You don’t need to undertake a major expedition to reach some of Oregon’s most spectacular mountain destinations.
With a pack on your back, you can put down a tent at the foot of Oregon’s tallest mountains and clearest lakes.
There are plenty of places to explore — but here are five of my favorite.
1. Jefferson Park
While the Mount Jefferson Wilderness is home to a ton of beautiful trails, there really is no doubt about which journey is tops.
In Jefferson Park, Oregon’s second-tallest mountain fills half the sky above an alpine paradise of blue lakes and wildflowers. It’s a true wonderland and one of the most beautiful places in Oregon.
The only issue is that so many people love this area. Consider visiting midweek. Before going, make sure to reserve a campsite permit, which is now required to put up a tent here.
Different trails access Jeff Park. The quickest and easiest route (and also the most crowded) begins at the Whitewater Trailhead, not far from Detroit. It’s 11.6 miles and 1,800 feet of climb round-trip.
The most scenic option begins at Breitenbush Lake and traverses a spectacular stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail into Jefferson Park from the northeast. The major downside is the truly awful drive to the trailhead, which is too rough for passenger cars.
Whitewater Trailhead: From Salem, head east on Highway 22, roughly 10 miles past Detroit, to mileposts 60 to 61. Turn left on Whitewater Road 2243. Follow this gravel route 7.4 miles to its end at a large parking area.
Breitenbush Lake Trailhead: From Salem, drive east on Highway 22 to Detroit and turn left onto Breitenbush Highway 46 for 17 miles. Turn right onto Skyline Road, or Forest Service Road 4220, for an absolutely horrendous 6.5 miles to the PCT Trailhead and Breitenbush Lake.
2. Elk Meadows
This alpine meadow on the eastern side of Mount Hood features postcard-worthy views of Oregon’s tallest mountain along with a funky shelter right in the middle.
The hike to this paradise is 6 miles round-trip with about 1,100 feet of climb, making it challenging but doable for most people.
The trailhead is adjacent to Mount Hood Meadows Ski Area — a popular winter destination far quieter in summer.
You’ll cross Clark and Newton Creek amid a forested setting before the trail switchbacks up Newton Canyon. Elk Meadows is above. Wonderful picnic areas can be found here, as well as plenty of backcountry campsites.
Directions: From Government Camp, follow Highway 35 east toward Hood River for 10.7 miles, past the turnoff for Mount Hood Meadows, and turn left at a sign for Elk Meadows Trailhead. Coordinates: 45.322254, -121.633523.
3. Obsidian Loop
This alpine paradise in the Three Sisters Wilderness is so beautiful that you need a special permit just to visit. But don’t worry — permits are often available, it’s cheap ($6) and the limited entry keeps this beautiful area from being overrun.
The 12-mile route, with around 2,000 feet of climb, is highlighted by crystal-clear streams, wildflower meadows, rugged mountain views, young lava flows and obsidian cliffs. The cliffs were an important source of naturally occurring volcanic glass used by Native Americans to craft tools, according to the Forest Service.
Get a permit online in advance. For weekends, make sure to plan well in advance. The route begins on McKenzie Pass east of Eugene.
Directions: From Highway 126 (east of Eugene or south of Santiam Pass), head east on McKenzie Pass Highway 242 for 13 miles. The large and well-marked trailhead is on the side of the highway. Coordinates: 44.203967, -121.871884.
4. Rogue River Trail
In the depths of the Rogue River canyon, there’s a sense of being swallowed by a place altogether separate from the outside world.
The mountains encase the valley in thousand-foot walls, and the river glides deep and green past wildlife, forest and a civilization of rustic lodges built beginning in the 1930s.
This 40-mile backpacking adventure down this wild and scenic river in Southern Oregon offers something no other trail can. The network of lodges gives weary backpackers the chance to spend nights in rustic splendor — meals, hot showers and soft beds — while local outfitters offer trips that turn a challenging hike into a luxurious experience of wine and craft beers.
So, do this trip the old fashion way and camp the entire route, add one or two nights at a lodge or hire an outfitter to make it as easy as possible.
5. Elkhorn Crest Trail
Views across the length of northeast Oregon feel almost commonplace on the Elkhorn Crest Trail, one of the highest and most unique pathways in the state.
The 23-mile national recreation trail tightropes across the granite spine of the Elkhorn Range, where mountain goats roam sheer peaks and alpine lakes dapple multicolored valleys high above the prairie below.
Located outside Baker City, the trail stretches from one high pass to another — staying close to 8,000 feet throughout — on a fairly level route between trailheads at Anthony Lake Campground and Marble Pass. For those who love alpine backpacking but don’t enjoy steep climbs and drops, the Elkhorn Crest is tough to beat.
Backpackers typically tent at Dutch Flat, Lost, Meadow, Summit and Twin lakes just off the main trail. Water and flat ground is rare on the crest.
The recommended route for backpacking all 23 miles is to begin at Marble Pass, which eliminates the one steep climb on the route.
To save time, money and gas — and to avoid driving the awful roads to Marble Pass — consider getting a shuttle. Range Tour and Shuttle in Baker City charges $50 per backpacker and can be reached at 541-403-2616 or email@example.com.