Editor’s note: Call destinations before you visit to make sure they’re open. Stay posted on what Oregon’s new COVID-19 guidelines mean for you, and follow these steps for social distancing outdoors. Also, remember to bring your face covering, required for all of Oregon’s public indoor spaces and outdoors when keeping 6 feet of distance isn’t possible. Here’s what to know about Oregon’s outdoors right now.
If you’ve never hiked in Oregon in winter, here’s what you’re missing: the drama of rain-flushed waterfalls; seabirds hanging on the updraft of a cliff’s edge; views of the ocean’s stormy moods; and elk and deer browsing on the wintry landscape. Hiking during the winter is also a fantastic way to experience these areas without the crowds of the summer months — it’s fairly easy to keep 6 feet of physical distance. You’ll also be experiencing the trails with a whole new seasonal lens: Wildlife is often more active in the winter, waterfalls are fuller, trails are softer and colors of the forest are more vibrant after rainfall.
Before you lace up those boots, check each trailhead page for updates on detours or road closures. Plan ahead for steep, slick, uneven or muddy sections, and pack your Ten Essentials, including a map and compass, extra food and water, and rain gear. Also wear or carry your face covering, and keep it handy to pull up as you encounter others. Read up on more top tips to Take Care Out There. When you’re ready to venture out, pick a trail near you from this handy list.
Southern Oregon: Lithia Park Loop
If you’ve seen the images of its bright-red Japanese maples, bubbling creeks and footbridges, you probably know that Lithia Park in Ashland is a nature-lover’s paradise, right in the middle of the city. Each season at the park carries its own colors, sounds and animal life, and a wintertime visit means fewer crowds to navigate. Start at the front entrance and download the Lithia Park Trail Guide to help guide your way. For the best experience, take your time and make it a mindful nature stroll and soak up the beauty at favorite sites including the duck pond, Japanese Garden, Rose Garden and more. Keep your face covering handy if you pass others outside of your household.
Oregon Coast: Cape Perpetua Scenic Area
Combine the Captain Cook Trail and Restless Waters Trail for a scenic hike between Cook’s Chasm and Devils Churn in the Cape Perpetua Scenic Area. This beautiful trail is partially paved (read: accessible for everyone and less mud) and bookended by two awesome ocean features — the Spouting Horn at one end and Devils Churn at the other — which are even more dramatic in winter. Extend this short, 1.7-mile hike with another Cape Perpetua Trail, like the out-and-back Giant Spruce Trail (2 miles round-trip).
Mt. Hood/Columbia River Gorge: Deschutes River Trail
Sunshine can be fleeting in the winter, but there’s one part of the Columbia River Gorge that’s famous for its sunny and drier climes year-round. The Deschutes River Trail in The Dalles, on the eastern side of the Gorge, delivers a hefty dose of Vitamin D and dramatic river views along 11.3 miles through the park and the canyon. Since it’s an out-and-back trail, you can turn around at any point; the 3-mile mark makes for a family-friendly day trip that’s hard to beat. Look for wildflowers starting to bloom in late February and consider RV camping at Deschutes River State Recreation Area, where you begin and end. Watch for horseback riders and mountain bikers along parts of the gravel trail and your eyes peeled for birds and other wildlife. Parking is $5 for day use or $5 per night for backpackers.
Eastern Oregon: Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area
In Eastern Oregon, Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area near La Grande offers rich opportunities for wildlife viewing along a 1-mile, ADA-accessible nature trail, along with a viewpoint and fishing pond. Look for hawks and eagles as well as mule deer and Rocky Mountain elk here in the largest hardstem bulrush marsh in northeast Oregon. Please leave Fido home, as dogs are prohibited in the sensitive wildlife area. Purchase a wildlife area parking permit before you go, and stop at the self check-in station for free daily public access, required of all visitors.
Portland Region: Forest Park
You don’t have to leave the big city to take a big hike. At 5,157 acres, Portland’s Forest Park is one of the largest urban nature preserves in the U.S., with miles and miles of year-round trails. Try a section of the Wildwood Trail, a National Recreation Trail, which weaves 30.2 miles from Portland’s Washington Park through the Tualatin Mountains. Download the Forest Park app to help navigate, or carry a map, making sure to follow posted rules and carry out all garbage — especially pet waste. On popular sections of the Wildwood Trail, you may encounter lots of other hikers, so wear your face covering, say hello and keep your dog leashed at all times.
Central Oregon: Deschutes River Trail
Not to be confused with the trail of the same name in The Dalles, this Deschutes River Trail is easy to access in the heart of Bend, a major perk for locals. It can be as challenging as you like, with five distinct segments that range from residential and flat to rocky and steep. Walk or run through river parks, over footbridges and into deep canyons on this classic (and expanding) Central Oregon trail. Note that a recreation pass is required for parking, and you can purchase one online or in person at several area retailers. While dogs must be leashed during the busy season (between May 15 and Sept. 15), they’re allowed to be off-leash the rest of the year. Look for horses and bikers, which may be using some parts of the trail. Go midweek or early in the day to avoid crowds, and keep your face covering handy to pull on as you pass others. Vault toilets are available at points along the trail.
Willamette Valley: Brice Creek Falls
A 30-minute detour off Interstate 5 in the South Willamette Valley, Brice Creek Falls is a spectacular retreat, especially in the winter, when it’s much less crowded. A 5.7-mile trail (moderately difficult) follows the clear water of Brice Creek, which flows through an old-growth forest that looks magical with its mossy rocks and pools below the falls. Mountain bikers and runners often use the trail, so make sure to keep an eye out, keep your face covering handy and respect all users, keeping 6 feet of physical distance. You can see a pair of falls, the lower and upper falls, which can be accessed via different trailheads if you don’t want to complete the whole trek. Brice Creek is a short day trip from Eugene (45 miles southeast) and Cottage Grove (23 miles southeast) in the town of Dorena, part of the Umpqua National Forest.
If You Go:
Before setting out, make sure you have purchased any necessary Forest Service recreation passes. Whatever your adventure entails, follow these tips on how to Take Care Out There, including packing in and out, leaving what you find where it’s at, and respecting wildlife and other visitors. If you’re looking to beat the crowds, visit on a weekday or get to the trail early. Especially in winter, be sure to check road and weather conditions, and carry snow chains or traction tires when advised. Always be sure to check your intended site’s status before you go, as closures can occur. For instance, in December 2020 a culvert failure closed the parking lot to Golden and Silver Falls State Natural Area on the Southern Oregon Coast, meaning visitors now have to add an extra 2-mile, in-and-out walk.