Oregon’s Natural Beauty Is Its Greatest Asset
It’s cliché at this point to discuss Oregon’s nature. The state is known for its uniquely diverse landscape, ranging from snow-capped mountains and undulating valleys to vast grasslands and high deserts. Its size and latitude accommodate an array of climates and ecosystems almost unparalleled in the rest of the United States. However, for those who have lived here for a long time, including Willamette students from both in-state and out-of-state, it can be easy to forget or fail to appreciate Oregon’s natural beauty. To those who have lived here all their lives, or who hail from somewhere equally picturesque, Oregon may seem passė. Indeed, even for those who have never visited, Oregon lacks the appeal of states like California or New York, whose large urban centers and numerous attractions draw in far more tourists per year than the Beaver State.
I find this peculiar. I’m from the U.K., a country which, although home to London and a handful of other tourism hotspots, is not exactly replete with natural beauty. Head north to Scotland and you’ll encounter mountainous landscapes and pretty lochs. Head south to Cornwall and the south-west of England and you’ll come across a fair number of sandy beaches graced with palm trees and aquamarine waters. But especially where I live, in the English Midlands, you’ll struggle to find anything more exciting than fields and parks. That is not to say these places don’t have their charm, but compared to Oregon, they inspire little in the way of awe and wonder.
When I first arrived in Oregon last year, I was taken aback by its natural splendor. The first chance I got to properly immerse myself was around late September, when I and a group of other Bearcats ventured out to Mount Hood on a hiking trip organized by the Outdoor Program. I came face to face with the towering rock face, wove through the Douglas Firs and Ponderosa Pines that peppered its base, and cooled off beneath the spray of Tamanawas Falls, which marked the end of our trail. It was a breathtaking experience, given that it was my first time seeing a mountain and waterfall up close (we don’t get many of those in Birmingham). This particular trip stands out as one of my happiest moments during my time in the U.S..
Just a few weeks ago, I experienced a similar feeling of awe while traveling along the Oregon coast. We were, in fact, on our way to the Redwoods in California, about which I could write a whole other separate essay). As we were approaching the Oregon-California border at dusk, we made a pit stop at the Natural Bridges, a scenic stretch of coastline straddled by stone arches. Against the backdrop of the setting sun, I stood and gazed at this huge rocky structure, watching the tide crash against it as it glistened in the twilight. Although it was February, the sunlight felt warm on my skin, and as we headed back to the car I cast my eyes over the craggy beach and the sea of towering trees below. I couldn’t—and still can’t—get over how gorgeous it was. The scene was almost dreamlike, and it reaffirmed my love for Oregon and its natural wonder.
Anika Firehammer (‘25), a friend of mine who helps run the Outdoor Program here at Willamette, shares many of my thoughts. Firehammer is originally from Minnesota, where the climate and terrain is very different from Oregon, she says. “There’s a real outdoors culture where I’m from. People love to get out and spend time in nature, but in a different way [in comparison] to here.” Minnesota’s landscape is flatter than Oregon’s and, like England, the state boasts less dramatic scenery than the Pacific Northwest. “When people in Minnesota go outdoors,” Firehammer explained, “the activities they do are generally less extreme than here in Oregon.” There are far fewer mountains to climb or forests to traverse, not to mention a lack of coastline. “Hiking, skiing and those kinds of activities are much bigger here in Oregon,” said Firehammer. Like me, she was totally enraptured by Oregon’s natural beauty when she first arrived here last summer. Living and studying at Willamette has given her access to spaces and places she simply doesn’t have back home.
I suppose my point is that Oregon’s nature shouldn’t be taken for granted. As someone who, before this year, hadn’t had much exposure to nature and spent relatively little time in the great outdoors, I can truly appreciate how special places like these are. Not many people have the privilege of living among such beauty.