It’s winter in the Pacific Northwest, and while some may take this opportunity to hole up under a blanket and ride out the winter storms, there are intrepid souls who see no reason to sequester themselves when winter beauty covers the beloved peaks and forests of Oregon with a coat of snow, and the waves of the Pacific thrash with ever more power. There’s no better time to take to the open road with so much scenery to behold, and we live in a state with one of the best park systems in the country. Winter camping in Oregon can be as easy as claiming a tent site, but it can be dry and comfortable as well thanks to Oregon State Parks winter yurt and cabin system. Pack a bag and fill up that gas tank! Oregon’s open roads beckon.
There’s nothing quite like the high desert in winter, and your first destination on this road trip will be the quiet confines of Central Oregon. Some of Oregon’s most scenic terrain can be seen leaving Portland on Highway 26—the pass at Mount Hood (perhaps treacherous in winter, so be sure to carry chains), the charred remains of wildfire off the highway shoulders with the Cascade volcanos on the horizon, and the always breathtaking Smith Rock State Park. Leave yourself time to stop at any of these places to soak in the winter views.
If you have the winter camping skills, head for Paulina Creek. Access is difficult and long in winter, but Paulina Falls is one of Oregon’s most scenic waterfalls, and winter gives it an icy intimacy that begs for a longer stay. While you’re there, be sure to visit the hot springs at Paulina Lake or East Lake. If you’re short on time, there are alternatives, as well. Tumalo State Park Campground offers year-round camping, and Tumalo Falls nearby is no less spectacular an Oregon waterfall than Paulina Falls.
As a winter destination, Crater Lake National Park is blanketed with snow and abandoned by visitors who prefer the warmth of summer. In other words, winter visitors get the park in one of its most beautiful moments in anachronistic peace and quiet—snowshoes or cross-country skis are all you need.
Unless you want to camp, make arrangements to stay in a cabin or yurt. Valley of the Rogue State Park offers year-round camping with 15 tent sites and eight yurts available by reservation, and it’s within two hours of Crater Lake. If that isn’t quite close enough, there are dispersed camping alternatives on forestry land within striking distance of the park—provided you have the appropriate winter camping experience and the equipment to get you there. Camping is allowed in Crater Lake at least a mile away from paved roads and 100 feet from water sources.
Try The Watchman Snowshoe, Garfield Peak, Discovery Point Trail, or just follow Rim Road to the overlooks beyond its closed gates. All of them offer long mileage appropriate for a full day trip with snow-covered overlooks of America’s deepest lake.
Finish your winter circuit with a return trip up the Oregon coast. Winters on the beach can be tempestuous, but the windy weather and big waves evoke a unique sense of adventure that you can’t find anywhere else. Situated on the southern Oregon coast near Coos Bay, Shore Acres State Park is a great place to spend a day exploring the shore. Once a luxurious coast estate, the state park is now an outdoor destination with sandstone monoliths offshore and a botanical garden that was once the private reserve of Louis Simpson. Hike the Shore Acres Loop Trail.
For additional adventures, Shore Acres is sandwiched between Cape Arago State Park to the south and Sunset Bay State Park to the north, each boasting their own unique additions to your coastal escapade. The Simpson Reef Overlook at Cape Arago features thousands of barking sea lions. Sunset Bay’s quiet lagoon is a great place to launch a kayak, but most importantly, the Sunset Bay State Park Campground is open year round.
And you can always take advantage of the attractions along the Coos Bay Boardwalk.
The Oregon coast features enough beauty that it can’t be completed in a single overnight, so why not use the Pacific Coast Highway to your advantage on the return trip to Portland? The journey north includes an embarrassment of riches—don’t discriminate. Many of these destinations can be visited simply by pulling over at an overlook. Cape Perpetua, part of the Three Capes Scenic Route, Cape Kiwanda, and Thor’s Well and Cook’s Chasm. The Cape Lookout State Park Campground near Netarts is open year round to campers and serves as an ideal break point for an overnight. In the morning, swing through Cannon Beach and Ecola State Park before heading back home.