The Pacific Northwest has a wealth of National Parks. In fact, there are over 20 National Parks in Oregon and Washington State combined. These parks include iconic wonders such as Crater Lake and Olympic National Park, but also little known gems like the Oregon National Historic Trail.
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In this post we will introduce you to the top national parks in Oregon and Washington. We will also demonstrate one of the best ways to explore national parks in these two states. You’ll find our feature park about midway through the post (park #13).
Table of Contents
National Parks in Oregon
Four National Parks are found only in Oregon. Here are the best two:
#1 Crater Lake National Park
Some places are cliché: this isn’t one of them. I’ve made several visits to Crater Lake but I still come away amazed every time. The sheer size of the lake and its rugged rim are unlike any place I’ve ever seen. You could easily spend a day here hiking and taking in the wonder.
Crater Lake features a Rim Drive packed with breathtaking views. The Mt. Scott Trail rewards you with a panorama of the entire lake, while the Cleetwood Cove Trail brings you down to the blue lake waters and the Wizard Island Boat Tours. You can find more natural wonders at The Pinnacles and The Pumice Desert.
Crater Lake National Park is open year round, but it’s most accessible during the summer. This park’s high elevation keeps it covered in snow for most of the year. State Route 62 and Munson Valley Road remain open, but the Rim Drive is closed during the snowy season. Be sure to call ahead if you plan to arrive during the this time.
#2 John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
This national park is a local secret. I’d never heard about this park until I moved up to Oregon, but I recommend it to everyone.
The John Day Fossil Beds yield one of the richest fossil records on earth. Their extensive layers furnish a valuable window into several epochs of the Cenozoic Era, the Age of Mammals.
Better yet, the beds lay in some of the most wild and picturesque areas of Eastern Oregon. Take a deep dive into this incredible park in Painted Hills National Park? 3 Best Stops at Oregon’s Famous National Monument.
Washington State has several national parks. Here are ten that are well worth your time:
#3 Olympic National Park
This enormous National Park encloses the awesome Olympic Mountains, temperate rainforests, old growth forests, and one of the most spectacular coastlines in the world.
Olympic National Park stretches across most of the Olympic Peninsula, a large peninsula west of Seattle and Puget Sound.
The City of Port Angeles serves as the chief gateway to the park’s largest unit and the famous Hurricane Ridge. Hurricane Ridge is renowned for its spectacular views of the Olympic’s jagged peaks and icy glaciers. It’s also Olympic NP’s most accessible mountain area.
Roosevelt Elk can often be spotted in the this ancient, amazing place.
Highway 101 circles the entire Olympic Peninsula. This route provides scenic drives and access to Olympic National Park as well as the numerous state parks that are found throughout this region.
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#4 Mount Rainier National Park
Titanic Rainier has more glaciers than any other peak in the contiguous United States. Its slopes provide headwaters for no less than five major rivers.
#5 San Juan Island National Historical Park
Visit Ground Zero of America’s one and only Pig War!
The United States and Great Britain engaged in a diplomatic standoff after a pig was killed on San Juan Island. The bacon in question highlighted the fact that the island was disputed territory between the two nations.
San Juan Island National Historical Park celebrate the peaceful resolution of the Pig War and preserves the rich cultural heritage of the San Juan Islands. These channel islands have been home to indigenous tribes, Hawaiian immigrants, and British and American settlers.
Some Natural Wonders are Outside the National Park System:
The National Parks of the Pacific Northwest can’t hold all of the beauty and history of this legendary region. Here are 6 remarkable places that you’ll want to consider while your planning your trip:
- Silver Falls and the Trail of Ten Falls
- Cannon Beach & Ecola State Park
- The Oregon Coast
- Smith Rock & Cove Palisades State Parks
- Tillamook’s Gargantuan WWII Blimp Hangar
- Oregon’s Agates & Semiprecious Gemstones
@dinkumtribe South Falls, #silverfallsstatepark #oregonexplored #dinkumtribe_silverfalls #familytravelblogger ♬ i can’t help it – JVKE
#6 Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve
#7 North Cascades National Park
Summer months are the best time to access this alpine wilderness. North Cascade NP holds flora and fauna that occur in Canada and even Alaska, including the mighty Grizzly Bear.
#8 Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, Seattle Unit
The words “Klondike Gold Rush” don’t immediately bring Washington to mind. But the fact is that Washington served at the gateway for this historic event.
In fact, the port of Seattle is still major means of reaching Alaska today. Klondike Gold Rush NHP demonstrates how gold discoveries in the Yukon and Alaska forever changed not only these regions but the Pacific Northwest as well.
Step back in time and experience what life was like at the turn of the century. The Park’s exhibits and films are housed within the historic Cadillac Hotel, which was built in the days of the Klondike Gold Rush.
#9 Manhattan Project National Historical Park, Hanford Unit
Tour the facilities of America’s first nuclear weapons program. Manhattan Project National Historical Park preserves the three locations that planned, prepared, and produced the world’s first nuclear bombs.
Washington’s Hanford unit produced the plutonium necessary for these weapons.
Manhattan Project NHP is composed of over 40 interpretive sites spread throughout Washington’s Tri-City Area (Kennewick, Pasco, and Richland). These units not only detail the development of the atomic bomb but also provide a window into what life was like during the War Era.
Don’t just Travel, Travel Well.
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- Driving through the night, while the kids were asleep
- Eating (and even making) our meals in the car
- Threatening, bribing, and begging our kids to behave . . .
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#10 Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial
Bainbridge Island holds a significant place in the tragic history of Japaneses American Exclusion. The Island was the first exclusion area established. Many of the Japanese detainees were transferred on to other camps including Manzanar and Minidoka.
You can pay tribute to former detainees and what they suffered at this important memorial.
#11 Wing Luke Museum
Explore the heritage and history of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders at this National Park Service Affiliated Site. The Wing Luke Museum was established in memory of Wing Luke, the first Asian American to hold office in the Pacific Northwest.
Wing Luke’s story provides context for understanding the history and contribution of Asian and Pacific immigrants to the Pacific Northwest and the United States.
#12 Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area
You don’t have to fight through Seattle traffic to experience the great outdoors. Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area offers an abundance of ways to get active in the wild and historic region of Northeast Washington.
Lake Roosevelt and its surrounding area was carved out by the Ice Age Floods that are celebrated by the Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail (park #14, see below).
Today you can enjoy a land first explored by mammoths, Native Americans, fur trappers, and prospectors. Canoeing, kayaking, boating, fishing, hunting, and hiking are all welcome at this national recreation area.
Best National Parks in Oregon and Washington
Oregon and Washington are linked together by a feature that makes them ideal for Roadtripping Families: National Trails that link National Parks.
Several of the national parks in Oregon and Washington feature units that are found in both states. These multi-unit parks are connected by National Trails that run across Oregon and Washington. We’ve found National Trails to be one of the best ways to explore the national parks in Oregon and Washington.
Our Favorite Way to Explore National Parks in Oregon and Washington
Oregon and Washington are connected by at least six national trails. These trails are run by the national park service and link several of the national parks in Oregon and Washington. These trails make your journey as rewarding as the destination.
The National Trails system is a boon for roadtripping families because the park goes with you while you drive. You can follow scenic routes and a historic journey as you make your way to your next destination. These trail systems utilize the National Park Jr. Ranger program, allowing your children to grow their learning over the course of the trail.
We’ve found that national trails enhance our overall roadtrip experience. Curated sites make it easy to get active or learn something new. Every roadtrip comes with a number of pit stops, but National Trails add value even to these kind of stops.
This post’s feature park is a good example of the benefits you enjoy by using national trails to visit national parks in Oregon and Washington.
Feature Park: #13 Oregon National Historic Trail
Oregon and Washington own the best stretch of the Oregon trail. The Oregon Trail begins in Independence, Missouri but reaches its end in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Oregon and Washington’s trail segment includes national parks, connections two other historic trails, and a variety of places to walk the actual trail ruts.
Best of all, this is the only place on the trail where you can visit both the journey and the destination!
National Parks on Oregon National Historic Trail (OR/WA only):
- National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, OR
- Whitman Mission National Historic Site, WA
- Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, OR & WA
- Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, OR & WA
Route: From the Oregon/Idaho Border to Oregon City
Why Travel the Old Oregon Trail?
But why bother driving the Oregon Trail anyway? Here are three reasons why we sometimes choose to follow the ruts instead of the interstate.
Reason 1: It’s Easy
If you’re an avid road tripper then there’s a good chance that you’ve already followed an emigrant trail. Several interstate freeways and state routes follow historic overland trails such as the Oregon Trail.
Nearly all of Oregon and Washington’s historic trail sites are only a short jaunt from the Interstate 84. Additionally, many of these are near accommodations, restaurants, and other services.
Reason 2: It’s Empty
Interstate 84 and its respective state routes run through some of the most wild and scenic parts of Oregon. You don’t have to venture far off the freeway to encounter the rugged landscapes and wild creatures that have made Oregon Country famous. Many of these same areas feature trail ruts largely untouched by time.
Reason 3: It’s Energizing
It’s easy to dismiss the pioneers, until you walk a mile in their shoes.
Our first visit to the Oregon Trail ruts had a strong impact on me as a husband and a father. I couldn’t get around the silent emptiness of the hills that surrounded us. What would it take to bring a family across thousands of miles of empty wilderness?
Regardless of what you think about the pioneers, the obstacles encountered by them speak volumes about the human condition. Your family can gain a lot from walking the steps of those who came before them.
@dinkumtribe Exploring parts of the Oregon Trail and Barlow Trail near Rhododendron, Oregon. #oregontrail #barlowtrail #oregonhistory #oregonhistorydiscovered #wagontrail #pioneerhillclimb #coveredwagonlife #oregontravel #adhdfamilytravel #familytravelcreator #familytraveltiktoker #oregonfamily #pnwfamily #pnwfamilies #oregonfamilies #familytravelvlog #familytravelblog #familytravelblogger #familytravelvlogger #familytravelinfluencer #travelwithkids @dinkumtribe @dinkumtribe @dinkumtribe ♬ Outdoors – Colin Tierney
National Parks in Oregon and Washington along the Oregon National Historic Trail
The Oregon National Historic Trail connects a number of national parks in Oregon and Washington. Let’s follow the trail westward to consider a few of them.
National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, OR
Here’s an all-in-one Oregon Trail site. The National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center is the ideal place to learn about the Oregon Trail especially if you’re driving west to the Portland Metro Area.
This interpretive center is located on Flagstaff Hill, a ridge where the weary emigrants would have had their first view of Oregon.
The center is also ideally placed for a modern roadtrip experience. The museum is only half an hour from the I-84, yet in a secluded group of foothills. Experience the Oregon Trail through interactive exhibits, authentic artifacts, and living history demonstrations.
Whitman Mission National Historic Site, WA
Marcus and Narcissa Whitman journeyed west in 1836 to bring the gospel to the Indigenous tribes in Oregon Country. In doing so, they blazed what became known as the Oregon Trail. The Whitman Mission became an important stopping point for emigrants. A tragic misunderstanding led Native Americans to kill the Whitmans and eleven others in 1847.
Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, OR & WA
Oregon Country was jointly occupied by Great Britain and the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. However, the area was dominated by the Hudson Bay Company, a British trapping company that had operated in the Pacific Northwest for years.
Fort Vancouver was the administrative center of the Hudson Bay Company, and the first major European settlement in Oregon Country. This fort and its leader, John McLoughlin played a central role in the success of the Oregon Trail. Read our in-depth review of this national park in 7 Best Things to Do at Fort Vancouver NHP.
@dinkumtribe The blacksmith shop docent showed our kids how beaver traps worked during the 1800s. #homeschoolfieldtrip #adhdfamilytravel #familytravelblog #historicalreenactor #livinghistorymuseum #livinghistorythings #pacificnorthwesttravel #pacificnorthwestroadtrips #pacificnorthwestlife #hudsonbaycompany #fortvancouver #thatpnwlife ♬ Another One Bites The Dust – Remastered 2011 – Queen
The Backdoor Route: California National Historic Trail, OR
The final stretch of the Oregon Trail was extremely dangerous. The narrow Columbia River Gorge required emigrants to navigate the Columbia with boats or handmade rafts. Loss of property and life was all too common.
In 1846 a party led by Jesse Applegate sought out an alternate route to Oregon’s rich Willamette Valley. This “Applegate Trail” departs from Fort Hall, Idaho and treks across the deserts of northern Nevada and northern California before entering the state of Oregon near Klamath Falls.
From there the Trail works its way through the Rogue River Valley and Southern Oregon ranges until it descends into the southern Willamette Valley.
The Applegate Trail was embroiled in controversy from the start and relatively few emigrants took this southern route. However, this trail has much to tell about the history of Eugene, the Southern Willamette Valley, and the settlement of Southern Oregon.
Today, the trail is part of the California National Historic Trail.
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#14 Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail
Here’s one of the coolest National Parks in Oregon and Washington! Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail follows the path of catastrophic mega-floods that repeatedly tore through the Pacific Northwest. The trail traces the floods from ancient glacial Lake Missoula (in present day Montana), to the mouth of the Columbia River.
National Parks on Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail (OR/WA only):
- Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area
- Manhattan Project National Historical Park, Hanford Unit
- Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area
- Fort Vancouver National Historical Park
- Lewis & Clark National Historical Park
Route: NE Washington/Idaho Border to the Pacific Coast
@dinkumtribe Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail has stops located all over the Northwestern US, with several sites in Oregon. #tualatinoregon #tualatin #iceagefloods #iceage #geology101 #nationaltrail #tualatinvalley #mastodontooth #mastodon #geologictime #amazinglibrary #libraryart #oregongeology #fossilsoftiktok ♬ Try Everything (From “Zootopia”) – Movie Sounds Unlimited
Washington and Oregon hold the lion’s share of this National Trail. Ice Age floods ripped through Eastern Washington and the Columbia River Gorge, stripping valleys and hills of their soil and creating a rugged and bizarre landscape. Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area (#19 on this list) lies in one of the scablands that were carved out by these floods.
Oregon and Washington abound with relics of the Ice Age and their incredible floods. Glacial erratics, fossils, a massive meteorite, and the world’s oldest pair of shoes all have stories to tell about this prehistoric lost world.
@dinkumtribe The Refuge includes Floodplain National Natural Landmark, an important site on the Ice Age Flood National Geologic Trail. @dinkumtribe @dinkumtribe @dinkumtribe The Natural Landmark is one of few unplowed lowlands of the Willamette Valley. The site gives remarkable glimpse into what the Willamette Valley was like before the arrival of European settlers. #oregonhistorydiscovered #oregonhistory #iceagegeology #iceagetrail #npsoftiktok #wildliferefuge #oregonnationalparks #adhdfamilytravel #familytravelcreator #familytraveltiktoker #oregonfamily #pnwfamily #pnwfamilies #oregonfamilies #familytravelvlog #familytravelblog #familytravelblogger #familytravelvlogger #familytravelinfluencer #travelwithkids ♬ Fall October Halloween horror classic(177261) – rareNote
#15 Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail
Oregon and Washington hold the best part of the Pacific Crest Trail. This segment of the Pacific Crest NST follows the incredible Cascade Range. The Trail connects no less than six national parks in Oregon and Washington.
National Parks on Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail (OR/WA only):
- Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument
- Crater Lake National Park
- Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area
- Mount Rainier National Park
- Lake Chelan National Recreation Area
- North Cascades National Park
Route: Oregon/California Border to Canadian Border
Oregon’s trail segment is both the shortest and easiest part of the Pacific Crest Trail. The elevation changes little over these 430 miles and passes several cascade peaks including Mt. McLoughlin, Crater Lake, The Three Sisters, Mt. Jefferson, and Mt. Hood.
The trail then descend 3,160 feet into the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area where it crosses into Washington. Elk, deer, beaver, fox, and grouse are only a few of the wildlife that can be seen along Oregon’s share of the Pacific Crest Trail.
@dinkumtribe A rainy day exploring the Oregon Trail from Mt. Good to Sandy, Oregon. Checking out the Barlow Trail as well. #localhistory #localhistorynerd #oregontrail #oregontrails #historictrail #historicroute #barlowtrail #mthoodnationalforest #oregonhistory #oregonhistorydiscovered #adhdfamilytravel #familytravelcreator #familytraveltiktoker #oregonfamily #pnwfamily #pnwfamilies #oregonfamilies #familytravelvlog #familytravelblog #familytravelblogger #familytravelvlogger #familytravelinfluencer #travelwithkids @dinkumtribe @dinkumtribe @dinkumtribe ♬ original sound – DinkumTribe ADHD family travel
Washington provides a different perspective of the Cascades. This state’s Cascades have colder temperatures and are much closer to the Rocky Mountains.
Glaciers have carved a dramatic and challenging landscape of sharp peaks and deep canyons. Washington’s share of the trail includes mountain goats, the Canadian lynx, and even grizzly bears.
#16 Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail
The Pacific Northwest was central to the Lewis & Clark Expedition. President Jefferson ordered Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to not only explore the lands west of the Mississippi but to also determine if there was a waterway that could speed transportation and trade across North America. The River Oregon (Columbia) was what Jefferson had in mind.
National Parks on the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail (OR/WA only):
- Nez Perce National Historical Park
- Manhattan National Historical Park, Hanford Unit
- Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area
- Fort Vancouver National Historic Site
- Lewis & Clark National Historical Park
Route: SE Washington/Idaho Border to the Pacific Coast
Oregon and Washington abound with over 50 Lewis & Clark trail sites and interpretive centers. A number of these interpretive sites are indigenous cultural centers or archaeological sites. Wildlife refuges provide another way of tracing the westward journey.
You can follow the Corps of Discovery through epic landscapes including Hells Canyon, the Columbia Plateau, the Columbia River Gorge, the Mouth of the Columbia, and legendary Cannon Beach.
#17 Lewis & Clark National Historical Park
The crown jewel of Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail can be found near the Oregon/Washington border. Lewis & Clark National Historical Park preserves the history of the expedition’s winter stay in the Pacific Northwest.
The Park is composed of multiple units located in and around the mouth of the Columbia River. But the park is best known for Fort Clatsop, the expedition’s winter quarters. Enjoy historical reenactments at the fort and its surroundings, hike the Fort to Sea Trail, or explore the North Oregon Coastline with Lewis & Clark.
#18 Nez Perce National Historic Trail
Here is one of Oregon’s best kept secrets. The Nez Perce National Historic Trail is not as well known as the other four trails, but is well worth your consideration. This trail follows the heroic journey of the Nez Perce as they fought and fled for their independence.
National Parks on the Nez Perce National Historic Trail (OR/WA only):
- Nez Perce National Historical Park
- Hells Canyon National Recreation Area
Route: Lake Wallowa, Oregon to SE Washington/Idaho Border
Nez Perce National Historic Trail begins at Wallowa Lake, in the traditional lands of the Nez Perce. The trail then journeys eastward over mountains and along valleys in a desperate flight toward the Canadian border.
This pathway brings you through remarkable landscapes including the Wallowas, Hells Canyon, and Yellowstone National Park. Several units of Nez Perce Historical Park are located along this epic trek.
#19 Nez Perce National Historical Park
There’s much more to the Nez Perce than their famous quest. Nez Perce National Historical Park pays tribute to this ancient people by preserving their legacy and story.
Nez Perce NHP is composed of over a dozen sites spread throughout the Pacific Northwest.
The majority of these sites are clustered around the original homeland that spreads across present day Northeast Oregon, Southwest Washington, and Northwest Idaho. Several of these sites preserve ancient locations sacred to the Nez Perce.
Did You Find What You Were Looking For?
Still looking for a national park? Check out Your List of National Parks and Monuments by State. Got a question? Drop us a comment and we’ll see what we can do. Happy Traveling!
© Copyright Brian A. Warren 2022.