Geography and climate play important roles in dividing Oregon into its various regions.
The Willamette Valley -- This is Oregon's most densely populated region and site of the state's largest cities, including Portland, Eugene, and Salem, which is the state capital. In addition, the valley's fabled farmland grows the greatest variety of crops of any region of the United States. These include berries, hazelnuts, irises, tulips, Christmas trees, hops, mint, grass seed, and an immense variety of landscape plants. The Willamette Valley is also one of the nation's top wine regions, with vineyards up and down the length of the valley.
Summer, when farm stands pop up alongside rural highways, is by far the best time of year to visit the Willamette Valley. If you are interested in wine, though, you might also want to consider October, when vineyards pick and crush their grapes.
The Oregon Coast -- Stretching for nearly 300 miles, the Oregon coast is one of the most spectacular coastlines in the country. Backed by the densely forested mountains of the Coast Range and alternating sandy beaches with rocky headlands, this rugged shoreline provides breathtaking vistas at almost every turn of the road. Haystack rocks -- large monoliths on the beach or just offshore -- give the coast an unforgettable drama and beauty. Along the central coast, huge dunes, some as much as 500 feet tall, have been preserved as the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. Small towns, some known as fishing ports and some as artists' communities, dot the coast. Unfortunately, waters are generally too cold for swimming, and a cool breeze often blows even in summer.
Of course, summer is the most popular time of year on the coast, and crowds can be daunting. In Seaside, Cannon Beach, Lincoln City, and Newport, traffic backups try the patience of many vacationers. The north coast, because of its proximity to Portland, is the most visited section of the coast, and, with its headlands, coves, and haystack rocks, is also one of the most dramatic. The south coast, where giant rocks dot the beaches and rocky islands break the waves not far from shore, is even more spectacular than the north. Also because of its distance from major metropolitan areas, the south coast is not nearly as crowded as other stretches of the coast. The central coast, though it boasts the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, is less spectacular than the north and south coasts, and although it's lined with long, sandy beaches, much of this coastline is inaccessible by car.
The Columbia Gorge -- Beginning just east of Portland, the Columbia Gorge is a place of immense beauty and natural diversity. Declared a national scenic area, the Gorge is the site of numerous waterfalls, including Multnomah Falls, the fourth highest in the country. As the only sea-level gap in the Cascade Range, the Gorge is also something of a wind tunnel, and the winds that regularly blast through the Gorge attract windsurfing enthusiasts from around the world. Consequently, the town of Hood River is now one of the world's top windsurfing spots. Rising above the waterfalls and basalt cliffs of the Gorge are the snowy slopes of Mount Hood.
Although the Gorge can be explored in a day or two, if you are an avid hiker or windsurfer, you might want to plan a longer visit. Spring is the best time of year to visit. March through May, countless wildflowers, some of which grow nowhere else but in the Columbia Gorge, burst into bloom, and Gorge wildflower hikes are annual rites of spring for many Oregonians.
The Cascade Range -- Stretching from the Columbia River in the north to the California state line in the south, this mountain range is a natural dividing line between eastern and western Oregon. Dominated by conical peaks of volcanic origin (all currently inactive), the Cascades are almost entirely encompassed by national forests that serve as both sources of timber and year-round recreational playgrounds. Within these mountains there are several designated wilderness areas in which all mechanized travel is prohibited. Among these, the Mount Hood Wilderness, the Mount Jefferson Wilderness, and the Three Sisters Wilderness are the most scenic. In the southern Cascades, an entire mountain once blew its top, leaving behind a huge caldera that is now filled by the sapphire-blue waters of Crater Lake, Oregon's only national park.
With little private property and few lodges other than rustic (and often run-down) cabin "resorts," the Cascades are primarily a camping destination during the warmer months. In winter several ski areas and many miles of cross-country ski trails attract skiers and snowboarders.
Southern Oregon -- Lying roughly midway between San Francisco and Portland, southern Oregon is a jumbled landscape of mountains and valleys through which flow two of the state's most famous rivers. The North Umpqua and the Rogue rivers have been fabled among anglers ever since Zane Grey popularized these waters in his writings. With a climate much drier than that of the Willamette Valley to the north, this region resembles parts of northern California. In fact, several towns in the region are very popular with retired Californians. Among these are Ashland, site of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and Jacksonville, a historic gold-mining town that is the site of the Britt Festivals, an annual summer festival of music and modern dance. Also in the region are quite a few wineries that take advantage of the warm climate to produce Oregon's best cabernet sauvignon and merlot.
Although summer is the most popular time of year to visit this region, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival runs from spring through fall, which keeps Ashland busy almost year-round.
Central Oregon -- When the rain on the west side of the Cascades becomes too much to bear, many of the state's residents flee to central Oregon, the drier and sunnier side of the state. Consisting of the east side of the Cascade Range from the Columbia River to just south of Bend, the region spans the eastern foothills of the Cascades and the western edge of the Great Basin's high desert. Known primarily for its lack of rain and proximity to the cities of the Willamette Valley, central Oregon is the state's second-most-popular summer vacation destination (after the coast), with resorts clustered around Sisters and Bend. The biggest and most popular resort is Sunriver, an entire community south of Bend. A volcanic legacy has left the region with some of the most fascinating geology in the state, much of which is preserved in Newberry National Volcanic Monument. Also in this region is the High Desert Museum, a combination museum and zoo that is among the state's most popular attractions.
Although summer is the peak season here, central Oregon is also quite popular in winter -- Mount Bachelor ski area provides the best skiing in the Northwest.
Eastern Oregon -- Large and sparsely populated, eastern Oregon is primarily high desert interspersed with small mountain ranges. Despite the desert climate, the region is also the site of several large shallow lakes that serve as magnets for a wide variety of migratory birds. In the northeast corner of the region rise the Blue, Elkhorn, and Wallowa mountains, which are remote, though popular, recreation areas. Partially forming the border with Idaho is the Snake River and Hells Canyon, North America's deepest gorge. Throughout this region, signs of the Oregon Trail can still be seen.
Because this region is so remote from Portland and the Willamette Valley, it is little visited. However, the breathtaking Wallowa Mountains offer some of the finest backpacking in the state. The towns of Joseph and Enterprise, on the north side of these mountains, are also home to several bronze foundries.
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.