: Nestucca Bay by Bergman Photography / USFWS

Great Oregon Books, Great Oregon Places

Let your imagination run wild at the real-life places that inspired these novels.
March 25, 2024

With its dramatic landscapes, colorful towns and creative people, it’s little wonder that some of our country’s best writers — think Ken Kesey, Ursula K. Le Guin, David James Duncan and more — have set their spellbinding stories in Oregon. And while the characters and places may be fictitious, there’s no doubt that some very real Oregon locations have inspired great minds to create the tales that have enthralled readers for generations.  

Here is a roundup of awesome, mostly fictitious places, their real counterparts and great books to inspire your next Oregon adventure.

A mural of a man leaning against a bookshelf.
Ken Kesey mural in Springfield. Photo by Joni Kabana

Ken Kesey’s Oregon Comes to Life at These Stops

Two of the most famous books set in Oregon need almost no introduction. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Sometimes a Great Notion” both come from University of Oregon graduate and Springfield-raised Ken Kesey. The former takes place inside an Oregon psychiatric hospital; the latter takes place in a fictional timber area, Wakonda, near the Oregon Coast. 

To visit the real-life places featured in those books, head to the Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health in Salem, which also served as the filming location for “Cuckoo’s” big-screen adaptation. It includes exhibits focused on the story. 

About 10 miles north of Salem you’ll find a real Waconda, an unincorporated crossroads community that was first a stagecoach stop in 1857. The fictional Wakonda is best imagined in a river-coastal town like Toledo, near Newport, where Paul Newman filmed the book’s adaptation in the early 1970s. While you’re there, look for the Oregon Film Trail sign and the steam engine at the Yaquina Pacific Railroad Historical Society. In the town’s Waterfront Park, you can stroll along the paved, level path that follows the Yaquina River and imagine it as the fictional Wakonda Auga featured in the book.   

A person standing in shallow water fly-fishing
The rushing Wilson River. Courtesy of Visit Tillamook Coast

Get Inspired by Oregon’s Rivers, Coast and Forests

Richard Powers’ “The Overstory,” which won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2019, takes place across the country (and Vietnam), but it uses Oregon’s legendary forests to inspire a main character to protect the redwoods. To see the giant trees so prevalent in the book, head to Southern Oregon and hike along the Redwood Nature Trail about 9 miles north of Brookings near Alfred A. Loeb State Park. Want to spend the night in a giant old-growth tree as Nick and Olivia do? Guides from Tree Climbing at Silver Falls will safely set you up for the night hundreds of feet off the forest floor in Silver Falls State Park

The River Why,” a classic novel of the American West, hinges on another aspect of Oregon’s natural beauty: its magnificent rivers and the fly-fishing culture they’ve inspired. David James Duncan’s 1983 coming-of-age story is set in Portland and on the Oregon Coast, particularly along the fictional Tamanawis River, a steelhead-rich waterway. If you’d like to play your own Gus Orviston, stay at the Wilson River Lodge near Tillamook and book a fishing trip with Big Dave, who can get you on the Wilson River, a location used in the 2010 movie adaptation. 

While you’re there, take a road trip north toward Astoria. This portion of the North Coast inspired multiple-award-winning Oregonian Ursula K. Le Guin to write “Searoad,” a collection of stories from a small town called Klatsand. That’s a fictional place “between Gearhart and Garibaldi,” she once told an interviewer. Another small coastal Oregon town, Neawanaka, serves as the setting for Brian Doyle’s “Mink River.” It too is made up, but in Pacific City you’ll find the Nestucca River and the Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge for spying on songbirds. A few miles south, you’ll come to Neskowin, a town with a broad sandy beach. Don’t miss the Neskowin Ghost Forest, the remains of a 2,000-year-old rain forest now sitting eerily in the water.  

Want more recommendations? Head to a local library or a cozy bookstore where shop owners like writer Charlie J. Stephens are happy to help. Stephens, who owns Sea Wolf Books & Community Writing Center in Port Orford, published a coming-of-age tale set in a fictional town in the woods of inland Oregon, “A Wounded Deer Leaps Highest,” in 2024.

A water fountain at a park with small bronze statues of a dog, and a small girl and boy.
The Beverly Cleary Sculpture Garden at Grant Park. Courtesy of Danita Delimont/ Alamy Stock Photo

See Beverly Cleary’s Portland, Visit Forest Park and Hike Bend Canyons

Beverly Cleary, the prolific author of children’s and young-adult books, grew up in Portland, and some of her most lovable characters lived on Klickitat Street, a real street in the city where Cleary lived until she was 18. Today you can find sculptures of Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins and his beloved dog, Ribsy, at the Beverly Cleary Sculpture Garden in Grant Park. Get a copy of “Walking with Ramona: Exploring Beverly Cleary’s Portland,” a 128-page guidebook that will take you on a 3.2-mile-long bike or walking tour of Northeast Portland and the Hollywood neighborhood to see the author’s house, among other stops. 

For another story about a girl living in the city — this one in a fictitious, sprawling cave in Forest Park — read “My Abandonment” by Peter Rock, which was later turned into the film “Leave No Trace.” Sarah Gilbert of Around Portland Tours can show you the hidden reaches of Forest Park and regale you with true stories of people who actually have lived in the park over the years, including the real-life events that inspired Rock’s book. Book a three-hour walking tour offered year-round. 

More of Oregon’s vast wilderness — this one the fictitious Echo Canyon — features prominently in “The Wilding,” by Benjamin Percy. The story takes place outside of Bend, where a golf resort is about to be built. And while Bend does have great golf, head out to the Oregon Badlands Wilderness Area for spring hikes among ancient juniper trees. Then take a drive down O.B. Riley Road — a real road featured in the book — to sit by the Deschutes River at Sawyer Park

For more books set in Oregon, visit your local bookshop or check out the list of Oregon Book Award winners here.

About The

Tim Neville
Tim Neville is a writer based in Bend where he writes about the outdoors, travel and the business of both. His work has been included in Best American Travel Writing, Best American Sports Writing and Best Food Writing, and earned various awards from the Society of American Travel Writers and the Society of Professional Journalists. Tim has reported from all seven continents and spends his free time skiing, running and spending time with his family.

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