Blushing like sunset, a peach hangs heavily from a branch. I reach up to pluck its fuzzy ripeness and gently place it into a bucket. I am strolling down a row of pick-your-own peaches at Draper Girls Country Farm in Oregon’s Hood River Valley, thrilled to savor August-warm harvests rather than grocery-store fruits, labeled only by color or state.
My family and I are driving the 35-mile Fruit Loop, which meanders past farms and orchards that bear the likes of strawberries, cherries, apples and pears. At roadside farm stands with a rainbow of fruit artfully arranged on checkered tablecloths, we read names of peaches like seed-catalog poetry: “Diamond Princess, Arctic Glow, Red Haven, Rising Star.”
If California’s vast valleys of lettuce, broccoli, carrots and kale are considered the nation’s salad bowl, this fertile rolling region between Oregon’s lush coastal forests and dry high desert could be America’s fruit bowl. Peaches drip juice down our chins, and we fill our cooler with a bounty of ginger gold and Gravenstein apples, blueberries and apricots. Snow-capped Mount Hood rises from the southern horizon, painting the idyllic setting like early 1900s fruit crate labels.
That, of course, is part of the allure. Oregon ranks among the rare states where you can explore mountains and ocean, fruited valleys and volcanoes, each region unfurling its own riff on outdoor beauty. The biggest challenge? Fitting it into a week.
We begin with the Columbia River Gorge, America’s first designated scenic byway, which follows the famously windy river with sweeping cliff-top views before dipping into intimate stretches through mossy forests. We miss most of the eight roadside waterfalls on a Sunday when day-trippers from Portland, 90 minutes to the west, clog parking lots and line roadsides. By Monday morning, though, we pluck juicy roadside blackberries from prickly brambles and hop among the rocks at Horsetail Falls, which we have to ourselves.
At Multnomah Falls a few minutes away, we hike to the historic stone bridge and struggle to photograph all 620 feet of Oregon’s tallest waterfall.
By noon, we hop and shop among Fruit Loop farms. Gorge White House offers samples of hard pear and apple ciders, serves a tasty pizza topped with sweet cherries and smoky bacon, and beckons visitors with U-Pick blueberry fields and U-Pick flower gardens. Packer Orchard and Bakery serves scoops of huckleberry ice cream, heady fragrances waft from Hood River Lavender Farms’ soaps and sachets, and Foothills Yarn shop welcomes guests to pet their mop-topped alpacas.
We finish the day watching sunset paint the Columbia as we compare pieces of marionberry, blueberry and peach pie from Bette’s Place in downtown Hood River. Peach wins.
Climbing Mount Hood
The next day we detour to Lost Lake in the Hood River National Forest, then drive up, up and up. The air cools progressively as we climb 11,250-foot Mount Hood and reach its historic landmark, Timberline Lodge.
If the building evokes familiarity, it could be its sinister role in the movie “The Shining,” but for us — and a lobby bustling with visitors — it’s the interior craftsmanship and unexpected art that awes.
Built in only 15 months with native materials and 1937 Works Progress Administration art funds, the result ranks it among America’s legendary historic lodges, including Glacier National Park’s Many Glacier Hotel and Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn.
Dragon-like ram-headed iron accents make one door fit for ancient Vikings while another is carved with an Indian chief. The National Forest Service leads free daily tours to show off blacksmithing and carvings, handmade furniture, murals, a wildlife mosaic, massive timber beams, Indian symbols and railtops carved into bears and birds.
We share a few appetizers in the balcony bar, where windows frame snowy peaks. Glance in another direction, and we look down on the lower lounge, where guests relax and Pacific Crest Trail hikers huddle by the hearth and pool money for a room.
In the morning, we open our window to the clatter and chatter of skiers heading to lifts on the only mountain in the Lower 48 states that stays open year-round. For us, it’s enough of a novelty to seek a snowfield, toss a slushy snowball and hike back down to summer’s alpine flowers.
As we check out, the lobby clerk looks at our 10-year-old girls and asks, “Do you want to come in?” and opens her office door to Bruno. A behemoth St. Bernard and lodge mascot, he offers a friendly, furry and fitting goodbye to the Timberline Lodge.
Beholding ‘the bluest blue’
A tour of Oregon seems incomplete without seeing its biggest spectacle: Crater Lake National Park. As we drive close to four hours south, the landscape shakes off forest, ditches high desert and climbs toward terrain that looks intergalactic. Red plants dot mostly barren charcoal-gray fields as we are sandwiched between campers and minivans, and our ears pop from elevation change.
When we finally crest the rim of Crater Lake, we gasp at what one park ranger dubs the “bluest of blues.” Calm water shimmers below like centuries of blue skies captured, concentrated and distilled.
Cameras and phones softly click, and there’s a tangible sense of wonder among newly arrived travelers. The visitor center movie explains how Mount Mazama violently exploded at twice the speed of sound about 7,700 years ago, erupting until the whole top of the mountain collapsed into a caldera that stretches 6 miles wide.
Snow filled it, leaving 5 trillion gallons of what’s considered some of the purest water in the world with more than 100 feet of visibility. It’s also America’s deepest lake at 1,943 feet deep.
Near the western edge of the lake, Wizard Island, a volcanic cinder cone, rises 600 feet above the water. It’s still dwarfed by the surrounding caldera walls that rise up to 2,000 feet high, washed with subtle reds, browns and blacks. You almost have to squint to spot the park’s tour boat far below, visible by its white wake as it motors across the sapphire surface.
Crater Lake averages close to 44 feet of snow each winter, which means the 33-mile Rim Drive (with the sharp turns and drop-offs of a mountain byway) might not open until early July and can close as early as October. With a short season, boat tours and lodging at the park — either the gorgeously located Crater Lake Lodge or modest Cabins at Mazama Village — book quickly.
Our kids seem wary of a boat tour, and veto the steep milelong hike to the crater’s only water access. None of us dare to cannonball into the icy water. Without those experiences, Crater Lake seems like priceless art or ancient cathedrals: stunning, delicate, remote. We look, but don’t touch.
Tumbling along the coast
Four hours northwest of Crater Lake, we reach the Pacific Coast and the town of Florence along the Siuslaw River. North of Oregon’s biggest sand dunes and south of busier beach towns, the city of fewer than 9,000 residents offers a laid-back, welcoming playground.
ATVs rumble down and roar back up designated dunes. A harbor seal frolics by a downtown restaurant on the river. Tourist shops drape windows with artsy glass orbs and serve scoops of “Oregon Trail” ice cream — chocolate swirled with blackberry ripple and hazelnuts.
We eagerly beeline toward the ocean, but get sidetracked by a curiosity and a busy pier near the river’s mouth. Deep rope lines are gouged into the railings, and seagulls squawk for handouts. Locals bait traps with raw chicken and canned cat food while others haul Dungeness crabs out of the water. Small ones break free and launch themselves back into the water while trappers sort through the rest, returning what they aren’t allowed to keep.
A woman with a friendly Lab talks us through the process and lets my husband, Bob, gingerly hold one of the big crabs as it thrashes its legs and claws.
“I’m just hoping for dinner,” pipes up a Kentucky transplant trying to catch one each for himself and his wife.
Afterward, we park and hike across small dunes to dodge ocean surf and watch the kids cartwheel like tumbleweeds. It’s an endless sandbox kind of beach, but the kids beg to head north to Heceta Beach, where a lighthouse perches above the rocky cove.
The breeze mixes the mineral tang of solar-heated rocks with the brackish whiff from sprawling colonies of mussels.
Our girls excitedly show off their finds, such as partial sand dollars. They hop among rocks and waves to stare into tide pools, where we point out sea-green anemones and maroon ocher sea stars that cling to rocks as the tide pulls out.
The coastal treasure hunt caps our bountiful travels from lush gorge to fertile valley, legendary mountain to celestial lake. It’s peachy to beachy — managed nicely in one week — fading out with the blink of a lighthouse and a Pacific lullaby.
Lisa Meyers McClintick writes for many publications and her blog 10000Likes.com. Her latest book, “Off the Beaten Path: The Dakotas” was recently released.