Oregon National Parks: Marble Caves, Fossils, Pristine Lakes

Clear lake on bright day, Oregon, USA
The serenely beautiful Crater Lake, born of a violent volcanic eruption more than 7,000 years ago, is the seventh deepest lake in the world. William Farmer / Getty Images

Oregon's National Parks preserve a wide range of geological and ecological resources, from volcanoes to glaciers, pristine mountain lakes, caverns full of marble stalactites and stalagmites, and fossil beds formed more than 40 million years ago. Historical monuments owned by the National Park Service include sites dedicated to the Corps of Discovery of Lewis and Clark, and the famous Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph.

Oregon National Parks
Map of the national parks in the state of Oregon. National Park Service 

The National Park Service (NPS) owns or manages ten national parks, monuments, and historic and geologic trails in Oregon, which are visited annually by over 1.2 million people, according to the NPS. This article features the most relevant parks, as well as the historical, environmental, and geological elements which make them outstanding.

Crater Lake National Park

The shoreline of Crater Lake, Oregon
Shoreline of Crater Lake in Crater Lake National Park in Oregon. cws_design / Getty Images

The lake at the center of Crater Lake National Park, located near its namesake town in southeastern Oregon, is one of the deepest lakes in the world. Crater Lake is part of the caldera of a volcano, which violently erupted 7,700 years ago, bringing down the collapse of Mount Mazama. The lake is 1,943 feet deep and fed only by snow and rainfall; and with no natural outlets, it is among the clearest and most pristine lakes on the planet. Near the lake's center is a volcanic reminder of its creation, Wizard Island, the tip of a cinder cone rising 763 feet above the lake's surface and 2,500 feet above the lake floor. 

Crater Lake National Park is set in a volcanic landscape that has seen six advances of glacial ice. The park includes shield volcanoes, cinder cones, and caldera, as well as glacial till and moraines. An unusual form of plant life is found here, an aquatic moss which has grown for thousands of years, ringing the lake about 100–450 feet below its surface.

Fort Vancouver National Historic Site

Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.
At Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, visitors discover the history of the Hudson's Bay Company in the Pacific Northwest, including this English-style garden modeled after one kept at the fort in the early 19th century. National Park Service

In the early 19th century, Fort Vancouver was the Pacific coast outpost of the London-based Hudson's Bay Company (HBC). Hudson's Bay originated as a group of wealthy British businessmen who began establishing a fur-trapping foothold on the eastern coast of North America in 1670. 

Fort Vancouver was first built as a fur-trading post and supply depot during the winter of 1824–1825, near the current Oregon/Washington border. Within two decades, it became the headquarters for HBC along the Pacific coast, from Russian-owned Alaska to Mexican-owned California. The original Fort Vancouver burned in 1866 but has been rebuilt as a museum and visitor's center. 

The park also includes the village of Vancouver, where the fur trappers and their families lived. The U.S. Army's Vancouver Barracks, built in the mid-19th century, were used as a supply depot and for housing and training soldiers for American wars from the Civil War through World War I.

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
The Painted Hills Unit at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Oregon. Witold Skrypczak / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images

The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, near Kimberly in central Oregon, features fossil beds of plants and animals laid down between 44 and 7 million years ago, in three widely separate park units: Sheep Rock, Claro, and Painted Hills. 

The oldest unit at the park is Sheep Rock, which has non-fossil bearing rocks that date back to 89 million years ago, and fossils from 33 to 7 million years old. Also at Sheep Rock is the Thomas Condon paleontological research center, and the headquarters of the park based in the historic Cant Ranch, built in 1910 by a family of Scottish immigrants. 

The Claro Formation contains fossils laid down from 44–40 million years ago, and is the only place in the park where visitors can see fossils in their original location. Ancient fossils of tiny four-toed horses, huge rhino-like brontotheres, crocodilians, and meat-eating creodonts have been uncovered there. The Painted Hills unit, which holds fossils dated between 39–20 million years ago, features a striking landscape of enormous hills striped in red, tan, orange, and black. 

Lewis and Clark National Historical Park

Lewis and Clark National Historical Park
Reconstruction of Fort Clapsop, where explorers Lewis and Clark wintered in 1805-6, in the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, Oregon. Nik Wheeler / Corbis Documentary / Getty

The Lewis and Clark National Historical Park celebrates the northwestern end of the 1803–1804 Corps of Discovery, the expedition promoted by Thomas Jefferson and funded by the U.S. Government to explore the Louisiana Purchase territory

Fort Clatsop, located near Astoria on the Pacific coast, near Oregon's border with Washington, is where the Corps of Discovery camped from December 1805 to March 1806. Fort Clatsop has been rebuilt as an interpretive center, where costumed reenactors provide visitors with an insight into the history and conditions of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and their exploration crew. 

Other historical elements at the park include the Middle Village-Station Camp, where indigenous Chinook people traded with ships from Europe and New England ten years before Lewis and Clark arrived. Those ships brought metal tools, blankets, clothing, beads, liquor, and weapons to trade for beaver and sea otter pelts. 

The Lewis and Clark park is nestled in the ecologically significant Columbia River Estuary, where ecosystems range from coastal dunes, estuarine mudflats, tidal marshes, and shrub wetlands. Important plants include the giant Sitka spruces, which live more than a century and grow up to 36 feet in circumference.  

Nez Perce Historical Park

Nez Perce Historical Park
The Wallowa wild and scenic river in Nez Perce Historical Park. Bureau of Land Management

Nez Perce is a large historical park based in Idaho and crossing into Washington, Montana, and Oregon. The park is dedicated to the nimí·pu· (Nez Perce) people, who have inhabited the region since long before European settlers arrived. 

The park falls into three basic ecoregions: shortgrass prairies of the Palouse Grasslands and Missouri Basin in Washington and Idaho; the sagebrush steppe of the Columbia and Snake River Plateaus in eastern Washington and north-central Oregon; and the conifer/alpine meadows of the Blue Mountains and the Salmon River Mountains in Idaho and Oregon.

Park elements falling within Oregon's borders include several sites dedicated to Chief Joseph (Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, "Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain," 1840–1904), the famous Nez Perce leader born in Oregon's Wallowa Valley. Dug Bar is the location where Chief Joseph's band forded the Snake River on May 31, 1877, while complying with the U.S. government's demand to leave their homeland. The Lostine Campsite is a traditional summer campsite of the Nez Perce where Chief Joseph died in 1871. The park also includes Chief Joseph's gravesite and the Joseph Canyon Viewpoint, near the location where Chief Joseph was born, according to tradition.

Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve

Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve.jpg
The strange cave formations of Oregon Caves National Monument. fdastudillo / iStock / Getty Images

Oregon Caves National Monument is located in southwestern Oregon, near the town of Cave Junction at Oregon's border with California. The park is famous for a large subterranean cave system underlying the Siskiyou Mountains. 

The original inhabitants of the region were the Takelma tribe, a Native American group who were decimated by smallpox and forcibly removed from their homelands. In 1874, a fur trapper named Elijah Davidson stumbled into the cave's opening, and President William Howard Taft made it a National Monument in 1909.  

The karst system of Oregon Caves is the result of the slow dissolution action of underground water and naturally occurring acids. The Oregon Caves are rare in that they were carved out of marble, a hard crystalline form of limestone. The caves have regions of a twilight zone, where an opening to the forest floor allows light to penetrate, fostering photosynthetic plants such as mosses. But there are also dark, twisting passageways leading to rooms full of speleothems, cave formations made from eons of acidic water seeping into the cave, giving rise to the park's nickname, the "Marble Halls of Oregon."