Road Trippin’ USA: Sweet Home, Oregon

Waterfalls, covered bridges, mountain peaks, wildlife, and sublime coffee awaits.

byKristin V. Shaw|
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Kristin Shaw
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One of the most populous cities in the Pacific Northwest is Portland, Oregon. Yet, the city of 650,000 or so has a small-town feel in each neighborhood, like the Rose Quarter, Beaumont, Old Town Chinatown, and even one called Hollywood that bears little resemblance to its Los Angeles namesake. Portland is a great starting place, especially if you’re flying in, but there’s so much more to see.  

Those of you who remember the mid-70s computer game called The Oregon Trail and have residual anxiety about dying of dysentery, have no fear. There is immeasurable natural beauty in Oregon, and plenty of places to safely explore both on- and off-road.

Here are some tips on navigating Portland and beyond.

Kristin Shaw

Head for the waterfalls

Ninety percent of passenger air travel into Oregon flies into Portland International Airport (PDX), situated just south of the Columbia River and six miles from the city. Nine different rental car agencies work with the airport at a variety of price points, so it’s easy to grab a ride. Or you might check out Turo, which rents out cars from individuals like a VRBO for transportation. With a quick search, I found everything from a 2023 Kia Soul to a 2019 Aston Martin Vantage to a 2023 Rivian R1S.

As of last year, you can even pump your own gas in Oregon. That’s a whole other story.

From PDX, head west along the Columbia River on highway 84 and then scoot over to the Historic Columbia River Highway to see a series of stunning waterfalls just off the road. My family and I stopped first at Multnomah Falls, a well-known 600-foot-tall cascade of water. Parking was tight, and no wonder: the U.S. Forest Service says Multnomah Falls is the most visited natural recreation site in the Pacific Northwest.

It was worth the wait for a space. Hiking all the way to the top of the falls and back is a twisting 2.4 miles, and it’s an excellent calf workout with steep inclines. There are several sections with no guard rail, so keep that in mind.

Even if you don’t get out of the car, the scenery along the historic highway is gorgeous. The mighty Columbia River is on one side and waterfalls dot the other side intermittently.

Kristin Shaw

Cross the river to the Gifford Pinchot National Forest

Portland is on the northern border of Oregon, kissing the Washington coastline. Cross the river on the Bridge of the Gods at Cascade Locks, Oregon and follow Highway 14 to the Wind River Highway. Then head into the west side of Gifford Pinchot National Forest’s 1.3 million acres.

We drove through the park in June in a Land Rover Defender, which was the right vehicle for the terrain, especially if you like to get off the asphalt. You could spend days exploring this area, and if you’re into fly fishing there are entry points to various streams all over the place.

At one point, we decided to hike to Goose Lake from one of the dirt roads. Then we saw a black bear ahead of us and that scared the heck out of me. Once he ran off in the other direction, we kept going and the views of Mt. Adams and a pristine mountain lake were worth the six-mile walk.

Kristin Shaw

Eugene to Sisters

Alabama fans have been waiting to troll me about why I referred to Sweet Home, Oregon in the headline. That’s because the route from Eugene to Sisters passes through Sweet Home, a town of covered bridges, waterfalls, and access to the Willamette National Forest.

The Santiam Highway follows the Santiam River from Sweet Home, winding toward Lava Lake Sno-Park. This is a great place for a quick detour on your way to Sisters. Go south on Route 126 to the Sahalie Falls Viewpoint, and then double back toward Coldwater Cove Campground to see Clear Lake. Step out onto the boat dock and look down into crystal clear water, but don’t go swimming–the temperature averages 43 degrees Fahrenheit all year long. Rainbow trout are stocked here, so it’s a great little fishing spot. And the campground store has pastries, so it’s pretty much paradise.

Kristin Shaw

Last stop: Sisters, Oregon. Get back on Route 20 and look for Three-Fingered Jack, a spiky mountain peak, to your left. The road takes a sharp turn right past Black Butte; look ahead and off to the right for the three Sisters mountains before arriving in the town of Sisters.

First, stop at Sisters Saloon and Ranch Grill (founded in 1912) for lunch or dinner. I highly recommend starting with a cider and crispy Brussels sprouts, and then dive into a plate of pan-seared steelhead trout or a bison burger. Before leaving town, swing into Sisters Coffee Company’s flagship cafe for a to-go beverage. The coffee smells heavenly, and non-caffeine people can opt for a chai latte (which includes delicious rose hip sprinkles on top) or warmed apple cider.

On your way back, stay at the Vintages outside of Portland, a very cool Airstream resort. One of the trailers is a completely refurbished 1956 model and includes an open-air tub in the back for a glass of wine under the stars. Others include robes, TVs, refrigerators, and cruiser bikes.

I haven't even covered TrackTown Pizza in Eugene or the charming downtown of Springfield, so we'll save that for another time. Go. Explore.

Got travel tips? Comment here or send them to tips@thedrive.com.

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