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Autumn Hikes in the Pacific Northwest

In the Pacific Northwest, autumn’s amazing colors tend to arrive in one of two ways. Either as a vibrant rainbow against the crisp backdrop of ever-decreasing daylight or in the short-lived flurries of a winter storm. But while they’re here, hiking in the fall colors is a breathtaking experience for outdoorsy folks at every age.

Oregon is an amazing destination for hikers 365 days of the year, but autumn is particularly stunning. Wherever you live—or visit—there are loads of nearby spots for an afternoon walk or all-day hike. Here are a few fan favorites. Some are trickier than others, but most are perfect for families, amateurs, and even picnics along the way. And if you're anything like us, you'll want to pack Cascadia Instant Coffee for great coffee to accompany your great adventure.

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Before You Go

Whatever your experience level, there are a few key things to remember before setting out. Travel Oregon suggests wearing warm, waterproof layers and sturdy shoes, staying on clearly marked trails or—vice versa—not trespassing on private lands, picking up after your pets (and yourself!), and carrying plenty of water. Because nature is noticeably short on wi-fi signals, download or print out maps and trail directions as well as researching where to park beforehand. Weekdays and early starts will cut down on crowd size if you prefer to enjoy nature in peace and services like the Columbia Gorge Express provide shuttle service to several amazing locations so you can leave the car behind.

Waterfalls Galore

Considered easy to moderate, Silver Falls State Park is an 8.6-mile loop located 25 miles east of Salem. Open all year round, in autumn the colors flash amidst a backdrop of old growth trees and 10 roaring waterfalls. There are even spots like South Falls where you can walk behind the waterfall, but guides don’t recommend starting that way as you’ll be extremely wet for the rest of the day. There are stairs and bridges along the trail for access but be careful as they can become slippery when icy or wet.

McDowell Creek Falls, near Sweet Home, is a shorter loop with dozens of different types of foliage. There are boardwalks and stairs to see the waterfalls and late fall is one of the best times to visit for both colorful leaves and optimum water levels in the creeks and rivers.

Migratory Birds Take Flight

Unlike the ups and downs of Silver Falls, William Finley National Wildlife Refuge 10 miles from Corvallis is flat and rock-free. There are many hiking options on their 12 miles of trails and the area is home to “rare habitats that support thousands of species, including six that are threatened and endangered,” say park officials. There is even an Observation Blind on the Homer Campbell Memorial Boardwalk from which to see geese, bald eagles, swans, pelicans, and water birds galore amongst the fall leaves and sturdy evergreens.

This time of year is also peak birding season at Umatilla’s McNary Wildlife Nature Area. On land, water, and air, there are birds everywhere, whether preparing for winter or just passing through on their annual migratory path. The primary trail is just two miles long but passes by ponds, marshes, and the Columbia River.

Kid, Stroller, and Mobility Friendly

Let’s face it, we’re not all SUPER hikers with gear and supplies and mysterious (or just plain goofy) terminology to guide us. For those pushing a stroller, hiking with little ones, or needing a smooth surface for balance and comfort, there are still plenty of great spots to go leaf-peeping. Check out Accessible Nature or Travel Portland for wheelchair-friendly starting places.

In Medford, kids will love Roxy Ann Peak in Prescott Park. It has port-a-potties, picnic areas, and educational signs galore. Leashed dogs are allowed and trails close when too muddy, so you don’t risk a swampy ride home with dirt-encrusted kids and pups.

Closer to town, the Portland-area Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden and Hoyt Arboretum offer nature, trails, and autumn colors. In the spring and summer, the Garden’s namesake flowers put on a show but with well-maintained paths at both sites all year round, they’re a great place to get the wiggles out. Frazzled and need a break? The Arboretum offers youth and family programming like guided preschool walks and their 2,000 tree and shrub species put on an amazing color display in the fall.

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Tougher Terrain for the Dedicated Hiker

Experienced hikers may prefer something a little more challenging. Divide Lake in the Willamette National Forest is less than 10 miles but has a steep incline and rocky terrain in places. Leashed dogs are allowed, and its difficulty means there are not too many crowds. Fall colors are closer to earth as local huckleberry bushes change with the seasons.

Similarly, Cottage Grove’s Brice Creek Trail is approximately 10 miles and like Silver Falls State Park, includes a portion behind a waterfall. Watch the leaves change on a day trip or camp overnight and explore further.

Near the Columbia River Gorge, the Cape Horn Loop Hike is only open from mid-July through January so autumn is the perfect time to visit. Just over 7 miles in length, the loop is clearly marked but somewhat difficult so better for experienced trekkers.

Quirky Additions to Your Hike

Sure, exploring nature is great. But what about adding in a little something extra? Intrepid hikers to tackle Spring Creek, Eagle Meadow, Pine Lakes, and Crater Lake can do so with the help of Wallowa Llamas. Their team doesn’t offer guided trips in the autumn, but you can still rent these sure-footed pack animals to be delivered to the trailhead for your excursion. Experts suggest camping in the central meadow at Eagle Creek and then day tripping to several nearby lakes.

If you’re at the coast near Tillamook, drop by the Octopus Tree of Oregon at Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint. The area is open all year round and from park viewpoints, you can see the multi-trunked Octopus Tree, migrating gray whales, sea birds, and the iconic lighthouse. Nearby Cape Lookout Trail, Kings Mountain Trail, and the Tillamook State Forest Loop are also dressed for the season.

Want a sure-fire way to get the kids excited about hiking? Add dinosaurs. At Prehistoric Gardens, self-guided tours through the rainforest are dotted with nearly two dozen life-sized dinosaurs. For nearly 70 years, this has been an amazing spot to visit while trekking the Oregon coastline between Gold Beach and Port Orford.

Bring Your Mountain Bike

Many hiking trails share their path with other outdoorsy activities, even during the autumn months. From horseback riding to mountain biking, snowshoeing to cross country skiing, the partnership makes for smooth, level travel but a little extra company during each sport’s high season.

Near Corvallis, Alsea Falls and Green Peak Falls only takes an hour to hike. At 2.4 miles long, mountain bikers keep things flat. Similarly, Government Camp’s Clear Lake Trail also owes thanks to these bikers. For this site, however, make sure to check for seasonal road closures around Mount Hood National Forest before heading out.

In the Willamette Foothills, try theNorth Fork Trail for the best of everything: trails, forest, and a riverside track that makes for a stunning adventure for both hikers and bikers.

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Gear and Preparations

Whether following the autumn leaves, chasing a little pre-winter sunshine, or just unplugging for the afternoon, hikers should bring a pack of supplies on every trip. Outside of the city, even day hikes require preparation…just in case.

In the 1930’s, a list of Ten Essentials was created by The Mountaineers, a group of Seattle-area outdoorsy adventurers. Everyone has their own spin on the classics, but gear maker REI updated it to 21st century necessities. This includes navigation (with the ability to use them and relevant info downloaded in advance), a headlamp and batteries, sunscreen, first aid kit, knife, matches, basic shelter, and extra food, water, and dry clothing. For detailed information, check out their backpacking, day hiking, ultralight, first-aid, and backpacking repair checklists as well.

We might be biased, but our favorite place to stock up on all of our coffee related trail essentials is the Cascadia Roasters web store for the best beans, instant coffee around, plus fun gear and merch. But there’s nothing better than waking up on a crisp morning and heading out into the short-lived jewel tones of autumn. Brisk temperatures make the exercise less, well, exercise-y and even your four-footed companions will appreciate the change of season. Consider investing in a dog harness with pouches so your pooch carries their own litter bags, water bowl, and treats. They’re lightweight and can be brightly colored or reflective which helps on those days the sun sets before suppertime. And always check each hike’s pet guidelines before leaving home. Some allow leashed pets, many don’t. And leaving pups in the car is never a good idea, even in the cooler months.

Then grab your gear and hit the trail, winter will be here before you know it!

Know any other great hikes for autumn in the Pacific Northwest? Please let us know, we always love hearing from you! 

(Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash)

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