It may sound crazy, but you could make the argument the best time to explore Oregon’s outdoors is during the winter.
Yes, it’s rainy, snowy and pretty much always cool. But it’s those elements, plus the lack of crowds, that make it such a glorious time to travel.
Waterfalls are booming or covered in ice. Old-growth forests are at their mossy best. And hot springs feel just a little bit better amid chilled temperatures.
Here are 30 winter outdoor adventures to try in Oregon.
Weather will vary considerably, so always check roads and conditions before you go and be prepared.
Crater Lake ski or snowshoe
Winter is king at Oregon’s only national park. Forty-two feet of snowfall blankets this collapsed volcano, making it one of the snowiest inhabited places in North America.
Roads are typically, but not always, plowed to the Rim Village. The lake is only visible 50% of the time, so planning is key.
Once you’ve spotlighted a good weather window, there are a few options. You can join a ranger-guided snowshoe trip on Saturday or Sunday (call 541-594-3100 for reservations). It’s also easy to do it yourself, by snowshoeing or skiing from Rim Village along Rim Road — a large snow-covered road.
Best yet is snow camping along the rim of Crater Lake. It requires a permit and is a major undertaking that requires a lot of planning. Go to Crater Lake’s website at bit.ly/3UYZwK4 for more details.
Snowy waterfall hunting
There’s something special about a waterfall covered in ice and snow. In Oregon’s Cascade Range, there are a handful of waterfall hikes that transform into snowshoe adventures after snow reaches their elevation.
Explore Oregon Podcast:Winter waterfall hunting by ski or snowshoe
Learn to ski with your kids
Last winter I took the plunge and taught my 5 and 7 year old kids to ski. It was a richly rewarding experience and now both kids have the ski bug in a serious way.
I did a podcast with Mt. Hood Meadows lead ski instructor Tyler Barnes about the best ways to get kids started with downhill skiing and snowboarding.
There’s a lot of stuff to know, from where to find affordable gear — or the excellent season-long rental option — to the best way to keep things fun.
“If you start kids skiing before the age of 10, they’re likely to do it for the rest of their lives. The kids that start even younger don’t know what not skiing even is, which is an even greater draw toward them skiing their entire life,” Barnes said in the podcast.
Snowshoe or ski adventures to winter fire lookouts
There are four primary fire lookouts that you can ski, snowshoe and sometimes snowmobile to in northwest Oregon: Warner Mountain Lookout (Diamond Peak area southeast of Eugene), Hager Mountain Lookout (south-central Oregon near Summer Lake) along with Fivemile Butte and Clear Lake, which are both in the Mount Hood area.
Scoring a reservation for these highly-sought after lookouts is tough, so the trick is just to check throughout the winter for cancellations. They do happen on a semi-regular basis, in large part because all of them are challenging, requiring anywhere from a 4 to 12 mile climb through the snow to a cozy fire lookout nestled in the snow. All lookouts are reserved on Recreation.gov.
Hager Mountain, hot springs and cowboy steak
This road trip works best if you can score a night at Hager Mountain Lookout, but even if you can’t, it’s worth visiting this enchanted area east of the Cascades in south-central Oregon.
You can still climb Hager Mountain’s 7,000 foot summit for a view — just not stay overnight — and then eat at one of Oregon’s great restaurants, soak in hot springs and visit one of Oregon’s great state parks.
After you climb Hager, or just admire it from a distance, reward yourself by stopping at Cowboy Dinner Tree on the way out. The best steak or chicken dinner you’ve ever had is served at this tiny, rustic spot that only accepts cash, requires reservations and is only open on Saturdays in December. Still worth it.
Finally, treat your sore muscles (and bulging belly) with a night or two at Summer Lake Hot Springs. On the drive home, be sure to stop at Fort Rock State Park, an ancient volcanic tuff that has the look and feel of a primordial colosseum.
Santiam Pass sno-parks
Just looking for a quick day in the snow? The Santiam Pass sno-parks, east of Salem and Eugene, have you covered. These portals to ski, snowshoe and snowmobile trails require purchasing an annual permit for $25 or day pass for $4.
There’s a family snow-tubing hill (Santiam Sno-Park), a snowshoe trip to panoramic mountain views (Potato Hill Sno-Park), ski and snowmobile trails to multiple shelters (Ray Benson Sno-Park) and even a cabin where you can snowshoe in and spend the night (Maxwell Sno-Park).
Pro tip: Do your best to track down a Santiam Pass winter recreation map. They can be hard to find but call outdoors shops or U.S. Forest Service offices. They show every route and important landmark. I wouldn’t explore without it.
Coast Range waterfalls
You don’t necessarily need snow to make a great a winter adventure. Oregon’s smaller mountains, the Coast Range, celebrate everything about the state that’s lush and green.
The best hikes in the Coast Range traverse rainforest to giant, booming waterfalls that swell with winter’s rain. These hikes are often a challenge to reach, but offer major rewards.
Favorite overall hike: Kentucky Falls.
Best hike with kids: Sweet Creek Falls.
Closest to Salem: Niagara Falls.
Most photogenic and easy to access: Golden and Silver Falls.
Each of those options will take you on major adventures in a celebration of everything rain-related.
Chilly Oregon hot springs
Travel through the winter forest and then take a dip in the thermal hot springs that bubble to the surface in a few places around western Oregon.
There are a handful of hot springs open to the public all winter long. One favorite is Terwilliger Hot Springs (also known as Cougar) on the McKenzie River east of Eugene.
Some hot springs, at higher elevations, might need to be reached via ski, snowshoe or snowy hike. That can include Umpqua Hot Springs and others. However, Bagby Hot Springs remains closed.
Always check conditions in advance. Of course, it’s easier and less crowded to just book hot springs stays at places like Belknap Hot Springs or Breitenbush Hot Springs.
Trillium Lake ski or snowshoe
Enjoy views of Mount Hood on a ski, snowshoe or fat bike tour around popular Trillium Lake near Government Camp.
The trek around this lake, best enjoyed on a weekday when crowds are smaller, is 5 miles. It starts from a small parking lot with a donation box (helps offset the cost of grooming trails). The trail then drops steeply downhill on snow-covered roads to the lake, then takes off around it.
This is a moderately challenging adventure.
Fat bike over the snow in Central Oregon
Few places have embraced fat biking on the snow like Bend and Central Oregon.
There are multiple places to ride, mostly found along Cascade Lakes Highway west of Bend. The best option is to stop at a local bike shop to rent a bike and get advice on where to go.
I rent my bikes from Hutch’s Bicycle Store in Bend for $45 each per day. My favorite place to ride is Wanoga Sno-Park, which has groomed fat bike trails once the season gets rolling, and Dutchman Sno-Park, where there’s a great ride to Todd Lake.
Cape Lookout whale watching (or whale watching anywhere)
To be completely honest, I’ve always found whale watching on the Oregon Coast a little boring.
The practice of driving to ocean overlooks and scanning the horizon for nature’s most majestic animal has its appeal, but the standing around gets old pretty fast.
That’s why the combination of hiking Cape Lookout and whale watching is so appealing. You can enjoy one of the coast’s best trails (4.8 miles round-trip) while hiking to one of its best places to spot whales.
Explore Oregon Podcast:How to see Oregon’s whales so close ‘you can hear them breathe’
From mid-December through mid-January, you can watch more than 18,000 gray whales as they travel south to the warm lagoons of Baja Mexico.
Spring watching begins in late March as the gray whales travel north on their way toward Alaska.
Learn to surf on the Oregon Coast
Yes, you really can learn to surf on the Oregon Coast in the dead of winter. Yes, it’s more challenging to find the right day, but fellow reporter Makenzie Elliott just took lessons at Ossie’s Surf Shop in Newport in November.
The wetsuits keep you so warm that, as long as the surf is safe, it’s a doable time to take lessons.
Explore Oregon Podcast:Explore Oregon Podcast: Surfing on the Oregon Coast and how to make it happen
What better why to thumb your nose at the gloom of winter than learning how to catch a wave?
A recent edition of the Explore Oregon Podcast broke down how to make this happen.
Diamond Lake snowmobiling
Frosted-white evergreens zip past, and frozen wind howls against your face during a snowmobile trip over the mountains or into the forest surrounding Diamond Lake Resort.
The unofficial hub of southern Cascade snowmobiling is home to 300 miles of groomed trails, including connections to routes that run from Bend to Klamath Falls.
The two most popular trails are the 20-mile route to the north rim of Crater Lake and the climb up 8,376-foot Mount Bailey.
Diamond Lake Resort offers snowmobile rentals, along with a guided service and a recovery service for those who get their sled stuck off trail.
Salt Creek Falls and Diamond Creek Falls adventure
One of Oregon’s tallest waterfalls covered in snow and ice — plus a family snow-tubing area — is the highlight of this trek near Oakridge.
The classic option is an easy 1.4-mile out-and-back snowshoe trek to 286-foot Salt Creek Falls, a breathtaking sight in winter. From the sno-park, all that’s required is trekking a summer access road to the falls.
After visiting the falls, you have some options. For a longer and more difficult adventure, venture onto Diamond Creek Loop on a 5-mile trek past another snowy waterfall.
Or, if you’re with kids, head back to the sno-park and drive to the snow-tubing hill.
For even greater adventure, cross over Highway 58 onto Fuji Mountain Road and climb 4 miles uphill to a three-sided snow shelter offering epic views of Diamond Peak. Spend the night here if so inclined, as a loft sits above a wood stove.
Stop at the Middle Fork Ranger district in Oakridge for advice and a Willamette Pass winter recreation map.
Oxbow Regional Park
Fish for winter steelhead or hike through old-growth forest at this wonderful park east of the Portland metro area.
The highlight of this park, which requires an entry fee, is the winter steelhead you can land on the Sandy River.
But if the fish aren’t biting, go hike the network of trails that follow the river and delve into old-growth forest.
Climb Mount St. Helens
Make your way up the broad slopes of this volcano with its top missing, either to ski or to challenge yourself with a trek to the summit.
In summer, you need a permit to climb this popular mountain and they can be difficult to come by. But in winter, this isn’t required.
From Nov. 1 to March 31, self-register at Marble Mountain Sno-Park. There is no fee for permits during this period.
To climb in winter, make sure to have skis or crampons, and an ice axe. Be prepared and in good shape before you attempt it. For more, contact the Mount St. Helens Institute at 360-449-7883.
Redwoods road trip — including Oregon redwoods
The best time to visit the world’s tallest trees is during the middle of winter, when the crowds have slimmed down and the primeval forest is dripping wet.
My favorite park is Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, just south of the Oregon and California state line. But, you can also see Oregon redwoods north of the state line.
At the state park, there are heated cabins, yurts and campgrounds at the park, along with nearby hotels in Hiouchi and Gasquet.
If you go, make sure to visit the newly-opened Grove of Titans Trail, one of the most beautiful hiking trails.
Check with local outfitter Redwood Rides for raft trips on the magical Smith River while you’re there.
Explore Oregon Podcast:Mythic Grove of Titans showcases world’s largest redwoods
North Umpqua waterfalls
The waterfalls of the North Umpqua River corridor are second to none, and in many ways, the area along Highway 138 east of Roseburg is like a small-scale Columbia River Gorge because of the easy access to the falls right off the roadway.
A few favorites in the North Umpqua include Watson, Toketee and Wolf Creek Falls, but there are plenty of options.
You can find a guide to the falls at bit.ly/3hzrQFe.
Learn to cross country ski at Ray Benson
Two winters ago, during the pandemic, I learned to cross-country ski by basically traveling every trail at Ray Benson Sno-Park on Santiam Pass.
I fell on my butt a lot, but had an amazing time exploring an area with 67 miles of trail. There are three different warming huts at strategic locations on the various tours, which can range from well-traveled 6 mile loops to more remote terrain.
Explore Oregon Podcast:Ray Benson Sno-Park, a winter playground, named for Salem legend
While you’re there, be sure to thank the man himself, Ray Benson, a disabled mechanic from Salem who loved snowmobiling and helped spark the sno-park idea in the state back in the 1970s.
This place does get very crowded on weekends, so I recommend midweek or extremely early in the morning — like sunrise.
Return to Eagle Creek Trail and the rest of the Columbia Gorge
If you haven’t been back to the Columbia Gorge since the Eagle Creek Fire, now is a great time. Pretty much all of the trails have reopened, including famed Eagle Creek Trail, which drips with waterfalls in the winter and is also a place to see how wildfire impacts a forest in different ways.
Explore Oregon Podcast:Columbia Gorge’s best hikes, best eats, wildfire recovery and latest news
Silver Falls State Park
The waterfalls are bigger and trails less crowded during the winter at Oregon’s largest state park. Bonus points for hiking the Trail of Ten Falls when they’re covered in snow and ice. It’s not easy to get the timing right, but if you do, it’s quite an experience.
Explore Oregon Podcast:Adventure and history at Silver Falls State Park
McDowell Creek Falls
This park is like a smaller and easier version of Silver Falls.
Whether it’s the lack of notoriety or remote location, the feeling you get arriving at McDowell Creek Falls Park is that of stumbling upon a hidden gem.
Located 10 miles north of Sweet Home, the unassuming park is home to four spectacular waterfalls found on an easy, fun trail home to unique bridges and viewing platforms. Dogs on leashes are welcome.
The 1.8-mile loop passes Royal Terrace Falls, Majestic Falls and Crystal Pool.
There’s a map at the trailhead and the trails are well maintained.
Fish Detroit Lake at low water
The fishing can be red hot as Detroit Lake’s water level gets low.
Whether you’re heading out with a boat where you can troll, or just bank fishing among the stumps and mud, the lower water in the reservoir can make for pretty hot fishing east of Salem.
Explore Oregon Podcast:Guide to fishing Detroit Lake during all seasons
Ecola and Oswald West state parks
In the summer, the trails of these two spectacular state parks on the Oregon Coast are packed to the breaking point.
But in winter, all that changes.
These two parks are about a half hour apart in the Cannon Beach area and often filled with solitude during the year’s coldest months.
Explore Oregon Podcast:How Oswald West saved Oregon beaches and best hikes at his namesake park
At Ecola, Tillamook Head is a great destination, along with Indian Beach.
As Oregon’s population has grown, I’ve often heard people grumble about not being able to enjoy the state’s most beautiful places without being surrounded by crowds.
Obviously, these people have never been winter kayaking on Oregon’s rainy-season rivers and creeks.
Oregon Top 5:Reasons to love winter whitewater kayaking
Yes, it takes a drysuit and you’ll still probably be cold. But for my money, there is nothing better than winter kayaking. As the rain falls, it becomes possible to navigate down tiny rivers and creeks where the beauty would blow your mind.
You’ll need the correct gear and ability to get started safely, so consider getting more information from the Willamette Kayak and Canoe Club. Other good options include Next Adventure or Alder Creek Kayak and Canoe in Portland.
Madras Mountain Views bikeway
On the right day, this Central Oregon scenic bikeway might be the best winter ride in the state.
Sunny days with temperatures between 50 and 60 degrees happen with some regularity in Madras. The views of seven major Cascade Mountain peaks highlight this 30-mile, mostly flat route that also passes views of Lake Billy Chinook.
The ride begins and ends at Sahalee Park in downtown Madras. It follows a collection of low-traffic roads west of town in a farmland setting.
Drift Creek Wilderness
The largest old-growth rainforest in Oregon is home to a carpet of moss and lichen that swallows everything without legs and can be accessed by two semi-difficult trails east of Waldport.
The Harris Ranch Trail and Horse Creek Trail both drop 3 miles into the remote canyon of Drift Creek, a tributary of the Alsea, in a landscape that receives 120 inches of rain per year.
The Harris Ranch Trail is a bit easier to access (it’s a short jaunt off Highway 34) and offers better access to Drift Creek’s riverside beaches, while the Horse Ranch Trail offers slightly larger trees.
Drift Creek Falls
This Drift Creek is also in the Coast Range but in a completely different area and with a different experience. This version is outside Lincoln City and showcases a family-friendly 3 mile hike to a waterfall and the Northwest’s longest trail suspension bridge.
You must have a Northwest Forest Pass and you can’t buy one at the trailhead anymore because of theft. You can buy an ePass (Day Pass) at bit.ly/3uYHn4l or an annual Northwest Forest Pass at store.usgs.gov/forest-pass before you go.
Eastern Oregon ski areas
I’ve never actually done it, but I’ve heard amazing things about ski areas on the east side of the state such as Warner Canyon Ski Area and Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort.
The snow is more powdery and the lift lines are very mellow, or so they say. Head out and tell me how it went!
Western Oregon ski areas
There are six major resorts in northwest Oregon, each a little different. In addition to downhill, many offer Nordic skiing, snowshoeing and snow-tubing.
Zach Urness has been an outdoors reporter in Oregon for 15 years and is host of the Explore Oregon Podcast. To support his work, subscribe to the Statesman Journal. Urness is the author of “Best Hikes with Kids: Oregon” and “Hiking Southern Oregon.” He can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or 503-399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.