Oregon is one of the most diverse states as far as variety of landscapes is concerned. Within an area of 400 sq. miles, one can find snow clad mountains, dense forests, vast deserts, beautiful beaches, sand dunes, lakes, fossil hills .... you name a landscape and you'll find it here. Its a state that is in true Pacific northwest spirits. If you're looking for options to spend a long weekend or so in summer, I would strongly recommend a trip to Oregon to experience the splendid north cascades.
When visiting Oregon, there are some places that *MUST BE* visited and just cannot be missed. These places are the Infinity Loop (Columbia River Gorge, Multnomah falls, Mount Hood), Painted hills, and Crater Lake. Then there are some other places that are also very beautiful but you *may* find similar or better spots than those elsewhere. Such spots include Canon beach, Japanese garden in Portland, the sand dunes near Florence etc. Depending on how much time you have, you may want to do some or all of these spots. Typically, even with a reasonably hectic schedule, it would take at least 3 days to do the 3 *MUST DO* spots I mentioned above. If you're willing to plan an extended trip of about 5 days then you may also be able to cover the rest.
Typically, to avoid taking a lot of vacation, I plan trips of mostly 3 days duration. Such trips can typically be done on one of the long weekends in the summer or by taking just 1 day of vacation adjoining a weekend. Because of this personal preference, I describe below a 3-day plan for an Oregon trip that can typically be followed over a summer weekend. Infinity Loop, Painted hills, and Crater lake are the places covered (in that order).
In short, the plan should be to reach Portland on day 1 and do the Infinity Loop. On day 2, drive to Painted Hills, spend most of the day there and reach a lodging place close to Crater Lake for that night. On day 3, drive to crater lake, spend most of the time there, and return to Portland by late evening. See the map below, starting from Portland. If you're driving to Oregon from an adjoining state such as Washington, you still have to go through Portland. And if you're flying to Portland, the map suits you perfect.
When's the best time to do this trip? I would say July is the best month to do this trip. Why July and not any other month of the summer ? The main reason I say July is because its mostly in the first week of July that Crater Lake roads open completely. Crater Lake region gets very heavy snow and it therefore takes as long as July for the landslides to subside and the roads to open. That said, the snow also melts quickly and Crater Lake is at its best when some snow is around the rim, making July the best month to visit this national park (NP). Anyway, more on that later.
Day 1 - Infinity Loop
On this day arrive in Portland first. If you're driving from Seattle, plan to start from there at about 8 in the morning. If you're flying from a distant state , try to take a flight that gets you to Portland before 11. The idea is to be at the head of the infinity loop by max 12:30 pm (the head of the loop is about half an hour from Portland airport). Once you arrive in Portland at about 11, treat yourself to a heavy lunch. Also stuff your car with a lot of food items: Food options along the infinity loop are quite limited and expensive. Noon-ish, start driving towards Infinity Loop i.e. towards I-84 exit 17.
So what exactly is Infinity Loop ? The infinity loop is a scenic drive that starts at I-84 exit 17. Columbia river gorge, Vista house, Multnomah falls, and Mount Hood are some of the places that can be visited when driving along this loop. Below is the map for infinity loop taken from http://www.mthoodcolumbiagorge.com/ . The complete loop is very long and given the limited on hand, covering the complete loop is not really possible. The portion of the loop that can be covered has been boxed in the map below. In my opinion, covering only this boxed portion is enough to get an overview of the region and it covers most "photographic" places.
So then, from Portland, start driving along I-84 and take exit 17 towards Troutdale to drive along the historic columbia river highway. Along this drive can be found amazing views of the Columbia river gorge. The Vista House (Crown point) is worth seeing. Continuing along the historic columbia river highway takes us to Multomah Falls, which is also quite splendid. Below is a picture I took of the Columbia gorge. Unfortunately for us, it was raining and moist at this time so the picture hasn't turned out great. But you can't control the elements can you!
If you start the infinity loop at about 12:30 in the afternoon, it would take about a couple of hours to do the 3 places we stopped at: Columbia River Gorge, Vista House and Multnomah falls.
Post Multnomah falls (which is along I-84 exit 47), the infinty loop continues along I-84 until exit 64. Taking exit 64 and following along Oregon 35 (and then US 26) takes us to Mount Hood. After taking exit 64, the views of Hood along Oregon 35 and US 26 are simply breath taking. These routes are lush with dense forests and driving here is an un-describable feeling. See it to believe it, simply should not be missed :)
Just within a mile of the intersection of Oregon 35 and US 26 goes a small road (on left) towards Trilium Lake. Again, do not miss this. Trilium lake lies almost at the base of mount hood. The view of Mount Hood from this lake is awesome. If you're lucky, you may see a reflection of the mountain in the lake. Below is a pic I took from the lake. Again, hasn't quite turned out of the world .... but you can get an idea.
Fyi, when I was doing this trip, we'd started from Multnomah falls at about 2:30 pm and when I'd glanced my watch at Trilium, it was 4:30 already (we'd stopped for coffee in between for about half an hour I guess).
Another good place to see is Mount Hood reflection in Mirror lake. This lake is just about a couple of miles from the Trilium Lake diversion at US 26 and should also not be missed.
Oregon 35 and US 26 are very well marked roads. Once on these roads you would see signboards for Lake Trillium as well as mirror lake.
From mirror lake drive up the mountain to Timberline Lodge. Timberline Lodge is as high as you can go up the mountain, as far as vehicles are concerned. Views of vistas from the mountain are serence and view of the mountain summit itself is quite beautiful.
Remember that you are going to spend a lot of time taking pictures along Oregon 35 and US 2, then along Trillium and Mirror lakes, and also at Timberline. Therefore even if you reach the mount hood area at about 4:30, you end up being at Timberline even post 7 pm or so.
That's it for the day as far as site-seeing is concerned. Now some big questions start to come: Where to have dinner ? Where to refuel the car ? Where to spend the night ?
Dinner options: Didn't I say pack some food when leaving Portland :) .... Kidding! Timberline Lodge has a very good restaurant of its own. I am not very sure until what time it is open but I believe it is until 9 pm in summer. We had a sumptuous dinner at Timberline at about 7, 7:30 pm during our trip. Remember though that Timberline is an expensive place. If you prefer keep things cost effective, it is always a good idea to dine in on the extra subs and stuff that you would hopefully have carried over from Portland.
Fuel: Going west, there is a gas station at US 26 right after the turn to head over to Timberline. I think gas at this place is expensive but there really aren't too many options :)
Lodging: During our trip, post dinner, we headed back along US-26 east and Oregon 35 to a bed and breakfast place called "Mt. Hood Hamlet Bed & Breakfast" where we stayed for the night. This B&B is about 45 minutes drive from Timberline Lodge (towards I-84 exit 64). When I was searching for accomodations online for this night, I wasn't able to find too many options so had to go with this B&B even though it was a tad expensive. But the B&B is very much worth its price: It is perfectly located with stunning views of Mount Hood and Mount Adams, the breakfast there tastes out of the world, and the owners are very courteous and helpful. Plus, the cosiness of this B&B is just what you may need after a tiring day of site seeing. During our trip, we had driven about 300 miles (starting from Seattle) on Day 1 and had stopped and photographed all of these places along the infinity loop. We were extremely exhausted and were in bed even before the clock had ticked past 10 pm :)
More information about infinity loop can be found in the pdf guide at http://www.mthoodcolumbiagorge.com/loopguide.pdf
Day 2 - Painted Hills
Plan to get ready and check out of the B&B at about 9:00 am. We'd asked Diane (our host at the B&B) to have our breakfast ready at 8:30. Enjoy your breakfast, it is just amazing at "Mt. Hood Hamlet Bed & Breakfast". It would make you feel that the hotel is really worth all the price paid :)
After breaking-fast, start driving towards Painted Hills which is about 150 miles from the B&B. The drive starts again along the same Oregon 35 towards Mt. Hood but then you need to take US 26 east (instead of west which goes towards Hood and Portland). Mt. Hood national forest appears to get even denser as we descend the mountain and after the descent, the drive seems to be going through a desert like terrain. Then suddenly, you get to see the 3 sisters on your right which appear almost as big as Mt. Hood.
Once you pass Madras and head west towards Painted Hills, there is a sudden dearth of restaurants and gas stations. Therefore, pack some sub's/sandwiches to take care of your lunch at Painted Hills.
Painted Hills appear simply magical because of the delicately colored stratifications in the soil. The yellows, golds, blacks, and reds of the Painted Hills are best seen in the late afternoon. Tones and hue may appear to change from one visit to another, as the claystones differwith ever-changing light and moisture levels. Good information about these structures can be found at Painted Hills Information.
If you'd left the B&B at Mt. Hood at 9'ish you would reach painted hills at about 1 pm. Take some time for rest and lunch, and at about 1:30 begin exploring the hills. As I said earlier, afternoon is the best time to see the hills. During my trip, I had not done much research about which trails to hike, what to see at the hills etc. For painted hills, such research is really not needed. You can just head to the painted hills parking lot and at the notice board plenty of information along with maps can be found.
Explore the hills between 1:30 to about 5:30. You'd spend time taking lots of pictures, the hills are really fabulous and feel completely out of the world. The striking feature about the hills is that they are so very different from the landscapes that we come across often. And that is exactly the point I was making about Oregon: The diversity is just unbelievable. From the forests and snow caps along Inifinity Loop to the fossilized painted hills within a matter of 3 hours is an unbelievable transition. I highly recommend exploring the Painted Hills when in Oregon.
As the light starts to fade a little bit, begin your drive ..... drive to Crater Lake. Ideally, one should wait at Painted Hills until sunset. But painted hills to any lodge near crater lake is atleast a 4 hour drive and therefore, its advisable to start your drive well before sunset.
Most lodges very close to Crater Lake are expensive. I had therefore booked a motel in Chemult, which is about 40 miles north east of crater lake. We'd started from Painted Hills at about 5:30, stopped on our way to Chemult in between for a coffee break near Madras, and reached the motel at about 9:30 pm.
The lodge in Chemult (Chemult Motel) is not exactly great but good enough to spend a night. And that is what is required: An inexpensive place, close to Crater Lake, to just have a good night's sleep. Also, there is a subway, and another good cafe opposite the lodge which would save your day as far as dinner is concerned. During our trip, post dinner, off we'd gone to sleep at about 10:30 pm, it had been another hectic but well spent day ..... 350 more miles had been driven.
Day 3 - Crater Lake
The next morning, plan to check out from Chemult motel at about 8. As I said, there are a couple of restaurants in Chemult which which should take care of your breakfast. There is also a gas station right next to the Chemult motel. Refuel and get ready to enjoy the ultra amazing crater lake. Its about a 45-minute drive from Chemult to Crater lake north entrance. Try to get to the lake by about 9, 9:15 in the morning. My personal opinion is that Crater lake is at is best between 9 am to about 12 pm.
When you first see Crater lake, the feeling you get simply can't be put in words. Its absolutely jaw-dropping. We were totally stunnned, left completely speechless, on getting the first view of the lake. Never ever had I seen, leave alone seeing, never ever had I thought that water can be sooo blue, deep blue. Who on earth can say water has no color! The huge, deep blue lake combined with the snow along the slopes of rim drive is a view that I would never forget. And its a view, that would make me visit Crater Lake several more times. Stunning, gorgeous, out of the world it was. I'm just out of adjectives. To top it all for us, it was a completely cloudless day with clear skies .... tailor made for a crater lake visit.
Once at Crater Lake, you don't really need a guide to explore it. The lake lies all in front of you, inviting you, enticing you to make loads of pictures. The lake is bordered, all along its circumference, by a road called the rim drive. I think the total rim drive length is about 30 miles. There are numerous points/overlooks for visitors to stop by, make pictures and appreciate the magnificence of the unbelievably stunning crater lake.
Below is the map of the crater lake rim drive.
A few important tips when visiting crater lake:
1. When driving from Chemult, you would enter the park from the north entrance and thus the first point that you end up being at is the North junction (pointed in the map). Make sure that you drive the rim in clock wise direction. That way, all view points are easily accessible, and I think you reach at every spot at the perfect time of the day
2. I said at the start of this blog, July is the best time to visit Crater Lake. Crater Lake would only be half as beautiful without the snow along its rim. In an intense summer, almost all of the snow may melt away by mid August. Also, in my experience, 9 am-12 pm was the best time to visit the lake. For some reason, the water did not appear as blue to me post noon as much as it had appeared to me in the morning.
3. Every lookout point along the rim drive is very beautiful. But if I have to pick a few points that should just not be missed, then they are the Wizard Island from Watchman overlook, Pumice and Palisade points, and the Phantom ship overlook. Then again, you get some amazing views of Wizard island from another angle from the rim village visitor center.
4. You may be forgiven for forgetting to get food when coming here, you may be forgiven for forgetting to bring water when coming here. Thats fine. But there is one thing that you should just not forget: A mosquito repelant. Just like I had not seen water as blue as that of crater lake ever before, I had not seen mosquito's of such big size and such big in number for a long long time. They'd make your trip miserable if you don't have a repellant. Just no excuses for forgetting it.
5. Wear blue colored clothes when visiting Crater Lake. Trust me, your photos at the late would come really good with those :)
6. With reasonable number of stops, it takes about 4-5 hours to do the complete rim drive. Thus, if you started at about 9:30 am, you should be done with one round of the drive by about 1 pm. Thats a perfect time to have lunch beside the lake at the cafeteria at Rim village visitor center. I quite enjoyed the sandwich here, maybe because it was very tasty or maybe because I was very hungry.
The waters of the lake are just too beautiful and one just doesn't feel like leaving this place. One just feels like taking more and more pics of the magnificent lake (if you're someone as addicted to a camera as I am).
But about 2 pm is a good time to leave for Portland. I've heard that sunset is also quite beautiful at the lake but I never got a chance to experience it myself. Then again, Crater Lake to Portand is about 4 hours drive and therefore, because of the limitation of just a 3-day trip spending time at the lake post early afternoon is a luxury people like me cannot afford.
During my trip, we left Crater Lake at about 2 pm, reached Portland at about 6 and I was in bed at my home sweet home in Seattle at about 10 pm. For guys wanting to fly out of Portand, there are quite a few late night flying options out of PDX.
More details and a more complete information about Crater Lake National Park can be found at http://www.crater.lake.national-park.com/