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A simple travel tip: Oregon is about as close to heaven as you can get.

by Paul Gerald

The first thing I remember hearing about Oregon came from a friend there. She said she could drive an hour east and go snow-skiing or mountain-climbing and drive an hour west and be on the beach. I filed that piece of information away, and in all the time I've spent since then exploring this wonderful place, the revelations and excitations have never ceased.

So let's go on a little driving tour of Oregon. Just beyond the eastern 'burbs of Portland is the Columbia River Gorge, an area so beautiful that the government had to create a new designation for it, the National Scenic Area. The Columbia is the great river of the Northwest, as wide as the Mississippi at Memphis, and right before it reaches Portland it flows through about 80 miles walled in by 4,000-foot mountains.

Take an exit for the Historic Columbia River Highway, a winding two-laner with intricate stone work, arched bridges, viaducts, and tunnels. There are dozens of waterfalls in the Gorge, including Multnomah Falls, right on Interstate 84 about 35 miles from downtown Portland. Multnomah is a 620-foot free-fall; two years ago a boulder the size of a VW bus plunged into the pool and sent water a couple hundred feet in every direction. A steep 1-mile hike gets you to the top, where there are some "smaller" falls in the 100-foot-or-so range and also an observation deck at the top of Multnomah that will make your head spin.

On your way out of the Gorge you'll soon come into the town of Hood River, where the winds whip through the Gorge and create a windsurfing mecca, with hundreds of colorful sails decorating the river on summer afternoons. From Hood River you can also take a train ride into the hills or a riverboat cruise on the Columbia. Follow the Hood River past wineries, golf courses, and B&Bs up to Mt. Hood itself, an 11,235-foot volcano that is as much a part of the area's skyline as any office building. Timberline Lodge is one of three ski areas, but it should be seen because it was built as a WPA project in the 1930s, bringing in artisans and architects from across the west to create a magnificent building at the top of the forest. All the original furniture and woodworking is intact.

The east side of the Cascade Range is high desert, as beautiful for its harsh dryness as the western slope is for its lush forests and waterfalls. You would think you're in northern New Mexico as you drive through sagebrush, past volcanoes, and onto powder-covered ski mountains.

Southern Oregon offers Crater Lake, 11,500 acres of the bluest water your eyes can deal with, sitting on the top of a collapsed volcano. You can take a boat tour or just sit and stare, or choose from about 90 miles of backcountry hiking trails. The Pacific Crest Trail, which traverses the entire Cascades on its route from Mexico to Canada, passes through Crater Lake's backcountry. The nearby town of Ashland is famous for its summertime Shakespeare festival.

The Oregon coast is the state's best-kept secret. It has been kept relatively pristine by what must be one of the greatest state laws ever passed: that no human habitation or construction may impede the progress of people walking along the beach. That makes for close to 300 miles of sand, surf, cliffs, and rainforest, with fishing villages, tourist towns, lighthouses, artist colonies, just a couple of resorts, and all kinds of peace and quiet.

The northern end of all this splendor, at the 5-mile-wide mouth of the Columbia, is the town of Astoria, the oldest American settlement west of the Rockies. Lewis and Clark spent the winter of 1805-06 near here, getting rained on all but five days between early December and mid-March and securing the area's reputation forever. A replica of their home, Fort Clatsop, is open daily.

Astoria was founded in 1811 as a fishing and port town, and it's still crawling with Icelanders, Finns, Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes. There are dozens of historic Victorian homes sprawled along Astoria's hillside, but Astoria is all about the water. Canneries still line the docks, the Columbia River Maritime Museum is a Smithsonian for boat-lovers, and charters are abundant to go catch your own salmon, sturgeon, or crab.

On the way back to Portland, take a swing into Washington State and visit Mount St. Helens, which blew its top in 1980. A 10,000-acre forest still lies on its side, the bleached trunks pointing directly away from the explosion, and a new visitor center sits less than five miles from the crater. You can't go in the crater there, but you can climb the other side of St. Helens for a $25 permit and a long day's walk.

Oregon is all about variety. Rivers, mountains, forests, the ocean, waterfalls, wineries, hot springs, deserts, towns, and a great city. Just go to Oregon, in the summer when it's not raining, and you'll think you're in heaven.

For more information on visiting Oregon, call 800-547-7842.

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