Editor’s note: Oregon’s COVID-19 restrictions have eased, but businesses may ask you to wear a face cover – bring one along and be patient and kind if asked to wear it. It’s also wildfire season – plan ahead and do your part to prevent wildfires.
Oregon is flush with incredible state parks, and there’s nothing quite like a day spent rediscovering your favorite. However, when everyone else has the same idea, it can put a damper on things. Luckily, the state is home to enough less-crowded alternatives that pack their own unique punch. Here are some of Oregon’s most popular state parks and where you might consider going instead for equally impressive trails, views, wildlife and natural wonders — all with a bit more solitude.
Instead of Ecola State Park, head to Saddle Mountain for coastal views.
Hugging 9 miles of the coastline between Seaside and Cannon Beach, Ecola State Park offers visitors sweeping ocean views along an 8-mile segment of the Oregon Coast Trail. These treks, however, are prone to overuse, and the park has no safe overflow-parking options.
Instead, choose the trail less traveled at Saddle Mountain State Natural Area, 20 miles east of both Seaside and Cannon Beach along a winding road that forks off of Highway 26. The main out-and-back trail is 2.5 miles long and offers multiple jaw-dropping views en route to the summit, where you can take in the panorama of the Coast region. The trail is steep and difficult in spots, so this hike is for those up for a challenge in proper footwear. Go early and midweek to beat the crowds.
Mt. Hood and the Columbia River Gorge
Instead of Rooster Rock, go to Mayer State Park for riverside fun.
Situated along the banks of the Columbia River near Corbett, Rooster Rock State Park is a popular launch spot for windsurfers and a great spot for spectators to post up and watch the action along the long, flat beachy shores.
However, it pays to travel a little farther east for a less-crowded riverside destination. Mayer State Park, about 55 miles east of Corbett near The Dalles, offers the same windsurfing action but with fewer crowds and stunning views of the cliffs that run along the river’s edge. With wildflowers in the spring, the location is a great one for a picnic under the large ponderosa pines or an afternoon of swimming and paddling the waters of the park’s sheltered cove.
Instead of Silver Falls, check out Cascadia State Park for waterfall vibes.
Nicknamed the “crown jewel” of the Oregon State Park system, Silver Falls State Park in Silverton shows off with 10 impressive waterfalls, including a 177-foot curtain that hikers can walk behind. On any given day, a steady stream of visitors flood the trails to get a view of these wonders.
Find more solitude about 60 miles south at Cascadia State Park, along Highway 20 — part of the Over the Rivers & Through the Woods Scenic Byway. The tranquil atmosphere of the lush Douglas firs and moss-covered rocks acts as a pristine setting to take in Soda Creek Falls, which you can walk right up to. The location also has rich Native and pioneer history — you can even spot ruts from the Santiam Wagon Trail, an 1800s military route.
Instead of Smith Rock, hit the trails at Prineville Reservoir for high-desert treks.
One of Central Oregon’s most visited outdoor attractions, Smith Rock State Park near Terrebonne wows with its towering rock spires and spectacular river canyons. Alongside thousands of rock-climbing routes, the park is also home to hiking trails that allow lucky visitors to see golden eagles, prairie falcons and beavers.
A great alternate desert hiking location is Prineville Reservoir State Park, which offers high-desert hiking the way it should be: without the hustle and bustle. Located about 35 miles southeast of Smith Rock, the 3,000-acre park has 43 miles of shoreline, making it a great spot for wildlife viewing as well as paddleboarding, kayaking and waterskiing. Plus, if you stay overnight, you’ll likely be dazzled by stars, as the park was recently certified as an International Dark Sky Park.
Instead of Valley of the Rogue, go to Jackson Kimball for a riverside picnic.
A green oasis situated right on the banks of the Rogue River, Valley of the Rogue State Park is one of the most-visited state parks in Southern Oregon, with wide-open grass fields and idyllic riverfront views.
A better bet for finding peace and solitude is to visit Jackson F. Kimball State Recreation Site, about 90 miles northeast. Immerse yourself in a forest of lodgepole pines, expansive meadow grasslands and the stream of the Wood River. A short walk from the campgrounds, you’ll find a bubbling spring on a rocky hillside.
Instead of Wallowa Lake, pay a visit to Minam State Recreation Area for waterfront inspiration.
It’s easy to see why visitors love Wallowa Lake State Park. One day spent plunging into the park’s namesake glacial waters while looking up at the towering peaks of the Wallowa Mountains and you, too, will understand.
However, you can get out and enjoy the waterways without the crowds at Minam State Recreation Area, a less-discovered spot along the Wallowa River near La Grande. Tucked between the Wallowa Whitman and Umatilla national forests, the site is great for boaters, anglers, rafters and swimmers alike who can unwind at the quiet, off-the-beaten-path locale. Campers will even find the occasional neighbor of deer, bear, elk and bighorn sheep.
Instead of Tryon Creek, explore L.L. Stub Stewart for urban trails.
It’s hard to believe you’re so close to Portland when you enter Tryon Creek State Natural Area. The 658 acres of lush old-growth canopy and paths winding past unique flora and fauna make this spot a favorite for those looking for a bit of respite from the city.
Instead, head out to the less-visited L.L. Stub Stewart State Park. Thirty-five miles west of Portland, this park feels like a hidden secret with 30 miles of forested hiking trails and breathtaking westward views, perfect for settling in to watch a gorgeous sunset. It even has year-round camping, mountain biking trails and a disc-golf course.