advertisement

At 97,073 square miles (roughly 1.5 times the size of the New England region of the northeastern United States or 1.2 times the size of Great Britain), Oregon is the 10th-largest state in the Union, and it encompasses within its vast area an amazing diversity of natural environments -- not only lush forests, but also deserts, glacier-covered peaks, grasslands, alpine meadows, sagebrush-covered hills, sand beaches, and rugged ocean shores. Together these diverse environments support a wide variety of natural life.

The Oregon coast stretches for nearly 300 miles from the redwood country of northern California north to the mouth of the Columbia River, and for most of this length is only sparsely populated. Consequently, this coastline provides habitat not only for large populations of seabirds--such as cormorants, tufted puffins, and pigeon guillemots--but also for several species of marine mammals, including Pacific gray whales, Steller sea lions, California sea lions, and harbor seals.

Every year between December and April, more than 20,000 Pacific gray whales pass by the Oregon coast as they make their annual migration south to their breeding grounds off Baja California. These whales can often be seen from shore at various points along the coast, and numerous whale-watching tour boats operate out of different ports. Many gray whales also spend the summer in Oregon's offshore waters, and it is possible to spot these leviathans any month of the year. More frequently spotted, however, are harbor seals and Steller and California sea lions, which are frequently seen lounging on rocks. The Newport bayfront, Sea Lion Caves, and Cape Arago State Park, all on the central Oregon coast, are the best places to spot sea lions.

The Coast Range, which in places rises directly from the waves, gives the coastline its rugged look. However, even more than the mountains, it is rain that gives this coastline its definitive character. As moist winds from the Pacific Ocean rise up and over the Coast Range, they drop their moisture as rain and snow. The tremendous amounts of rain that fall on these mountains have produced dense forests that are home to some of the largest trees on earth. Although the south coast is the northern limit for the coast redwood, the Douglas firs, which are far more common and grow throughout the region, are almost as impressive in size, sometimes reaching 300 feet tall. Other common trees of these coastal forests include Sitka spruce, Western hemlocks, Port Orford cedars, Western red cedars, and, along the southern Oregon coast, evergreen myrtle trees. The wood of these latter trees is used extensively for carving, and myrtle-wood shops are common along the south coast.

More than a century of intensive logging has, however, left the state's forests of centuries-old trees shrunken to remnant groves scattered in largely remote and rugged areas. How much exactly is still left is a matter of hot debate between the timber industry and environmentalists, and the battle to save the remaining old-growth forests continues, with both sides claiming victories and losses with each passing year.

Among this region's most celebrated and controversial wild residents is the Northern spotted owl, which, because of its requirements for large tracts of undisturbed old-growth forest and its listing as a federally endangered species, brought logging of old-growth forests to a virtual halt in the 1990s. Since that time, barred owls, which compete for the same habitat as spotted owls, have been expanding their range and have a negative impact on spotted-owl populations. Concern has also focused on the marbled murrelet, a small bird that feeds on the open ocean but nests exclusively in old-growth forests. Destruction of forests has also been partially blamed for the demise of trout, salmon, and steelhead populations throughout the region.

Roosevelt elk, the largest commonly encountered land mammal in the Northwest, can be found throughout the Coast Range, and there are even designated elk-viewing areas along the coast (one off U.S. 26 near Jewell and one off Ore. 38 near Reedsport).

To the east of the northern section of the Coast Range lies the Willamette Valley, which, because of its mild climate and fertile soils, was the first region of the state to be settled by pioneers. Today the Willamette Valley remains the state's most densely populated region and is home to Oregon's largest cities. It also still contains the most productive farmland in the state.

To the east of the Willamette Valley rise the mountains of the 700-mile-long Cascade Range, which stretches from northern California to southern British Columbia. The most prominent features of the Oregon Cascades are their volcanic peaks: Hood, Jefferson, Three Fingered Jack, Washington, the Three Sisters, Broken Top, Thielsen, and McLoughlin. The eruption of Washington's Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980, reminded Northwesterners that this is still a volcanically active region. However, here in Oregon, it is the remains of ancient Mount Mazama, which erupted with unimaginable violence 7,000 years ago, that provide the most dramatic reminder of the potential power of Cascade volcanoes. Today the waters of Crater Lake fill the shell of this long-gone peak. Near the town of Bend, geologically recent volcanic activity is also visible in the form of cinder cones, lava flows, lava caves, and craters. Much of this volcanic landscape near Bend is now preserved as Newberry National Volcanic Monument.

The same moisture-laden clouds that produce the near rainforest conditions in the Coast Range frequently leave the Cascades with heavy snows and, on the highest peaks (Mount Hood, Mount Jefferson, the Three Sisters), numerous glaciers. The most readily accessible glaciers are on Mount Hood, where ski lifts keep running right through the summer, carrying skiers and snowboarders to slopes atop the Palmer Glacier, high above the historic Timberline Lodge.

East of the Cascades, less than 200 miles from the damp Coast Range forests, the landscape becomes a desert. The Great Basin, which reaches its northern limit in central and eastern Oregon, comprises a vast, high-desert region that stretches east to the Rockies. Through this desolate landscape flows the Columbia River, which, together with its tributary, the Snake River, forms the second-largest river drainage in the United States. During the last ice age, roughly 13,000 years ago, glaciers repeatedly blocked the flow of the Columbia, forming huge lakes behind dams of ice. These vast prehistoric lakes repeatedly burst the ice dams, sending massive and devastating walls of water flooding down the Columbia. These floodwaters were sometimes 1,000 feet high and carried with them ice and rocks, which scoured out the Columbia Gorge. The gorge's many waterfalls are the most evident signs of these prehistoric floods.

Today it is numerous large, modern dams (built of concrete, not ice) that impound the Columbia, and these dams have become the focus of another of the region's environmental battles. The large dams, mostly built during the mid-20th century, present a variety of barriers both to adult salmon heading upstream and to young salmon heading downstream to the Pacific. Though many of the dams have fish ladders to allow salmon to return upriver to spawn, salmon must still negotiate an obstacle course of degraded spawning grounds, slower river flows in the reservoirs behind the dams, turbines that kill fish by the thousands, and irrigation canals that often confuse salmon into swimming out of the river and into farm fields. Overfishing for salmon canneries in the late 19th century struck the first major blow to salmon populations, and for more than a century, these fish have continued to struggle against man-made and natural obstacles. Compounding the problems faced by wild salmon has been the use of fish hatcheries to supplement the wild fish populations (hatchery fish tend to be less vigorous than wild salmon).

South-central and southeastern Oregon are the most remote and unpopulated regions of the state. However, this vast desert area does support an abundance of wildlife. The Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge shelters herds of pronghorn antelopes, which are the fastest land mammals in North America. This refuge also protects a small population of California bighorn sheep. At Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, more than 300 bird species frequent large shallow lakes and wetlands, and at the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, large numbers of bald eagles gather every winter. Several of the region's other large lakes, including Summer Lake and Lake Abert, also attract large populations of birds.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.