Dana Johannsen finds this beautiful state has more going for it than just craft beer.

New Zealand has often received a bit of flak for the comically unimaginative names we give our regions and landmarks (think North Island, South Island, Bridge No.1 etc). It is possible some of Oregon's geographical gems could yet rival New Zealand for its simplistic place names.

Among the state's most popular attractions are Crater Lake, an azure-blue lake formed in an er, crater. Or there's Natural Bridge, a 76m lava tube that forms a, well, natural bridge over the Rogue River. Not to mention the also rather self-explanatory Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area.

With the names often offering little clue of the grandeur that lay in wait at the next destination, it made road-tripping through Oregon all the more enchanting.

Self-drive has become an increasingly popular way to see Oregon, with tourism officials there noting a major spike in international travellers taking the "fly-drive" option. That's because Oregon has more byways and scenic routes than any other state.


In the space of just a two-hour drive you can see the landscape change from rugged coastline to deep forests and cascading waterfalls to mountain ranges to desert — all from behind the wheel of the car. Within each of these unique landscapes lie what Oregonians refer to as their own seven wonders.

Over the course of a five-day adventure around the state, we managed to tick off four of the seven (along with a few other treasures) and were left slightly regretful we didn't get to see the other three.

Starting in Oregon's main hub, Portland, we headed west to the coastline, and took Highway 101, which forms part of the Pacific Coast Highway, south. The locals reckon the best way to see the coastline is driving north to south as that way the ocean is always on your right — something us right-hand drivers in New Zealand don't often consider.

Also being Kiwis, we're pretty taken by our own stretches of coastline, but the Oregon coast more than compares.

The day we passed through was an unusually wild day on the coast, with clouds low on the horizon and the wind whipping up the sea into a frenzy. A planned whale-watching adventure in Depoe Bay had to be canned as the sea state was such that it made crossing the bar too dangerous, so we had to make do trying to spot whales from the numerous lookout points along the coast.

As thousands of whales pass this stretch of coast each year, it's not unusual to be able to spot them from the shoreline. We struck gold at the Yaquina Head Lighthouse, where we found two grey whales frolicking in the choppy seas just off the point.

There was further wildlife spotting along the rocky coastline, a short walk down from the historic lighthouse, where a large gathering of seals bobbed in the water staring back at the tourists lining the shore gawking at them — like a cross-species Mexican stand-off. I'm ashamed to say I blinked first. As much as I would have liked to have stayed all day and take in the incredible scene, further adventures beckoned.

As we continued south, rugged coastline quickly turned to pristine golden sand beaches, broken up by quaint historic bayfront towns such as Newport and Florence.

Florence is the gateway to the Oregon Dunes, a 20ha expanse of ocean-front sand dunes. The southern half of the dunes is open to off-highway vehicles, including dune buggies and quad bikes, whereas the northern dunes are reserved for wildlife.

From there we made our trek inland towards Eugene — a vibrant college town that is home to the University of Oregon, oh and breweries. Lots of them.

But for the purposes of this article, I've been told not to get distracted by the bevy of micro breweries, vineyards and ridiculously good food on offer around Oregon and focus on the road-tripping. So, back to the scenery.

As far as views go, they don't come more impressive than the vista awaiting you when you reach the top of Crater Lake National Park in southern Oregon.

Fed by rain and snow, the lake is considered to be the world's cleanest large body of water. The water is so blue we spent about 10 minutes rooted to the same spot, oohing and aahing over the view and trying to decide what hue of blue it is. We settle on sapphire.

A panoramic view of Crater Lake and the historic Crater Lake Lodge. Photo / 123RF
A panoramic view of Crater Lake and the historic Crater Lake Lodge. Photo / 123RF

For geography buffs, the lake rests inside a caldera formed approximately 7700 years ago, when a volcano erupted and subsequently collapsed. Later eruptions formed Wizard Island, a cinder cone near the south-west shore of the lake.

The lake is easily accessible by a well-sealed road leading to the summit of the caldera, from where you can drive around the rim to the various lookout spots, or, if you're feeling a bit more sprightly, hike one of the many trails around the national park. The Crater Lake Lodge is also worth a visit — on a cold day you can sit and drink hot chocolate by the roaring fire, on a hot day you can sit outside on the deck and admire the view with a cold cider in hand.

On changeable days, the day we visit, you can do both. So we do.

Situated in the high desert, Smith Rock, one of Oregon's other must-see wonders, offers a complete contrast to the lush foliage and deep blue water of Crater Lake.

Smith Rock lies in the heart of ranch country, where pick-up trucks proudly carry Trump bumper stickers and fences lining the highway are emblazoned with placards saying all sorts of terrible things about Hillary Clinton. The Trump mania seems at odds with an otherwise liberal state — but then they do tell you Oregon offers you a taste of everything.

Smith Rock State Park is a playground for hikers, bikers and rock climbers ready to conquer the 240m cliffs rising above the lazy crooked river. Or you can just opt for a gentle stroll along the river bed, but the park goers will all tell you the climb to the top is well worth the effort.

The sheer scale of the rocky cliff makes the climb look intimidating, but one hiker approaching their twilight years assured me it was perfectly manageable. The track to the top is a series of switchbacks, making the gradient a lot more forgiving.

The only creature I saw struggling was a French bulldog, who had to be piggy-backed so he could get up the final climb back to the carpark. That was my cue to head for the carpark and drive to Portland.

To book your USA road trip: See House of Travel.

Further information: See travelportland.com and visittheusa.com.

United Airlines flies from Auckland to Portland via San Francisco.

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