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10 EPIC Oregon National Parks You’ll Love (+ Beautiful Photos)

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painted hills john day fossil beds oregon national parks
Painted Hills at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument | Oregon National Parks (courtesy embracesomeplace.com)

Oregon National Parks

Oregon National Parks! In this article, we feature all of the incredible park sites in the great state of Oregon. We’ve got 10 national park sites for you to see on your next visit to the Beaver State.

These Oregon National Parks include amazing historic sites, incredible monuments, beautiful parks, legendary trails, and much more.

Oregon is one of my absolute favorite places in the United States to visit. Over the past 5 years I was able to visit one of my sons who lived in Portland and was blown away by the incredible scenery.

To be clear, these include national park sites (as in managed by the National Park Service) but not capital letter National Parks. There are only 63 of those (so far) and only one of these parks is included on that list.

We’ll give you 10 reasons why you’ll want to make Oregon your next vacation destination.

Oregon National Parks Table Of Contents

  1. California National Historic Trail
  2. Crater Lake National Park
  3. Fort Vancouver National Historic Site
  4. Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail
  5. John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
  6. Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail
  7. Lewis & Clark National Historical Park
  8. Nez Perce National Historical Park
  9. Oregon National Historic Trail
  10. Oregon Caves National Monument & Preserve

National Parks of Oregon

1. California National Historic Trail | Oregon National Parks

Fort Bridger | Oregon National Parks
Fort Bridger State Historic Park on the California, Mormon Pioneer, Oregon, and Pony Express National Historic Trails | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

During the 1840s and 1850s, over 200,000 emigrants traveled to the gold fields and rich farmlands of California. It was the greatest mass migration in American history.

The California National Historic Trail retraces this historic migration. It’s over 5,000 miles long and covers portions of 10 states.

What is a national historic trail? That’s a great question.

A National Historic Trail is a long-distance route that follows and commemorates a historic path of travel that changed the history and character of the United States.

Today these routes offer opportunities to visit surviving sites, trail segments, and defining places of history and learn about the diverse stories they tell. (Source: NPS)

The California Historic Trail In Oregon

Map of California National Historic Trail | Oregon National Parks
Map of the California National Historic Trail | Courtesy of the National Park Service

Known in Oregon as the Applegate Trail or Cut-off, the Southern Emigrant Road, and the South Road, the trail entered the state west of Lake Miller, crossed the Klamath River and Cascade Mountains, and after entering the Rogue River Valley turned north to its terminus in the Willamette Valley. (Source: BLM)

As a retired history teacher I’m always on the hunt for a story with an interesting history. If you’re following the California Historic Trail in Oregon then I recommend a stop at the Douglas County Museum in Roseburg, Oregon.

Check Out Oregon’s Largest Natural History Collection

Douglas County Museum | Oregon National Parks
The Douglas County Museum of History and Natural History makes available black and white print and/or color images of materials from the museum’s photography, video, and library collections. Here’s a preview of what we have in our collection. (Courtesy of the Douglas County Museum)

While you’re at this wonderful museum you can check out Oregon’s largest natural history collection. More than 7,500 items are used to help tell the ancient and contemporary stories of the Umpqua River Valley.

You’ll also find one of the Northwest’s most comprehensive plant collections in its research herbarium with nearly 3,000 catalogued specimens.

RELATED: 4 EPIC Iowa National Parks (A Very Helpful Guide + Photos)

2. Crater Lake National Park

crater lake national park | Oregon National Parks
Crater Lake National Park | Oregon National Parks

The deepest lake in America is one of the seven wonders of Oregon and is surprisingly the state’s only national park. The kind of blue water that exists here is unlike any other in the world.

Crater Lake National Park. It’s sure to captivate you. While the park itself is fairly remote and quite a drive to get to, it’s well worth a visit nonetheless.

Crater Lake Was Discovered By A Young Prospector

Native Americans were the first to discover this park's natural wonders | Oregon National Parks
Native Americans were the first to know of the existence of Crater Lake | Oregon National Parks

As a retired history teacher and a lifelong history buff, I always like to start off with a good history lesson. According to the historical record, the first people to know about Crater Lake were the Klamath Indians.

While they knew of its existence, they seldom went there. According to their legends, they regarded the lake and the mountain as the “battleground of the gods.”

Fast forward to American fortune hunters in the nineteenth century. Like Death Valley, Crater Lake’s history features prospectors looking for buried treasure. Crater Lake was discovered by a young prospector on June 12, 1853. His name was John Wesley Hillman.

Hillman was leading a party in search of the “Lost Cabin Mine.” Having failed in their efforts, Hillman’s group returned to Jacksonville, a mining camp in the Rogue River Valley. It was there that they reported their discovery which they had named Deep Blue Lake.

Things To Do At Crater Lake

Visitors and ranger in a boat on Crater Lake | Oregon National Parks
Visitors on a boat tour looking at Phantom Ship | Courtesy of the National Park Service (NPS)

I addition to seeing one of the world’s deepest, clearest, and bluest lakes in the world, there are so many wonderful things to see and do at Crater Lake. Keep in mind, however, that over 95% of the park is managed as wilderness. This means that it’s a great place to do some backcountry camping, but you will need to pick up a permit.

If you enjoy being out on the water, Crater Lake Hospitality, a park concessionaire, offers daily boat tours on Crater Lake, and two shuttles to Wizard Island.

RELATED: 10+ FASCINATING Crater Lake Facts (interesting Trivia + Quick Facts)

Take A Trolley At Crater Lake

Trolley Tour | Oregon National Parks
This trolley made a stop at an overlook where visitors had an opportunity to learn more about the lake and take photos. (Courtesy of the NPS)

During the summer, Crater Lake Trolley, another concessioner for the park, offers daily trolley tours. The tours typically begin in July and run through mid-September. The trolleys make stops at magnificent overlooks with opportunities for photographs and moments for reflection.

If you prefer your own vehicle, however, then I recommend the historic Scenic Rim Drive includes 33-miles of lake views, panoramic vistas, forests and meadows. There are 30 overlooks, five picnic areas, hikes of various difficulty, geologic formations and several waterfalls.

It’s a great opportunity to explore the natural beauty and geologic wonders of this amazing park.

“Crater Lake is a thing of the spirit. It must be so, for I have never met anyone who did not express it in one way or another.

Long before I ever saw it myself, I heard about it as I sat talking one day in a London club, from an Englishman who had just returned from a round-the-world trip.

He was a rich sportsman, especially a dry-fly fisherman. He had been jogging in the Orient, had come over to Puget Sound and fished, and then, before returning to England, had visited Crater Lake.

I recall a foolish tinge of jealousy that I, an American, should be learning of this place of beauty from a European.

This man said to me: ‘I have seen beautiful things all over the world. I have never seen anything that touched be so strangely and deeply as Crater Lake. As I sit here, I can still see that blue.'”

-Freeman Tilden, The National Parks

3. Fort Vancouver National Historic Site

Fort Vancouver National Historic Site | Oregon National Parks
Fort Vancouver National Historic Site | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Imagine a place where you can learn about archeology, aviation, colonization and settlement, explorers and expeditions, forts, industry, westward expansion, Native American heritage and so much more.

Fort Vancouver National Historic Site includes four major sites for visitors to explore: a reconstruction of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Vancouver, the U.S. Army’s Vancouver Barracks, Pearson Air Museum, and the McLoughlin House in Oregon City, Oregon. ( Source: NPS)

I always recommend that first-timers begin their adventure at the visitors center. There you will be able to gather information, have all of your questions answered and check out some fascinating hands-on exhibits.

There are also some wonderful outdoor activities which include a scenic walk to the Fort Vancouver Village, a stroll through the Vancouver Garden, a picnic on the historic grounds of the site or a self guided tour (and hike) along the Spruce Mill Trail which connects two of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site’s most iconic attractions: the reconstructed Fort Vancouver and Pearson Air Museum

RELATED: 7 Epic KANSAS National Parks (helpful Tips + Photos)

4. Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail | Oregon National Parks

columbia river gorge oregon national parks
Columbia River Gorge | Oregon National Parks (courtesy embracesomeplace.com)

Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail tells the incredible story of how some of our most amazing natural wonders were formed. It’s a region with a variety of places and activities for people of all ages to enjoy.

Did you ever wonder how these amazing geologic formations came into being. When I went to college, I always wanted to take a geology course so I did. Of course, being that it was a California school the course I took was all about earthquakes. It gave the expression “shake, rattle and roll” a whole new meaning for me.

Back to my geology story. These amazing places were formed by an incredible network of routes connecting natural sites and facilities. This provides geologists and laypeople with an interpretation of the geologic consequences of the Glacial Lake Missoula Floods of the last glacial period.

This occurred about 18,000 to 15,000 years ago. It includes sites in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana.  School’s out!

There Are Some Wonderful Museums For You To Visit

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Columbia-Gorge-Discovery-Center-Museum-Wikimedia-1024x683.jpg
Columbia Gorge Discovery Center & Museum (The Dalles, OR) | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Well, maybe school’s not entirely out. There are some wonderful museums for you to visit to learn more about this amazing story. They include the following:

  1. Idaho-Museum of North Idaho, 115 Northwest Blvd, Coeur d’Alene, ID 83814, (208) 664-3448
  2. Montana-Montana Natural History Center, 120 Hickory St # A, Missoula, MT 59801, (406) 327-0405
  3. Oregon-Columbia Gorge Discovery Center, 5000 Discovery Drive, The Dalles, OR 97058, (541) 296-8600
  4. Washington-Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center, 990 SW Rock Creek Drive, Stevenson, WA 98648, (509) 427-8211

RELATED: 6 GREAT Missouri National Parks (An Honest Guide + Photos)

5. John Day Fossil Beds National Monument | Oregon National Parks

painted hills john day fossil beds oregon national parks
The Painted Hills at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Oregon (courtesy embracesomeplace.com)

Imagine a world formed up to 40 million years ago. You can see that world on display at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. It’s a world of which preserve a world class record of plant and animal evolution, changing climate, and past ecosystems. And it’s all waiting for you to explore.

Before you go there, check out some truly amazing films. These recently released films includes dynamic animations, interviews from scientists, and amazing footage of the park.

Check Out The Amazing Hiking Trails At John Day

painted hills john day fossil beds oregon national parks
Painted Hills John Day Fossil Beds | Oregon National Parks (courtesy embracesomeplace.com)

At John Day, there are some truly amazing hiking trails. They include the Clarno Unit Trails, Painted Hills Unit Trails and Sheep Rock Unit Trails.

At the Clarno Unit, you can explore an incredibly diverse range of plant life. This includes leaves, fruits, nuts, seeds, and petrified wood from 173 species of trees, vines, shrubs, and other plants which have been found there thus far.

The Painted Hills Unit contains a myriad of leaf fossils aging 39-30 million years old called the Bridge Creek Flora, and a small outcropping of rock containing animal fossils from 30-27 million years ago.

At the Sheep Rock Unit you will see fossils of plants and animals are found in a number of geological layers dating from 33-7 million years ago.

Other Outdoor Activities At John Day

painted hills john day fossil beds oregon national parks
The Painted Hills | Oregon National Parks (courtesy embracesomeplace.com)

There is no overnight camping at John Day, but river rafting is a popular activity there since portions of the John Day River system, including those travelling through John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, are designated as a National Wild and Scenic River as well as an Oregon Scenic Waterway.

Fishing is another activity that is legally permissible. Smallmouth bass and rainbow trout are abundant, but you will need an Oregon fishing license.

Biking is also permitted within the monument grounds on approved roadways.

Or you may just want to grab your camera and get some incredible shots of a place that’s truly out of this world.

RELATED: 10 [EPIC] Montana National Parks (An Expert Guide)

6. Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail | Oregon National Parks

Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail | Illinois National Parks
Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail at Decision Point | Courtesy of the National Park Service

The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail follows the historic outbound and inbound routes of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. As a retired history teacher, I get goosebumps just thinking about the Corps of Discovery and their incredible trek.

Commemorating the Lewis & Clark Expedition (1804-06), the Lewis & Clark Trail connects 16 states (Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon).

The trail is administered by the National Park Service. It’s not a hiking trail, but does provide opportunities for hiking, boating and horseback riding at many locations along the route.

It’s a great opportunity to see the USA while learning about the brave men (and one woman) who weren’t able to make the journey in an air-conditioned SUV.

The Lewis & Clark Trail In Oregon

Map of the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail | Illinois National Parks
Lewis & Clark Trail Map | Courtesy of the National Park Service

Places of interest to visit in Oregon include:

  1. The Youngs River Falls was originally discovered by Lieutenant William Broughton of the Vancouver Expedition in 1792. He named it for Admiral Sir George Young of the Royal Navy. It would be rediscovered fourteen years later by Sergeant Patrick Gass, a member of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery.
  2. Tansy Point in Warrenton, Oregon, is where, on November 24, 1805, that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s Corps of Discovery paused to take a vote on their next campsite. At the time it was a series of Chinook Indian Villages.
  3. At North Gateway Park on December 9, 1805, William Clark took three men and set out from their camp on a reconnaissance excursion. They visited a location where 12 families of the Clatsop Nation dwelled in three houses.
  4. At the Netul Landing & Netul River Trail Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, paddled up a river that the local peoples called Netul. Today it’s called the Lewis & Clark River. On December 5, 1805, the expedition established their winter camp at a site on the riverbank that had been selected by Lewis.
  5. The End Of The Trail Lewis & Clark Statue was installed in 1990 to commemorate Lewis and Clark’s 4,000-mile, 18-month journey. (Source: NPS)

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7. Lewis & Clark National Historical Park | Oregon National Parks

Lewis and Clark National Historical Park | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Fort Clatsop was the winter encampment for the Corps of discovery from December 1805 to March 1806. Oregon was where their historic journey ended before they embarked on a return trip to share their momentous news with Thomas Jefferson and their fellow countrymen.

Today you can make the trek to the Lewis & Clark National Historical Park. You can make the trip to this historic fort and examine the place that the Corps of Discovery called their home.

The park offers 14.5 miles of trails which follow similar routes to those taken by the Corps of Discovery. Along these trails you will be treated to stunning panoramic views and be able to explore a wide variety of natural eco-systems.

While you’re there you can also watch the amazing wildlife which call it their home. More than 140 species of vertebrates, including at least 44 mammals, 75 birds, 11 amphibians, 9 fish,  and 3 reptiles are seasonal or permanent residents. (Source: NPS)

RELATED: 12 EPIC North Carolina National Parks (A Helpful Guide + Photos)

8. Nez Perce National Historical Park | Oregon National Parks

Traditional tipis dot the landscape of the Nez Perce Indian Reservation. But don’t be fooled: some are intended as visitor lodging.  (Courtesy of NARA)

The conflict between the U.S. government and the Nez Perce was one of the most tragic of the many Indian wars of the 19th century. The same Native Americans whose forefathers had befriended and helped Lewis & Clark would find themselves forced off of their ancestral lands.

The U.S. Government’s efforts to force these Native Americans off of their lands produced a backlash. This backlash became known as the Nez Perce War of 1877. A small band of warriors fought American soldiers at four major battles.

In the third of these battles at the Big Hole Basin in present-day western Montana ,Colonel John Gibbon attacked the sleeping Indians with a force of 183 men. The army body count found 89 Nez Perce dead, mostly women and children.

Two months later, Colonel Nelson Miles defeated the Nez Perce at the Battle of the Bear Paw Mountains. It proved to be the final battle for the Nez Perce. Those who were not killed surrendered and agreed to return to the reservation.

Things To Do At The Nez Perce National Historical Park

Nez Perce encampment circa 1880 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Nez Perce National Historical Park has thirty-eight sites spread across Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. Of the 38 different historic sites in Nez Perce, four are in Oregon. The most noteworthy site within is the Old Chief Joseph Gravesite. Old Chief Joseph was a Nez Perce leader who refused to sell his Wallowa homeland and sign the 1863 Treaty.

Another site worth visiting is the the Nez Perce Wallowa Homeland Visitor Center. It’s located in the town of Wallowa. It’s a 320-acresite. It includes interpretive markers along a trail which lead past the traditional longhouse and dance arbor to a stunning overlook of the confluence of the Lostine and Wallowa rivers and sweeping views of ancestral lands.

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9. Oregon National Historic Trail | Oregon National Parks

End of the Oregon Trail — turn around, beach at Seaside, Oregon | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Westward Ho! The Oregon Trail was a 2,170-mile emigrant trail which connected the Missouri to valleys in Oregon.

The original trail was established by fur traders and trappers. Shortly thereafter, wagon trains began the westward trek all the way to the Willamette Valley in Oregon.

From the early to mid-1830s (and particularly through the years 1846–1869) the Oregon Trail and its many offshoots were used by about 400,000 settlers, farmers, miners, ranchers, and business owners and their families.  A lot of folks were on the move!

Experiencing The Oregon Trail Today

Oregon Trail sites in Oregon include:

  1. Keeney Pass Interpretive Site: It’s named for pioneer trader Jonathan Keeney, is located on the outskirts of Vale in Eastern Oregon. Today, you can still walk along the original wagon ruts at Keeney Pass and reflect on the famous journey.
  2. Farewell Bend State Recreation Area: Here you can experience a beautiful desert experience on the banks of the Snake River’s Brownlee Reservoir.  Historic markers and interpretive displays provide visitors with information on Farewell Bend’s significance on the Oregon Trail.
  3. The National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center: It dramatically tells the story of the hopes, dreams, joys, and heartaches of Oregon Trail-era pioneers. 
  4. Hilgard Junction State Park: It offers camping and daytime activities amongst the cottonwood and ponderosa pine. While you’re there you can see ruts of the historic Oregon Trail at the nearby Blue Mountain Crossing Interpretive Park. (Source: Travel Oregon)

10. Oregon Caves National Monument & Preserve | Oregon National Parks

Oregon Caves National Monument & Preserve | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This park is truly a gem as there is so much to see and do. If you love to watch wildlife then you can see black bears, bobcats, cougars and the Columbian black-tailed deer. If you prefer smaller animals there’s also chipmunks and ground squirrels too.

Check Out The Amazing Hiking Trails At Oregon Caves

Two hikers viewing trees on Old Growth Ttrail.
Hikers enjoying Old Growth Trail | Courtesy of the NPS

There are seven different hiking trails to choose from. They include:

  1. Cliff Nature Trail: It’s a one mile trail which features marble outcrops, fir forests and panoramic views of the Illinois Valley.
  2. Big Tree Trail: It’s a 1.3 mile trek up a steep climb that takes you through mountain meadows and forests. You can also see the widest-girthed Douglas-fir tree known to exist in Oregon.
  3. Old Growth Trail: From the visitors center you can climb past oak trees, over marble outcrops, and through old growth forests on this one mile trail.
  4. No Name Trail: Here you’ll encounter streams, mossy cliffs, and dense forests. Hikers can walk underneath the covered bridge along Cave Creek.
  5. Cave Creek Trail: This one’s a longer trail at 3.6 miles. Remember, however, that it’s not the destination, but the journey as you’ll be treated to dense forest, splashing streams, and rock outcrops.
  6. Bigelow Lakes – Mt. Elijah Loop Trail: This one is not for the faint hearted. It’s a 9.2 mile trek to the summit of 6,390 foot Mt. Elijah. Along the way you’ll see gorgeous meadows and pristine lakes.

To Learn More About Oregon National Parks

  1. Trails of Crater Lake National Park & Oregon Caves National Monument by William L. Sullivan.
  2. Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen Ambrose.
  3. Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, and the Nez Perce War by Daniel J. Sharfstein.
  4. The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck.

RELATED: 30+ National Parks Book List (Great Gifts For Parks Lovers)

Map Of Oregon National Parks

List Of Oregon National Parks

  1. California National Historic Trail
  2. Crater Lake National Park
  3. Fort Vancouver National Historic Site
  4. Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail
  5. John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
  6. Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail
  7. Lewis & Clark National Historical Park
  8. Nez Perce National Historical Park
  9. Oregon National Historic Trail
  10. Oregon Caves National Monument & Preserve
Tony Pattiz

Tony Pattiz is a retired history teacher currently researching and writing articles for More Than Just Parks.

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