Oregon Landscape Photography: 8 Best Locations

landscape photography Oregon

Oregon landscape photography is a must for anyone visiting the state.

With a diverse range of geological landscapes, there are seemingly endless photography locations to choose, but we’ve selected some of the best ones to add to your photography bucket list.

Oregon is attached to the continental US in the Pacific Northwest, just south of Washington. It stretches 295 miles (475 km) from north to south and 395 miles (636 km) from east to west.

The Columbia River serves as its northern border, California and Nevada define its southern border, the Snake River makes up most of its eastern edge, and its western border washes into the Pacific Ocean.

Oregon photography

Oregon’s geological diversity makes it a magnet for nature and landscape photographers. There is something for everyone.

Attractions include dense mixed forests, snow-capped mountains, rugged coastal shores, high desert plateaus, isolated deep desert valleys, and the quintessential lush green valleys with waterfalls.

Few places can rival its photographic variety.

The state has nine distinct ecological regions, each with unique flora, fauna, and geologic features. Photographers unfamiliar with Oregon might study these broad ecoregions. It is an ideal big-picture starting place to sort and triage potential photographic opportunities.

Offered here are various roadside, short-hike, and overnight backpacking locations. If you are adventurous and willing to hike reasonable distances or snowshoe-marked trails, the list of unique landscapes is endless.

1. Smith Rock State Park

Smith Rock State Park in Terrebonne is a must-visit location. It is the most iconic location in Central Oregon. This is a four-season, easy-access site with infinite photographic standing spots. This makes it a photographer’s paradise.

It is a short drive from Bend and Redmond, two of the most populated cities in Central Oregon, so expect some company. The crowds are much thinner if you arrive early, stay late, visit during the week, or visit in the winter.

Towering rock formations, a meandering river, and a constantly changing color palette will delight all who travel to photograph Smith Rock. It is best to schedule at least two days to explore this park.

sunrise rock Oregon photography

Trails range from moderately flat to exhausting uphills. Walk the flat Rim Trail for gorgeous wide or short telephoto views of the river.

The river is bordered on one side by world-class rock-climbing formations and, on the other, by volcanic basalt columns.

Head up the Misery Ridge trail for an image with amphitheatre-like rock formations in the foreground and distant Cascade Range Mountain peaks on the horizon. A third option is to walk along the river at water level to capture more intimate red willow shoreline compositions.

I recommend carrying all your gear! This diverse high desert landscape makes providing specific lens and exposure recommendations impossible.

Let the weather be your guide. Cloudy skies add so much to wide images at this location. Keep your graduated neutral density filters where you can reach them.

If you have a second camera body, mount a long telephoto and keep it handy. Endless flocks of geese and ducks can be seen doing touch-and-goes on the Crooked River. Moreover, eagles and osprey are common; if you are lucky, you may see families of river otters hugging the shoreline.

Read more: 8 Best Lenses for Landscape Photography

2. McKenzie Pass

Sisters is a small art-centric community with a dozen art galleries and is the gateway to the McKenzie Pass. Highway 242 is a narrow, winding road that reaches an elevation of 5,187 feet (1,580 meters).

The Dee Wright Observatory, a volcanic stone structure built in 1935, stands at the top and offers 360-degree views. From its upper deck, you are surrounded by a great volcanic lava field and a group of not-so-distant mountains.

oregon landscape photography

Add a telephoto lens and point it in any direction for a mountain peak image. But, if your goal is to capture a more unique and dynamic image, walk or drive the road a quarter to 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) west.

Look south until the oblique view of North and Middle Sister Mountains, two prominent volcanic peaks, stands tall against the southern sky.

Frame the large black volcanic flows and tenacious Juniper trees between you and the mountains as foreground elements, filling the rest of the frame with the side-by-side mountains.

A medium focal length works best, but almost any focal length can work. Passing summer and fall storms can be a plus!

Read more: Where to Focus in a Landscape Photo

3. McKenzie River Waterfalls

The north-to-south Cascade Mountain range is the dividing line between the high desert of Central Oregon and the wetter Western Cascades Mountain region.

If possible, schedule your McKenzie Pass tour in autumn. Drive west from the top of McKenzie Pass. Fall colors are everywhere on this western side.

waterfall photography tips Oregon

Be aware that McKenzie Pass is not open in the winter. Do some research to avoid finding the gate closed after the first snow.

At the intersection of Highway 242 (McKenzie Pass) and Highway 126, turn right. There are two waterfalls you won’t want to miss.

Stop first at Koosah Falls. This 64-foot (19-meter) waterfall is spectacular. When the flow is strong, the combination of waterfall mist, vivid blue water, and colorful foliage will give you a reason to pause.

Depending on your standing spot, a medium or short telephoto focal length will easily frame the waterfall and river outflow for a special image. Add a slow shutter speed to smooth the flow, and be wowed with the result.

landscape photography Oregon

But don’t stop here. At the top of the waterfall, a beautiful forested trail parallels the McKenzie River.

Walk the path, keeping your eye open for a few notched-out upstream views. The tunnel created by the trees and large rocks along the shore gives the image depth and texture. It is a mystical experience.

The river trail continues for about 1 mile (1.6 km). At the dead end of the trail, you will find another beautiful waterfall, Sahalie. This 100-foot (30-meter) drop waterfall is more difficult to capture. A wide focal length is the lens of choice.

Read more: How to Create Texture in Waterfall Photos Using Photoshop

4. Newberry Volcanic National Monument, Paulina Peak

The Newberry Volcanic National Monument occupies 84 square miles (217 square kilometers) in the East Cascades region south of Bend.

The best viewpoint of this sprawling monument is from the top of Paulina Peak, 7,985 feet (2,433 meters) above the volcanic crater with its two lakes.

landscape photography sunset

To reach the summit, you must travel a gravel road. Most vehicles can negotiate the road without difficulty. But be aware that the Monument, and this road, are closed after the first snowfall; plan accordingly.

From the Paulina Peak summit, the featured views are west and north.

From the viewpoint, point your medium or short telephoto lens west. Beautiful white pine trees on bell-curved buttes fill the foreground, while the distant Cascade Range mountains fill the horizon line.

Turning north is an altogether different view. Here the volcanic flows and twin lakes deserve a wider focal length view. Sunset is the best time to photograph.

Read more: Golden Hour Photography – A Landscape Photographer’s Guide

5. John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Painted Hills Unit

This is a 2-hour drive east of Bend but so worth the effort. The colorful pumice hills at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Painted Hills Unit, are a delight to photograph.

The striking layers and rings of color created by the volcanic remains of manganese oxide, aluminum, iron, sodium, silicon, potassium, and other elements create otherworldly landscape views.

With each passing hour, the tint and vividness of the colors change. Morning or evening can work here.

patterns in nature

Shoot wide, narrow, or even telephoto into these hills of color. The results will keep a smile on your face.

Generally, the best approach is to use a wide focal length when arriving in the morning until the light becomes contrasty. Then switch to a telephoto lens and shoot into the shadows for intimate landscapes or abstracts as the sun rises. Do the opposite at sunset.

Oregon landscape photography tips

The closest town is Mitchell, a very small town some 10 miles away; therefore, this is an ideal location for night sky photography. I suggest arriving for sunset and staying late or even until the next morning.

In March and April, the Milky Way is primarily horizontal in the southeast sky. This means there is an opportunity to capture it above the most colorful row of pumice hills.

Read more: How to Use Foreground for Better Star Photos

6. Oregon Coast

The Coastal Region starts at the state’s farthest northwest point, Astoria. The shoreline travels straight south to Brookings, Oregon.

It would be impossible to annotate all the excellent photographic locations along this 340-mile (547-kilometer) stretch in a single article.

So, I have selected three hub locations with a distance of 200 miles (321 kilometers) between the furthest north and south. Each hub allows for short excursions to iconic oceanfront photo locations.

Read more: How to Create Drama and Mood in Landscape Photography

North Central Coast

Cape Meares is due west of Portland, Oregon. The closest town is Tillamook. With its eye-level lighthouse, Cape Meares is surrounded by a forested area and steep rocky cliffs.

Consider a long lens-compressed view of the tree-lined walkway leading from the parking lot to the lighthouse. The tunnel of trees view with the top of the lighthouse at the end of the tunnel makes for an exciting image.

tree and forest photography tips Oregon

A short walk away is an observation landing high above the ocean. Wide views of a ‘C’-shaped inlet with steep walls deserve a wide-angle lens and slow shutter speed.

Or mount a telephoto and capture crashing waves or swells bouncing off the ocean-isolated Pyramid and Pillar rock formations.

Read more: How to Photograph Seascapes

Central Coast

A 2.5-hour drive south brings you to Yachats. It is an excellent hub with short drive access to Cape Perpetua Lookout, Devils Churn, and Heceta Head Lighthouse. All are worthy photo targets, each a beautiful stand-alone photo.

forest photography Oregon

Cape Perpetual Lookout requires a windy drive up a steep two-lane road. At the top, a trail takes you to several beautiful views of the rocky shoreline below.

Most photos from here are vertical telephoto images of coastline roads and shorelines. However, if it is foggy, turn your long lens inland and capture the fog drifting in and out of the dense Siuslaw National Forest.

Next up is Devils Churn. It is almost across the road from the Cape Perpetual Lookout Road exit on the ocean side of Highway 101. This is an ideal location to capture the surge of the sea.

The ocean enters and exits a narrow inlet and surges to a dead end, reversing its course. The best photo opportunity happens when the tide is coming in. This shot works best for a medium focal length and a slow shutter speed.

Thirty minutes south of Devils Churn is Heceta Head Lighthouse. I prefer to photograph this lighthouse from a roadside turnout on Highway 101 south of the lighthouse exit.

lighthouse photography Oregon

A little experimentation is necessary to capture the lighthouse beams in all their glory. You will need a long telephoto to frame the lighthouse and the sizable bulbous rock formations below it.

Sunrise or sunset work here, but get there early and practice your lighthouse beam exposure timing.

Read more: How to Capture Movement in Landscapes

South Central Coast

Sunset Bay State Park is home to fantastic coastal photographic views. You could easily spend days here without rolling a wheel outside the park. The Two Guardians, Simpson Overlook, Sunset Bay, Gregory Point, and several other seaside landmarks make photo targets.

Brandon beach Oregon

But you would be remiss if you didn’t take the time to drive 40 minutes south to Bandon Beach.

This seaside location has tall iconic sea spires and is a favorite sunrise and sunset spot. Arrive early and walk the beach from one end to the other. Assess the angle of the sun and the tide.

This is an ideal site to frame an image with the sea spires dominating the frame. But save enough foreground for a slow shutter speed wash of the water!

Have alternate lenses at the ready. If you are low to the ground, think wide-angle, keeping it level with the horizon.

cape blanco Oregon photography

There is one last place on the list going south. Cape Blanco is off the beaten path but worth the side trip. Consider camping the night and walking the trail above the beach at sunset, pointing yourself north.

With a wide-angle lens, place the lighthouse in the top right of the frame; you can fill the bottom and mid-ground with cliffs that fall off to the beach below. Make it an all-nighter, and try your hand at a lighthouse beam shot!

7. Columbia River Gorge

Most nature photographers find the Columbia River Gorge a delightful stretch of scenic landscape. New and colorful foliage is plentiful along the old highway in the spring and autumn. Add one of the numerous roadside waterfalls to give the image context; the job is complete.

The gorge between Corbett and Hood River is incredibly photogenic.

The Portland Women’s Forum State Scenic Viewpoint at the east end of the scenic corridor presents long lens views of the Vista House at Crown Point, a stone structure built by Italian stone masons in the early 1900s.

top waterfalls Oregon

The Vista House can be framed wide at sunrise and sunset, with the beautiful Columbia River occupying much of the left frame.

Or use a telephoto to isolate the structure and the stunning oak trees below the cliff. By the way, the Vista House building itself is worthy of a few photos!

From the Vista House, get ready to oh and ah your way to Ainsworth State Park, where the old scenic highway rejoins the interstate.

Expect a string of iconic waterfalls and countless hillside water springs spaced nicely with small parking areas near each. This is a busy stretch of road, so wear your safety hat and keep your eyes open.

I prefer to visit waterfalls that require a hike. This tends to thin the crowds and expand potential standing spots. Wahclella is a favorite of mine.

This 350-foot (206-meter), two-tier waterfall is pretty special. The 2.4-mile (3.8-kilometer) out-and-back hike is slightly uphill going in. Two pedestrian bridges cross the outflow creek near the falls.

landscape photography spots Oregon

There are many standing spots, but a medium focal length from the bridge closest to the falls provides an opportunity to fill the bottom of the frame with water while saving two-thirds of the upper frame for the waterfall.

The bridge is narrow. If you use a tripod, be aware that you will impede bridge foot traffic. You may need to pause, fold the tripod, and allow others to cross occasionally.

Mosier is a small town between Hood River and The Dalles, Oregon. Traveling east, exit Interstate 84 at Mosier. Follow the signs to Rowena Crest, a high plateau above the Columbia River and part of the Tom McCall Preserve.

Photographers flock here in the spring as the plateau generally has a high yield of wildflowers, including yellow arrowhead balsam root, purple lupine, Indian paintbrush, and more.

I personally enjoy photographing the oak trees hidden in the shadows of north-facing cliffs.

Read more: How to Photograph Wildflowers

8. Crater Lake National Park

It is impossible to chronicle photographic locations in Oregon without mentioning the crown jewel, Crater Lake National Park. This national park is located in the south-central part of the state. It’s a high-traffic tourist location in the summer months.

A 34-mile (54 kilometers) Rim Road circumnavigates the lake. This road is only open a few months of the year. An average of forty feet (12 meters) of snow falls here annually!

Oregon photography locations

I recommend timing your visit to coincide with the opening of the north entrance. There will be fewer crowds and more parking at the roadside overlooks.

If you are healthy and can exercise at altitude, consider hiking the Watchman Peak Trail on the park’s west side or the Mount Scott Trail on the east side. Both provide beautiful wide views of the deepest lake in the US.

From either, you can capture the brilliant blue water that circles Wizard Island, the offshore landmass on the east side.

Visiting the park in the winter is a great experience. It does require more planning, but it is so worth the effort. There is only one way in and one way out of the park during the winter, the West Entrance.

oregon photography locations

In winter, set up near the Crater Lake Lodge. The lodge is closed during the winter, but its north-facing deck is accessible.

Mount a wide-angle lens to capture the lake and opposing crater rim. An ultra-wide-angle will be necessary to include Wizard Island and most of the crater lake. Consider setting up a panorama shot.

If you are willing to do some snowshoeing, the solitude as you walk along the rim will overwhelm you. Just drive the West Rim road until you reach the road gate. Then strap on the snowshoes and make your way north.

Read more: How to Shoot Landscape Panoramas Handheld

In conclusion

Oregon is a vast state with a diverse geological landscape.

Spend some time researching the nine ecological regions before you visit. It will be time well spent and will help fine-tune your photographic objectives and, therefore, your travel plans.

Pick a region, get dialed in, and be prepared to capture some of the most beautiful landscapes in the US Pacific Northwest.

Visit Steve's website

Steve J. Giardini is a Bend, Oregon-based creative photographer, writer, speaker, teacher, workshop leader, mentor, and coach. His mostly natural world images are consciously composed and subjectively finished to match his expressive state of mind. Steve strives to be relevant in photography’s nature and landscape field and to create meaningful, color and black and white archival photographs.

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