Travel

The Most Beautiful Places in Oregon You Never Knew Existed

Get some fresh air.

Zack Frank/Shutterstock
Zack Frank/Shutterstock
Zack Frank/Shutterstock

Those who haven’t visited Oregon or the greater Pacific Northwest area may have a skewed view of the state. It’s hard to truly appreciate the varied beauty of the Beaver State without visiting it, from the high deserts east of the Cascades to the untamed, wild coastlines dotted with geological marvels. Even those that do visit might only know of some of the more famous icons: Haystack Rock, Crater Lake, Timberline, and Multnomah Falls tend to dominate discussions about Oregon’s natural wonders. But there is so much more to the state than those famed locales. Here are 10 of Oregon’s less visited sites, as well as current information regarding COVID-19 and wildfires regulations.

Flickr/Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington
Flickr/Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington
Flickr/Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington

Alvord Desert

Harney County
Hidden in southeastern Oregon next to Steens Mountain, the Alvord Desert is more Burning Man than Enchanted Forest. Forget everything you thought you knew about Oregon’s lushness and its record-setting precipitation. The Alvord Desert is miles and miles of dusty mountain ranges, limitless sunsets, dry lake beds, and remoteness that will invoke a fear that you’re the last man on Earth. And it’s mesmerizing.
COVID-19 and wildfire info: Alvord Desert is currently open for visitors. 

Flickr/ryan harvey
Flickr/ryan harvey
Flickr/ryan harvey

Lava River Cave

Bend
Formed from a volcanic eruption about 80,000 years ago, the mile-long Lava River Cave in the Deschutes National Forest allows for self-guided tours in a cold, drippy environment. Though spending an hour and a half walking several feet underground might sound eerie, it’s definitely a unique and marvelous experience. To explore this cave, you’ll need to descend 55 stairs to a combination of flat boardwalk, uneven surfaces, and more stairways. All that work isn’t for nothing; once in there, you’ll be rewarded with a picturesque sand garden and an array of ice crystals.
COVID-19 and wildfire info: The Lava River caves are currently closed due to COVID-19 precautions, but very well may reopen later in 2021. Find up-to-date information here.

Flickr/Celeste Ramsay
Flickr/Celeste Ramsay
Flickr/Celeste Ramsay

Stein’s Pillar

Prineville
Oregon’s all-natural, glorious beacon, Stein’s Pillar is a more curious site than Multnomah Falls, and with far fewer tourists blocking the paths to take selfies. The 350-foot tall pillar has some fun history to it, as it was named for one Major Enoch Steen, whose name was so often misspelled that even the name on his pillar is incorrect. It’s known to some as “nature’s skyscraper,” and you’ll find this geological wonder right smack down in the middle of a lush forest. It also marks the trailhead of the Stein’s Pillar Hike, appropriately. 
COVID-19 and wildfire info: Stein’s Pillar and the surrounding area are open for hiking.

Flickr/J We
Flickr/J We
Flickr/J We

Thor’s Well

Yachats
The oceanic sinkhole on the Central Coast known as Thor’s Well is both magnetic and terrifying. Visitors witness waves colliding, water shooting up, and a never-ending whirlpool of salt water, all glimmering in the Oregon sun. But take heed-it’s also dangerous. The surrounding Yachats area is also a testament to the wild, anarchic beauty of the Oregon coast. We may not have the white sand beaches of California, but what we do have in pure, unrestrained natural beauty more than makes up for it. 
COVID-19 and wildfire info: Thor’s Well is currently open for visitors.

Adventures on Wheels/Shutterstock
Adventures on Wheels/Shutterstock
Adventures on Wheels/Shutterstock

Devil’s Punchbowl

Central Coast
Similar in ways to Thor’s Well, the Devil’s Punchbowl is a red stone formation along the coast. Located along the Oregon coast between Newport and Depoe Bay, it’s a fascinating, action-packed marine area with water rushing through the dungeon-esque punchbowl as the tide goes in and out. As waves rip through the devilish rock’s cracks, salty seawater is launched into the area, misting and splashing everyone in the area. It’s an unadulterated, chaotic look at where the land meets the sea, and a testament to Oregon’s incredible volcanic geographic history. 
COVID-19 and wildfire info: The Devil’s Punchbowl is currently open for visitors.

davidkrug/shutterstock
davidkrug/shutterstock
davidkrug/shutterstock

Little Crater Lake

Mount Hood National Park
While every Oregonian, and most tourists, know of the gorgeous and inaccurately named Crater Lake (it’s a caldera, not a crater), its smaller sister lake has far less notoriety. Just slightly less crystal clear but even brighter blue than its namesake, Little Crater Lake has other great qualities such as its proximity to Portland and the smaller crowds. With trails left and right from the lake, there’s plenty to do here, including camping at the nearby Little Crater Lake Campground. Located in Mount Hood National Forest, it’s hidden by dense forest and offers seclusion to take it all in without all the tourists and commotion.
COVID-19 and wildfire info: Little Crater Lake is currently open for visitors.

Aaron Nicholas Stansberry/shutterstock
Aaron Nicholas Stansberry/shutterstock
Aaron Nicholas Stansberry/shutterstock

Angel’s Rest

Bridal Veil
The Columbia Gorge is one of the most stunning views in the entirety of the Pacific Northwest, a region absolutely stacked with beautiful competition. If you make it up this moderately difficult hike, you have a prize waiting for you: “Jaw-dropping” does not even begin to describe this incredible view of the Gorge. From Angel’s Rest, you see the winding Columbia River, the near-infinite trees, and rolling mountain ranges including the Cascades beyond, all at an incredible height.
COVID-19 and wildfire info: Angel’s Rest is currently open for visitors.

Jeffrey T. Kreulen/Shutterstock
Jeffrey T. Kreulen/Shutterstock
Jeffrey T. Kreulen/Shutterstock

Hells Canyon

Baker County
Home to parts of the Snake River, Hells Canyon Wilderness area has North America’s deepest river gorge at nearly 8,000 feet deep.That depth translates to wild river rapids and beautiful, distinct rock formations. Since this area is so remote, and the river gorge so deep, there’s something to discover around every bend. Just don’t wander off, get lost, and contribute to the place deserving its name. Bonus tip: like Crater Lake, Hells Canyon also has a Little Hells Canyon, located in Washington County near Chehalem. It’s not quite as impressive. 
COVID-19 and wildfire info: Hells Canyon is currently open for visitors. 

Flickr/Tjflex2
Flickr/Tjflex2
Flickr/Tjflex2

Wreck of the Peter Iredale

Warrenton
Oregonians pride themselves on being weird, and that goes for our idea of beauty, too. The Peter Iredale shipwreck, found right along the Oregon coast, is enchanting and mesmerizing. This is one of the shipwrecks of the “Graveyard of the Pacific,” so ship enthusiasts and desperate Goonies fans can walk in and out of the ship that’s still tilted up and appears to be bursting out of its beach grave. Just don’t expect any buried treasure. 
COVID-19 and wildfire info: Guided tours are cancelled, the beach is currently open for visitors.

Andrew S/Shutterstock
Andrew S/Shutterstock
Andrew S/Shutterstock

Yaquina Head Lighthouse and tide pools

Newport
The Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area is fittingly named. Located in Newport-home of the fantastic Local Ocean tuna mignon-this Bureau of Land Management site is home to Oregon’s tallest lighthouse (93 feet) as well as a vast array of tide pools. Driving up to the bluff, you might feel like you’ve seen this lighthouse before, as it was featured in the classic 2002 horror film The Ring. Luckily, there are no black-haired pale ghosts here… usually. 
COVID-19 and wildfire info: The Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area Interpretive Center and lighthouse are temporarily due to COVID-precautions. Outdoor areas, including tide pools, are open for visitors. 

Alex Frane is a Thrillist contributor.

Michelle Udem is a Portland-based writer who is keeping a couple places you’ve never heard of to herself, thank you very much. DON’T follow her to hidden gems @mudem.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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