Don’t Have the Krónar for an Icelandic Adventure? Create Your Own Ring Road Trip in Oregon.
Waterfalls, rugged coastlines, volcanic rock formations, hot springs, hipster hotels. There are only a few places on Earth where you can find all of these attractions, accessible to visitors and in relatively close proximity. One of them is the North Atlantic island nation of Iceland, which has seemed less far away ever since Icelandair started direct flights between Reykjavík and PDX in 2015, only to see them interrupted by the coronavirus in 2020. But if pandemics or price tags make a trip to the enigmatic “Land of Fire and Ice” a little too complicated right now, know that another place to find all such natural wonders is right here in our own backyard. We Oregonians are blessed with worthy analogs of many of Iceland’s most popular sights. In the spirit of traveling Iceland’s famed Ring Road, here is a list of Oregon gems (and their Icelandic counterparts) for a loop that could be taken as one mighty trip over several days, or tackled in sections. Stay safe and, as they say in Iceland, góða ferð! (Have a good trip!)
So you want to visit Landmannalaugar ... Then go to the Painted Hills
Landmannalaugar, located in the heart of Iceland’s remote Highlands region, is renowned for its ample hiking trails through otherworldly landscapes distinguished by multihued rhyolite peaks. Such colorful geology can be appreciated much closer to home at Oregon’s John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, in particular at its Painted Hills unit, where millennia of sedimentary deposits are revealed in the undulating red and yellow-striped hills. You can take a short walk along the easily accessible Overlook Trail, or make the more arduous but manageable trek up the Carroll Rim Trail, which rewards you with a panoramic view of the eponymous hills.
The Painted Hills are in Wheeler County, Oregon’s least populous county. It’s named for a Pennsylvania-born settler who ran mail and stage lines out of The Dalles—and not an ancestor of Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, like the coastal town.
So you want to visit Reynisfjara ... Then go to Cannon Beach
There may not be a better place in the world to watch the sun rise than Iceland’s Reynisfjara (a.k.a. the black sand beach), and there may not be a better place to watch the sun set than Oregon’s Cannon Beach. Both feature broad expanses of sand and iconic basalt sea stacks. At both, the ocean itself is best enjoyed from a distance; in Reynisfjara’s case because of dangerous sneaker waves that have killed people, and in Cannon Beach’s case mostly just because it’s so darn cold for much of the year. Both beaches also offer the potential to spot puffins in the summer, and who doesn’t love puffins?
Time your trip for February’s FisherPoets Gathering or June’s Scandinavian Midsummer Festival in nearby Astoria (though they’re virtual or drive-by in 2021) for a celebration of seafaring or Icelandesque dose of Viking history on the Oregon coast.
So you want to visit Seljalandsfoss ...Then go to Silver Falls State Park
South Iceland’s Seljalandsfoss is a heavily touristed waterfall most notable for the fact that you can walk behind it. You can’t miss it, as it’s right next to the Ring Road, and it’s certainly worth a quick stop. However, you might get a feeling of “been here, done this” if you’ve ever been to Oregon’s Silver Falls State Park, which boasts a whopping four walk-behind waterfalls, including the easily accessible North and South Falls.
The state park’s campground and cabins were closed for water line repairs. Year-round cabins and RV sites reopened in March, and tent sites are available seasonally, May–October.
So you want to visit Jökulsárlón ... Then go to Crater Lake
Otherwise known (and more easily pronounced) as the glacier lagoon, Jökulsárlón is a large lake of milky teal water littered with chunks of ice that have broken off the receding glacier that feeds the lagoon, which then drift a couple hundred meters to be carried away by the Atlantic Ocean. Jökulsárlón should be visited soon, as the glacier lagoon is rapidly becoming more lagoon and less glacier due to climate change. But if that’s not in the cards, a must-visit for anyone in the Pacific Northwest is majestic Crater Lake. It’s the deepest lake in the United States and the centerpiece of Oregon’s only national park, its spectacular azure blue waters filling the six-mile-wide caldera of dormant Mount Mazama. Farther up Iceland’s east coast from Jökulsárlón is the town of Seyðisfjörður, a picturesque cultural hub whose Southern Oregon counterpart could be a post-Crater Lake stop in nearby Ashland, the artsy college town that’s home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Take the southern route between Crater Lake and Steens Mountain to make a stop near Lakeview at Old Perpetual, Oregon’s only geyser, an analog to Iceland’s Geysir—the source of the English word—and its more active little brother Strokkur.
So you want to visit Aldeyjarfoss ... Then go to Toketee Falls
Aldeyjarfoss might be the prettiest waterfall in Iceland, which is saying an awful lot. It is by no means the tallest or largest, but the punch bowl-type falls gushing brilliant blue water, framed by an amphitheater of columnar basalt, makes it stand out from the crowd. The same goes for Toketee Falls. An hour east of Roseburg on the North Umpqua River, Toketee boasts similar features while also being surrounded by a lush evergreen forest. Note: You might see photos taken from the bottom of Toketee Falls (including this one), but getting to that spot requires a treacherous hike down a steep, sketchy trail. We recommend stopping at the viewpoint of the falls from above.
Careful planning is key: in addition to pandemic reasons, a lot of services along Highway 138’s waterfall corridor have been closed due to last year’s wildfires.
So you want to visit Húsavík ... Then go to Depoe Bay
Known as the Whale Capital of Iceland, the small village of Húsavík in the northern part of the country is internationally regarded as a pioneer of eco-friendly whale watching. A similarly conscientious approach can be found at Depoe Bay’s Whale Research Eco-Excursions, where owner and marine biologist Carrie Newell and her team (and maybe an adorable dog) take groups out for the opportunity to see the gentle giants, mostly gray whales, up close. The towns also have pop culture significance: Depoe Bay was a filming location for 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, while Húsavík was recently featured as the hometown of Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams’s characters in the Netflix comedy Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga.
Spot whales year-round, but annual migration brings crowds in early winter and early spring. See orwhalewatch.org for state park events, or oregonwhales.com for eco-excursions.
So you want to visit the Westfjords ... Then go to Steens Mountain
Only a small fraction of tourists who visit Iceland make it to the Westfjords, a sparsely populated region making up Iceland’s northwest appendage. (Look at a map and you’ll see what we mean.) The Westfjords are well off the beaten path of the Ring Road and, as the name suggests, the area is defined by dozens of fjords: steep, narrow valleys carved by glaciers. To find them filled with water you can go to Iceland, Alaska, or even Washington state. But if you are content with landlocked fjord-like valleys, then take Oregon’s highest road to the top of Steens Mountain and take in jaw-dropping vistas sculpted by some of nature’s most powerful forces.
Camp at the Bureau of Land Management sites Page Springs or South Steens, or treat yourself to a cozy room and a family-style dinner (when that’s safe again) at the century-old Frenchglen Hotel, a boardinghouse-turned-B&B that’s now a part of Oregon State Parks.
So you want to visit Lake Mývatn ... Then go to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
Like North Iceland’s Lake Mývatn, the shallow volcanic lakes of Southeastern Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge provide a paradise for migratory birds and the humans who enjoy watching them. They are also both surrounded by numerous hiking trails and unique volcanic features like craters and steam vents. Lake Mývatn is part of a tourist route known as the Diamond Circle, and the Malheur Refuge is adjacent to the BLM-managed Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area. Perhaps more than any other place on this list, this is one area where you might really think you have been transported from Oregon to Iceland.
What to listen to on the drive? The podcasts Bundyville and This Land Is Our Land illuminate the refuge’s time in the national headlines and subsequent trial in 2016, while bird nerds can download a 19-stop audio tour from Friends of Malheur Wildlife Refuge.
So you want to visit Fjaðrárgljúfur ... Then go to Smith Rock State Park
When Iceland’s Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon isn’t closed due to damage caused by throngs of Justin Bieber–inspired tourists (the Biebs shot a video there) or being used as a Game of Thrones filming location, it offers visitors cliffside views of a serpentine glacial river winding its way through a canyon flanked by spires of mossy rock. Equally scenic views of a river cutting through walls of volcanic rock can be had at Smith Rock State Park, around three hours from Portland. Known as “the birthplace of US sport climbing,” Smith Rock offers climbers and hikers alike spectacular views of unique rock formations, the surrounding high desert landscape, and the Crooked River below. With little shade to be found, don’t forget to bring sunscreen and plenty of water, especially if you plan on ascending the aptly named but well-worth-it Misery Ridge trail.
COVID-19 has put camping on pause at the park. Some climbing routes are also closed and drones are banned through August 1 to protect nesting raptors.
So you want to visit Hveravellir ... Then go to Alvord Hot Springs
Looking to relax in an improvised hot tub fed by a geothermal river on the edge of a vast desert wasteland? You could go to Hveravellir in Iceland’s uninhabited Highlands, or you could head to the Alvord Hot Springs in sparsely populated Harney County. From the springs at Hveravellir, you can take in panoramic views of the surrounding glaciers. Not to be outdone, the Alvord version gives you a front-row seat on the roughly 80-square-mile desert playa spread out in front of you and the east face of Steens Mountain just over your shoulder. The Alvord Desert is also known as one of Oregon’s best places for stargazing. There are very basic accommodations and camping available at the hot springs or, if the conditions are right, you can camp out on the playa itself.
Camp or park an RV at the hot springs, or try a mash-style Bunker Bunkhouse. Find epic milkshakes, burgers, and travel supplies nearby at the fields Station.
Back in town (and as things reopen), ooo and aah at your photos over a Scandinavian brunch at Broder Söder or dinner at Dóttir, the restaurant at the Portland location of Reykjavík’s Kex Hotel. Or sip a cocktail with Brennivín, Iceland’s signature spirit, upstairs at Kex’s open-air rooftop bar, Lady of the Mountain. Toast the completion of your own Oregon Ring Road trip and maybe, just maybe, start planning that North Atlantic voyage.