Our Favorite Oregon State Parks

From lush coastal rain forest to mountain waterfalls to arid high desert, and everything in between

By Sam Stites Published in the March 2023 issue of Portland Monthly

Oregon boasts one of the nation’s best parks systems. Our state’s diverse landscapes set the backdrop for beautiful views (like the vista from behind South Falls at Silver Falls State Park, above) and primo recreational opportunities: camping, fishing, climbing, hiking, swimming, and more. What’s your favorite thing to do outside? There’s a park for that.

Day Trippers

Views on views on views

Ecola State Park

This natural bridge between the towns of Seaside and Cannon Beach encompasses Tillamook Head, a steep, rocky bluff with breathtaking views that give visitors a 230-degree perspective of the Pacific Ocean and nearly a dozen sea stacks of varying size below. Make a day of it and trek the 14-mile out-and-back Lewis and Clark Discovery Trail, which takes you up and down, from rock-speckled beaches to sheer cliff ridgelines offering dramatic viewpoints of more than 1,000 feet high. Bring binoculars to catch sea lions basking on the rock several hundred yards away. 

Ecola State Park just north of Cannon Beach

Silver Falls State Park

Oregon’s largest state park is also its most accessible, with well-maintained trails and facilities to accommodate outdoor enthusiasts of all ability levels. The 7.2-mile Trail of 10 Falls is a bucket-list item for any Oregonian or tourist looking to for a quintessential Northwest experience. While you may feel like you could get lost, maps and signage make navigating this behemoth a breeze. Speaking of breezes, have you ever felt the whoosh of air coming off the backside of 177-foot-high waterfall? Well, you can find out by standing behind the South Falls, where the trail runs behind it. 

Oswald West

Oswald West state Park 

Despite carrying the name of a noted homophobe and eugenics advocate (yikes), this is one of the most beautiful places in Oregon and the entire Pacific coast. Hikers can revel in a 13-mile stretch of the Oregon Coast Trail, which runs through the park from Neahkahnie Mountain to Cape Falcon. Hiking to the cape’s viewpoint offers a vantage over a large swath of the marine reserve famous for whale migration in the winter and spring and viewing seabirds year-round. Decent surfing can be had at Smuggler Cove just off of Short Sand Beach, where picnickers and rockhounds can also enjoy some reprieve from harsh weather on typically nasty days.

Road Trippers

Pop in for a moment on your way elsewhere

Samuel Boardman State Park

Image: Casey Horner

Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor

This 12-mile stretch of US 101 between Gold Beach and Brookings in Southern Oregon contains some of the most stunning views on the coast, plus beaches where you’re likely to be the only person there—that’s if you’re willing take the dangerous scramble to get down to some of them. (I’m looking at you, China Beach and Secret Beach.) Stop at Natural Bridge viewpoint on the north side of the corridor to see water smash through blowholes and crash into several iconic arches. Whalehead Beach is another iconic stop if you’re weary from a drive along the coast and want to visit a more accessible (yet still slightly treacherous to get to) slice of beach. Boardman is beautiful from the road, but the more you’re willing to work for a good view, the more you’ll be rewarded. 

Fort Rock State Natural Area near Christmas Valley

Fort Rock State Natural Area 

Rising high above the vast desert surrounding it, this prehistoric rock formation was once a volcanic island in a shallow, inland sea. Potentially one of the spookiest natural features in Oregon, you can hear an orchestra of wind instruments when gusts blow through the porous rock. Artifacts discovered at this site date back nearly 10,000 years. A quick hike around these jagged rock walls will entice you to move in closer and examine the geologic history book etched in its walls for yourself. If you enjoy being alone, this is the park for you. 

Devil’s Punch Bowl State Natural Area 

If you’re traveling on 101, this slight jaunt into Otter Rock between Depoe Bay and Newport is the perfect place to stretch your legs and take in the sights and smell of the ocean. The punch bowl—a collapsed sea cave that allows surf to spout up at high tide—is the main point of interest here, but Otter Crest Beach to the north and Beverly Beach to the south both offer classic coast activities such as rock hunting and tide pooling. Visitors can trudge down into the punch bowl at low tide to see all manner of sea critters attached to and scurrying under the rocks. Be careful to study your tide chart closely because getting stuck down there at the wrong time could be a fatal mistake—we are not joking. 

Aquatic Ventures

Swimming, paddling, boating, fishing, and general frolicking 

Cove Palisades State Park

The Cove Palisades state Park 

This is one of the best state parks for families to convene an outdoor adventure or reunion is the Cove Palisades in Central Oregon. Centered on Lake Billy Chinook (a reservoir fed by the Crooked, Deschutes, and Metolius Rivers), this park features two unique campgrounds and three day-use areas offering ample opportunity to splash around whether you own a watercraft or not. While boating is one of the lake’s main draws, there are plenty of sheltered coves and arms to explore via kayak or stand-up paddleboard. There’s also great fishing for all manner of trout and smallmouth bass. 

The Wallowa Lake Tramway 

Wallowa Lake state Park 

A full-service marina for boaters and a big, sandy swimmers beach highlight this state park on the southern edge of one of the most stunning alpine lakes in Oregon. Its frigid waters are home to colossal kokanee, mackinaw, and other species of fish that attract anglers. The crystal-clear water is inviting on a warm day and the perfect way to cool off after a long hike into the Eagle Cap Wilderness or ride to the top of Mount Howard on the Wallowa Lake Tramway. 

La Pine State Park 

This one is high on many lists of best parks for countless reasons. It contains more than 14 miles of multiuse trails with virtually no elevation gain, so it’s a great choice for small families or seniors looking to get active. But perhaps its best and unheralded quality is easy access to a fairly tame stretch of the upper Deschutes. Those new to river running can learn the ropes in a kayak, SUP, or other paddle craft. You’ll want something that keeps your body up out of the water though because the river is frigid even in the hottest months—sorry, no floating. Campers can put in just steps from their site and either pull out at the bridge boat launch or turn around and paddle back upstream if they’re feeling adventurous.

Beach Lovers

The best parks for those who hold the people’s coast close to their hearts

Cape Lookout

Cape Lookout State Park 

If “Waves crashing on the sand” is the no. 1 track played on your sound machine, then this is the park for you. Nestled just steps from the sprawling, five-mile spit of Netarts Bay, this park encompasses a huge swath of lush, coastal forest containing some of the most massive western hemlock trees you’ll ever see. Take the five-mile round-trip hike to the viewpoint at the tip of the cape for immaculate views and a great vantage to watch migrating gray whales in spring and winter—just be careful around the boobytraps of mud and tree roots. Deluxe cabins and yurts make Cape Lookout a year-round showstopper, but nothing beats the proximity to the beach afforded by A loop tent sites. Bring your clam gun or a shovel to take advantage of some of the best shellfish hunting the state has to offer.

Fort Stevens State Park 

Hiking, biking, beachcombing, disc golfing, kayaking—this military installation turned outdoor lovers’ playground has it all. Historic sites such as the wreck of the Peter Iredale and Battery Russell bring Fort Stevens to life with 15 miles of trails allowing easy access to all its treasures. Elk, blacktail deer, and western snowy plover sightings are abundant, as well as raccoon visits when your trash isn’t properly secured. It could take a few days (or even weeks) to explore all this park has to offer, so make sure you carve out a good chunk of time to give it the consideration it deserves. 

Heceta Head Lighthouse

Carl G. Washburne Memorial State Park

Campers at this park might be let down to find their site is across the highway from the beach, but what Washburne lacks in easy access to the ocean it makes up for in privacy and charm. Sixty-six campsites nestled among coastal rain forest and dense flora offer intimacy you can’t find at any other campground on the coast. Each site feels like its own VIP area, and trails leading to day-use areas such as Hobbit Beach offer even more seclusion. Dozens of streams cut through the forest and onto the beach, providing rockhounds prime opportunity for adding to their collection. Lighthouse nerds can geek out with a visit Heceta Head Lighthouse where the 392-prism, British-made Fresnel lens is the only of its kind still active in the US today. Its beam is visible for 21 nautical miles, making it the brightest lighthouse on the Oregon Coast. Being tucked away on a less trafficked section of the coast also makes this park an easy place to escape crowds, for now. 

Desert Dwellers

For the lizards among us 

Lake Owyhee State Park 

While it might feel like one of the state’s most remote parks to a Portlander, this 14,000-acre lake is just an hour and 45 minutes from the bustling Boise, Idaho, metro area. Created by a dam built during the Depression to provide electricity and irrigation to communities in both states, it’s one of the few places around where boaters can expect great weather in spring and summer. Two campgrounds sit on the water’s edge to give you constant views of the water, as well as the deposits of rhyolite in the basalt which make it feel like you’re camping and boating on planet Mars. 

Cottonwood Canyon State Park 

Some of the newest facilities and campsites the state has to offer can be found at this park nestled deep in the John Day River canyon. The canyon’s monumental basalt cliffs burst with color during the day and block out all light noise at night, offering great opportunities for stargazing. Steelhead and bass anglers shouldn’t forget their waders, drift boats, or kayaks when visiting. The 10-mile out-and-back Pinnacles Trail is a nice excursion for hikers and bikers alike, offering views of the river and rugged canyon walls. The Lost Corral trail is a nearly identical path beginning on the opposite side of the river. Rattlesnakes are present, so beware. Tick spray is also advised for you and your four-legged family members. 

Smith Rock State Park

Smith Rock State Park 

A mecca for climbers, hikers, and fly-fishers, this is also a great place to go pitch a tent if you’re someone who wants to get away from crowded parks teeming with families. At just $8 a night for dispersed tent sites—no RVs or car camping are allowed—it’s also one of the most affordable options that gives you a backcountry feeling while having the amenities of a state park just steps away. With more than 1,500 climbing routes, world-class trout fishing in the Crooked River, and 650 acres of terrain to explore by foot or bike, Smith Rock is a must-visit—just not during a temporary partial closure later this summer for a footbridge replacement. 

Top image courtesy Dan Meyers/Unsplash