Travel

The Most Beautiful Fall Foliage Within Driving Distance of Portland

As socially distant as fun gets.

As a historic and difficult summer fades into an uncertain fall, it’s difficult to plan out some fun autumnal experiences. But watching the normally verdant forests transition to crimson and gold is an opportunity to enjoy some socially distant outdoor fun. In September and October, Oregon flushes with fall colors, with its many maples, oaks, ash, and dogwoods, from the Willamette Valley to the California border. 

Obviously, things change at a different rate throughout the state, usually starting earlier up in the north and later in the south. Wherever you are, though, there’s usually an opportunity to take in some autumnal wonder just a short walk or drive away. It’s important to keep in mind that we're still in the midst of a pandemic, and precautions need to be taken. State laws require wearing a mask even in outdoor locations that are open to the public, and it’s recommended to stay socially distant from others wherever possible. 

Portland

Portlanders don’t have to go far to witness the turning of the leaves, as the trees that line most of the city’s streets turn from verdant green to lush reds, oranges, and yellows. Autumnal canopies are thick in areas like Moreland, Ladd’s Addition, and Overlook, and Mt. Tabor offers a stunning view of the whole city as well as its own colors. The Portland Japanese Garden is transformed into a stunning display of color in fall, while the paths of the Hoyt Arboretum show off more than 2,300 species of trees and shrubs. And of course there are the many other parks including the sprawling Forest Park, whose paths are open for autumn-hued runs, walks, and bike rides. 

Columbia Gorge

Oregon’s stunning Columbia Gorge offers hundreds and hundreds of miles of hiking and walking. A drive out of Portland along the Historic Columbia River Highway Scenic Byway takes you right by Crown Point Vista House, Bonneville Dam, and the outskirts of the Mt. Hood National Fores, and along the way there are also plenty of turn-offs for hikes and camping. Skamania Lodge -- the rustic estate on the Washington side of the Columbia River -- offers an amazing view of the foliage from its decks, as well as access to numerous paths through the woods. It also offers activities like zip-lining and axe throwing, and has implemented numerous practices to keep guests and staff safe. 

Willamette Valley

A short drive from the Portland area, the Willamette Valley is renowned worldwide for its wines, especially its pinot noir. But the rolling hills and swooping valleys are especially stunning later in fall, when vineyards turn a brilliant yellow. Wineries like Anne Amie Vineyards, Bryn Mawr Vineyards, and Penner-Ash Wine Cellars feature especially striking views of the countryside from their patios and decks. Towns like McMinnville and Newberg provide a launch-point for wine country, as well as their own sites, like Newberg’s Bald Peak State Park, which overlooks the town and its surroundings. 

On the eastern side of the valley there are numerous parks surrounded by pines and deciduous trees, allowing you to camp amongst the changing colors at places like Silver Falls State Park.Further south, both the campuses at Oregon State in Corvallis and the University of Oregon in Eugene are filled with trees that herald the new school year with a vivid tableau of fall colors.

Central Oregon

Bend is Central Oregon’s main destination, a charming town surrounded by Oregon’s diverse countryside. From Bend, the Deschutes River Trail jogs alongside the river with parks, forests, and pathways for jogging and biking, all with golden and red hued trees. Those looking for a tree-lined drive can take the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway through the lake-strewn Deschutes National Forest. For those looking for other hikes and passages through Central Oregon and around Bend and Sisters, the Deschutes Land Trust has plenty of guides.

Southern Oregon

While the world-famous Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland is closed due to the ongoing pandemic, the cozy college and theatre town is still worth a visit. There, Lithia Park is nearly 100 acres of forests with bridges and creeks amidst the changing leaves. Further north, Crater Lake is more known for its stunning crystal waters than it is for fall colors, but the surrounding forests include deciduous trees as well as the many evergreens.

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Alexander Frane is a contributor for Thrillist.