights along the way.
Even if your visit won’t include time for much, the places every visitor should see include Toketee Falls, Watson Falls, and ideally, a visit to Toketee Hot Springs.
Planing a trip to Southern Oregon? Waterfall chasers will also appreciate our guide to Southern Oregon Waterfalls.
8. Alvord Desert
Photography Destinations: Salt Flats, Pillars of Rome
This is the only place on our list that I have not actually been to! The primary reason for this is that the Alvord Desert is located in the Southeast corner of the state, en route to pretty much nowhere. Accordingly, I had to borrow this image from Nick Wheatley of The Wandering Wheatleys.
That said, visiting the Alvord Desert is the number one priority on my list of places to visit in Oregon for that very reason! The sun-scorched, cracked earth of the salt flats and mud flats make for a dramatic foreground to the Steens Mountain range in the distance.
This has become a popular place for a variety of activities that make use of the wide-open space. Additionally, the absolute lack of major cities for hundreds of miles makes this one of the least light polluted areas you will find anywhere in the country.
7. Mt Hood
Photography Destinations: Lost Lake, Lawrence Lake
Mt Hood is to Northern Oregon as Mt Mcloughlin is to Southern Oregon. Both are large, lone volcanoes that rise up triumphantly to adorn distant vistas.
As the cities of Northern Oregon have a much higher population density than their Southern counterparts, Mt Hood sees a lot more visitors as a popular day trip from Portland.
It also happens to stand about 2000 feet taller than Mcloughlin at 11,250′ elevation. Couple the above factors with the longevity of its snow caps due to its Northern latitude and colder temperatures, and you’ll understand why it has out-ranked Mt Mcloughlin on the list of natural places to visit in Oregon.
While viewing Mt Hood from the city should definitely be on your Portland itinerary, I highly recommend taking a closer look! Night photographers love the astrophotography opportunities from Lost Lake, which is also a fantastic place to photograph sunrise.
Another less popular but equally photogenic option is Lawrence Lake.
Wondering what equipment you need for better photos? See our personal recommendations here: Best Camera Gear for Travel Photography
6. Smith Rock State Park
Photography Destinations: Misery Ridge, Canyon Rim
I would argue that Smith Rock is the best state park in the entire country. However, there are some people in Utah who may take issue with that.
Regardless of its ranking, the unique beauty of Smith Rock cannot be debated or overstated. In addition to being one of the most coveted places to visit in Oregon for landscape photographers, it is also one of the most popular in the US for rock climbers.
My favorite views are achieved via the Misery Ridge trail. This short but grueling hike delivers you to the top of the rock. From here, you can walk around to the far side and experience sweeping panoramic views of Monkey Face, Mesa Verde, and all sorts of distant mountains.
If hiking is not your thing, the views are also stunning directly from the parking area.
5. Columbia River Gorge
Photography Destinations: Multnomah Falls, Oneonta Gorge
Oregon has more waterfalls than any other state, and the Columbia River Gorge has a higher waterfall density than any other region… And Multnomah Falls is the king of them all!
Not only is Multnomah Falls the tallest waterfall in Oregon, but it is widely considered the most beautiful as well. It is certainly the most visited! Having visited most of Oregon’s accessible waterfalls personally, even I’ve acknowledged it with the #1 spot on our list of the Best Waterfalls in Oregon.
However, the Columbia River Gorge has a lot more to offer than this one iconic stop. Outdoor enthusiasts will delight in the variety of nature trails available for exploration. Unfortunately, some of the most popular hikes (including Oneonta Gorge) have been closed since the Eagle Creek fire torched much of the Gorge in 2018.
Want more waterfalls? You may also enjoy our guide to the Best Waterfalls in Oregon
4. Samuel H. Boardman Scenic Corridor
Photography Destinations: Secret Beach, Whaleshead Beach, Arch Rock Viewpoint
As we have already written two other guides that prominently feature Samuel H. Boardman Scenic Corridor, it is difficult for me to find new words to describe it.
So let’s just say this: not only is Samuel H. Boardman one of the absolute best places to visit in Oregon, but I contend that it is the most photogenic coastline in the entire world!
Sorry New Zealand, that’s just how I feel.
For more specific information regarding the where and when, you may find our guide to Southern Oregon Coast Photography Locations useful.
3. Cape Perpetua
Photography Destinations: Thor’s Well, Overlook
Wait a minute, didn’t I just say Samuel H. Boardman was the best place to visit in Oregon for coastal splendor? How then is Cape Perpetua ahead of it on our list of the best places to visit in Oregon?
So here is the thing; Samuel H. Boardman is a 10-mile stretch of secret trails and savage coastline, with something new to discover every visit. However, Cape Perpetua happens to be home to my absolute favorite seascape in the entire world in Thor’s Well.
Thor’s Well is a dangerous, hair-raising place to photograph, but the reward is unmatched. At first glance, you may think the Pacific Ocean sprung a leak! Be warned, however, that the danger to personal safety and especially your equipment is very real.
*If you wish to photograph this national treasure, please first consult and study this ultimate guide to Thor’s Well.*
But Cape Perpetua is more than this one incredible feature. There are a variety of intoxicating wilderness walks and other interesting coastal phenomenons such as Spouting Horn and Devil’s Churn to discover.
It also happens to be a spectacular place for stargazing and astrophotography!
2. Painted Hills of Oregon
Photography Destinations: John Day National Monument
The Badlands of South Dakota may get the distinction of being a National Park, but Oregon has its own claim to fame in the department of erosive beauty!
The Painted Hills unit of John Day National Monument is a remote region in Central Oregon that feels like another planet. Striped landscapes in all variety of color emote a sense of wonder and excitement.
Few places quite like the Painted Hills of Oregon exist anywhere in the world, which is what catapults it to the #2 spot on our list of Natural Places to visit in Oregon. From a photography perspective, the opportunities to come up with new compositions are limited only by your creativity.
Due to its extremely remote setting, the Painted Hills also live under some of the clearest and darkest skies in Oregon. Aspiring night photographers and casual stargazers alike will fall in love with the summer displays of celestial beauty here.
1. Crater Lake National Park
Photography Destinations: Visitor Center, Sun Notch, Phantom Ship, Watchman Overlook
In what is arguably the most beautiful state in the country, how can there be only one National Park? While this feels like a bit of a slight as a native Oregonian, I must admit that the one place they’ve honored with the distinction is more than worthy. Crater Lake is an absolute dream destination that should be on everyone’s travel bucket list.
The National Park Service was formed to preserve places of unspeakable natural beauty, and Crater Lake could be defined as exactly that. A world-changing volcanic eruption has left in its wake one of the deepest lakes in the world, and the bluest I’ve ever seen.
If there is only one place you absolutely need to visit in Oregon, that place is Crater Lake National Park.
We have a variety of guides for the Pacific North West that you may also find helpful:
- Top 15 Oregon Waterfalls
- Waterfalls in Southern Oregon
- Southern Oregon Coast Photography Locations
- Ultimate Guide to Visiting Thors Well
- Things to do on a Northern California Road Trip
- Guide to Shasta-Trinity National Forest
- Burney Falls Camping Guide
- Photographing Olympic National Park
Finally, feel free to browse our Oregon professional photography gallery for prints and inspiration 🙂
Final Thoughts on the Best Natural Places to Visit in Oregon
In a place gifted with such natural beauty as Oregon has been, there will always be room for debate on which places deserve a spot on the Top 15… and we welcome it! If there is anything we missed, please let us know what you would vote in and (what would be taken out) in the comments below.
As you may have noticed, there is a lot of love for Southern Oregon on here. As a Rogue Valley native, I have spent a lot of time exploring the area and think it is often overlooked by visitors.