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Northwestern wonders
Pacific delights thrill, inspire
Coast sunset
Sunset along the coast, a few miles north of the California border. - photo by Crystal Ledford
Magnificent, awe-inspiring, breathtaking ... wow!

These words passed my lips nearly every time I turned a new corner during a recent weeklong vacation to the Pacific Northwest.

When a friend said he was going to Portland, Ore., for business and wanted to tack on a week of vacation there, I was at first a little skeptical.

“Why Oregon? What’s there?” I thought.

But after just a little research, we discovered a barrage of natural wonders awaiting us in Oregon and nearby southern Washington and northern California.

Mountains — real ones

The parade of wonders began before my plane even landed.

After a seven-hour flight across the country, I found myself in a much different landscape.

I’m a Georgia native who grew up in the “mountains” of the northwestern part of the state. But after landing in Portland, I soon learned we don’t really have “mountains” here.

In Oregon, though, they have mountains — real ones. Gigantic mountains, thickly carpeted with pine trees and capped with snow (even in mid-August).

I got my first look at these giants from the air as I made the descent into the Portland airport. Just over to my left was the snow-topped peak of Mount Hood, which overshadows the city.

During my first full day of vacation, I got to see a lot more of those peaks as we journeyed into Washington to the infamous Mount St. Helen’s.

As a child, I remember watching old news reels in school of the volcano when it blew its top on May 18, 1980, and the rivers of mud and lava that devastated the landscape.

Since then, I had always wanted to see the giant with my own eyes.

Unfortunately, due to the Northwest’s penchant for overcast days, I wasn’t quite able to make out the top of the sleeping volcano.

But I still had a good view of most of it, and probably more exciting than actually getting to Mount St. Helen’s was the drive through “the blast zone.”

The area was destroyed in 29 years ago. Today, for the most part, it’s rich and lush with thick greenery and sweeping views of mountains that seem to go on forever.

Still, the remnants of the eruption can be seen in some spots where the lava, after decades of drying, has become soft grey pumice stone.

Down the coast

After trekking back into Oregon on our second day, we departed from Portland and made our way to the little town of Tillamook.

We made a quick stop at the Tillamook Cheese Factory, which offers free tours and samples before heading down the coast via a scenic capes route.

When we made our first stop on the route, which includes several state coastal parks, “wow” was the first word out of both our mouths.

We were standing on a huge, rocky cliff overlooking the seemingly infinite Pacific. A few hundred yards away were gigantic rocks, all about the height of three- or four-story buildings, just offshore.

A short, but somewhat steep, path took us down to the Cape Meares Lighthouse, one of the oldest in the state.

There was something magical about climbing the skinny, iron spiral of steps to where the red and white glass lamp stood, knowing this light had guided ships to safety for more than a hundred years.

At another stop along the scenic route, the beach was flat and sandy, so I was able to dip my fingers into the water, the first time I’d ever touched the Pacific Ocean.

We finally made our way to the seaport town of Newport, where we enjoyed dinner at one of Oregon’s oldest and most well-known restaurants, Mo’s.

The decades-old establishments is one of those places that hasn’t changed much, if anything, over the years. The tiny sitting area was filled with locals and tourists enjoying the renowned clam chowder and other seafood delights.

The next day began with a trip to the Yaquina Head Lighthouse, the tallest in Oregon at 93 feet.

Sea creatures galore

We then made our way back to the bayfront in Newport, where we boarded a small boat for a two-hour whale watching tour.

The weather gods were smiling on us as we had clear skies and mild temperatures, something our tour guide assured us is quite rare.

After about 30 minutes, the misty fountain of a gray whale shot up just a few yards from the boat.

By the end of the tour, we had seen about four whales, including a mother and calf. They graced us with several “deep dives,” offering perfect views of their tails above water.

We weren’t finished with sea creatures, though. As we pushed down along coastal Highway 101, we made a stop at the Sea Lion Cave. This sea cave, the largest in North America, is a natural draw for the sleek, honking mammals.

An elevator took us down some 200 feet into the heart of the cave, where we could view sea lions swimming in and out of the mouth and lounging on rock structures inside.

And when I say sea lions, I don’t just mean a few. The day we visited, there were at least 75. At different times of the year, the cave is filled with hundreds.

Step back in time

At the end of the day, we made our stop in a little town called Brookings, just outside the California line.

The next morning we made our way into northern California into the state Redwood Parks, home to giant trees.

My friend commented that entering Stout Grove, one of many areas where visitors can park and take a short hike to get an up close look at the ancient trees, was “very Jurassic Park.”

Indeed, not only do the towering trees make you feel tiny, the forest floor is covered in ferns nearly as tall as I am. (And at 6 feet, I’m certainly not short.)

The whole area is so untouched by humans, it’s like going back in time. As you stand at the base of these trees, it’s hard to comprehend that many of them were just seedlings during the time of Christ more than 2,000 years ago.

‘Above them all’

Another unspoiled natural wonder awaited us the following day as we made our way back into Oregon to Crater Lake.

The deepest lake in North America, Crater reaches a depth of nearly 2,000 feet. It’s nestled inside the caldera of Mazama, a volcano that blew its top some 7,000 years ago.

The crater filled with centuries of average annual snowfall that exceeded 500 inches. At more than six miles across, the crater looks like a giant soup bowl.

Since there are no incoming or outgoing streams or other water sources, the water is the purest and bluest imaginable. In fact, the clarity is such that a black and white disk, 1 foot in diameter, is visible up to depths of more than 200 feet.

Off to one side of the lake is a small island. Created by another small volcano that formed inside the caldera centuries after Mazama’s eruption, the island has been dubbed Wizard Island. The shape of its pointy peak resembles a wizard’s hat.

On the day we made our visit, the weather was perfect — sunny and clear skies, just a slightly softer blue than Crater Lake’s waters. We couldn’t stop taking photos.

Everywhere we turned was another post card-perfect view of the deep sapphire waters and rocky rim of the old volcano.  

Inside the lake’s mini-museum is a wall with quotes from famous authors, poets and scientists who have visited.

I agreed most with wilderness writer Jack London, who said, “Never again can I gaze upon the beauty spots of the earth and enjoy them as being the finest thing I have ever seen. Crater Lake is above them all.”

When we finally tore ourselves away from the lake, we made our way back up to Portland.

Portland delights

We spent our final day in the city, taking in the famous Japanese Gardens and Pittock Mansion.

The gardens have been ranked as the best anywhere outside of Japan. Inside, visitors can view several different traditional Japanese settings with ponds, Zen stone gardens, pagodas and a traditional tea house, all surrounded by lush but well-maintained greenery.

The tranquil beauty of the place creates a “Zen-like” atmosphere. Its authenticity makes visitors feel as if they have actually traveled to the island nation.

Pittock Mansion is a glimpse into early 20th century luxury.

The mansion was designed by Henry Pittock at age 74. He and his wife, Georgiana, called the mansion home from 1914 to 1919. Their children and grandchildren continued to live there until 1958.

The home fell into great disrepair, before the city bought and restored it in 1964.

I was particularly interested to learn that Henry Pittock was one of the first publishers of the Oregonian newspaper.

In fact, it is due to his management that Oregon residents enjoy a daily paper. He was responsible for shifting the publication from once a week to every day after he took over in 1860.

Of course, he also had other business interests, such as real estate, banking, railroads, steamboats, sheep ranching, silver mining and the pulp and paper industry, which lead to his great fortune.

The home, which he designed and hired only local help to build in support of the Portland economy, is a lovely piece of architecture situated on 46 acres at 1,000 feet above the skyline. The views alone were worth the visit.

As I boarded my plane home the following morning, I was sad to leave the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

If you get a chance, I highly recommend visiting this diverse area, which offers so much beauty and natural wonder.