12 Strange Natural Wonders in the Pacific Northwest and BC

These odd Oregon, British Columbia and Washington State destinations can compete with even the best video game or smartphone and win. Don’t tell kids the science behind the weird natural wonder’s unusual nature — at least not right away — and see what interesting and creative explanations they might come up with, then explain the science.

1. Mima Mounds. The Mima Mounds seem like something out of a sci-fi movie — a meadow of grassy mounds in a repeated pattern, as if carved or created intentionally. In the past, locals thought perhaps “pocket gophers” created these little bumps. Turns out that the mounds are generated by plant growth — but aliens indeed would’ve been more fun.

2. Oregon Vortex. Dare your Wicked-loving daughter or son to belt out “Defying Gravity” here. Things seem to roll uphill at the Oregon Vortex, and nothing is quite as it seems. Turns out the vortex is part of a “gravity hill optical illusion.” There are many in the U.S., but this is the Northwest’s own.

3. John Day Fossil Beds. Spread out geographically over three “units,” spectacular reds, yellows and greens seem etched into The Painted Hills Unit, and the Clarno Unit looks like a cathedral for space-men (but is only viewable from below, along the highway). I recommend the Painted Hills over all others, thanks to easy-going paths that wind through super-vivid hills. But watch out for snakes!

Painted Hills Cove Trail, Oregon

Painted Hills Cove Trail, Oregon

4. Gingko Petrified Forest. I know you’re imagining a standing forest made of stone, but the Gingko Petrified Forest is not that cool. This is a dry, mountainous area with more than 50 fossilized tree species, along with a park museum center that shows off fossils in funky shapes. Read more about the Gingko Petrified Forest. 

5. Lost Lake. When is a lake not a lake? When it’s a Lost Lake. Every winter, the lake basin fills up, and every spring, it leaks down a giant hole that’s actually a dried-up lava tube! — sort of like your tub’s drain. Also, families can camp here at Lost Lake, in Oregon.

6. Beacon Rock. The Northern Hemisphere’s second largest free-standing monolith! A hiking trail winds around Beacon Rock to the top; keep an eye on impulsive children next to the barely-guardrails on this 722-foot monster of Southwest Washington. Other unusual rocks include Hat Rock in Eastern Oregon and Haystack Rock on the Oregon Coast.

7. Soap Lake. It’s like a giant bubble bath…kinda. Washington’s Soap Lake contains more than 20 minerals that give the lake a sloppy, soapy texture (complete with a brownish froth), and make the water buoyant. Oily ichthyols also float in the lake; Europeans believe these help heal skin issues. Fun gross-out kid fact: these ichthyols come from decomposing shrimp. Ew!

8. The Octopus Tree. A 250-year old Sitka spruce with branches that grow out and up, in a many-legged octopus pattern. Located at the Cape Meares Lighthouse along the Oregon Coast.

Octopus Tree Oregon Coast

Octopus Tree: Oregon Coast

9. Spotted Lake. In Eastern British Columbia, Spotted Lake (Kliluk Lake) is covered in blue and yellow circles of varying sizes, thanks to colorful mineral deposits and summer’s evaporation. Located just west of the Washington-BC border town of Osoyoos.

10. Sea Lion Caves. Billed as the “America’s Largest Sea Cave,” this Oregon attraction is full of sea lions and pretty rank sea lion breath. But it is actually probably the largest sea lion cave in America. Take that for what you will, and the attraction will take $14 (adults) and $8 (ages 5-12).

11. Oregon Caves. These dark batcaves are the”marble halls of Oregon.”  They bear 15,000 feet winding of marble, formed by underground cave women. No — just lava made it long ago. The Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve’s excellent tour is recommended for big kids only: at least 42 inches tall (107 centimeters) and able to climb steep stairs without help. You can’t carry little ones. And yes, there are bats,but don’t worry they don’t bite. Another tunnel: Horne Lake Caves.

12. Oregon Dunes. The Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area offers 40 miles of Tattooine-like mountains of sand that can reach up to 500 feet tall, and rapidly overtaking local businesses. Wear serious hiking boots or comfortable shoes, bring a sled or snowboard for slipping down hills of sand. Sunglasses help prevent sand in your eyes.

Skateboarding kid at Oregon Dunes in Florence, Oregon

Sandboarding at Oregon Dunes in Florence, Oregon

I think we can agree that Oregon is definitely one of the odder regions of our area, due to the diversity of natural oddities left behind by Earth’s evolution. I left volcanoes off this list, although they’re also extremely terrifying and fun.

9 Awesome Seattle Day Trips with Kids

Just because you’re between vacations doesn’t mean you have to stay home. These nine fun excursions get the family out of the house for the day. Whether you have one or two hours or an entire 12 hours to drive, play and explore, you’ll find a great escape below.

Seattle to Whidbey Island Day Trip

How long does it take to get to Whidbey Island?

The Mukilteo ferry dock is about 35 miles north of Seattle, then there’s a half-hour sailing time to Clinton. Ferries run every half-hour on weekends and cost $24.85/RT for a family of four. Driving from Clinton to Fort Casey takes about 40 minutes.

Fort Casey batteries and bunkers fun for kids

Exploring the Fort Casey Batteries is always a fun thing to do with kids on Whidbey Island.

Things to do with kids on Whidbey Island on a day trip?

Seattle to Vashon Day Trip:

How long does it take to get to Vashon?

Take a ferry from West Seattle, then drive a few miles of two-lane country roads. Ferries leave about once an hour, and costs about $26/RT for a family of four in a car. Ferries run mostly once an hour, sometimes twice during peak hours, and sailing time is about 20 minutes.

Things to do with kids on Vashon Island on a day trip?

Seattle to Bainbridge Island Day Trip

How long does it take to get to Bainbridge Island?

A few miles to the downtown Seattle ferry dock. Ferries leave about once an hour, and a round-trip trip costs about $40 for a family of four in a car (with kids over age 6). Passenger-only (walk on) saves about $10 on that total, and most attractions are in the downtown Bainbridge core, which is more like a small town.

Things to do on a Bainbridge day trip with kids?

Seattle to Bremerton and Poulsbo Day Trip

How long does it take to get to Bremerton and Poulsbo?

Ferry from downtown Seattle to Bremerton takes about an hour for the crossing time, then you’ll need to drive another 17 miles to Poulsbo. Ferries leave once an hour – every 90 mins, and costs about $40/RT for a family of four in a car. You can return via Bremerton or push on to Bainbridge Island and sail back to Seattle from Bainbridge.

Things to do on a Bremerton and Poulsbo day trip with kids?

Seattle to Bellingham Day Trip

How long does it take to get to Bellingham?

Bellingham is about 90 miles via I-5, or around 1 h 30 m.

Things to do with kids in Bellingham on a day trip?

  • Watch a Tesla coil light up at the Spark Museum of Electrical Invention.
  • Learn about the beauty of nature and science at Mindport.
  • Sehome Hill Arboretum.
  • Take your teen to a movie at the Pickford Center.
  • Hike a trail at Larrabee State Park.

Seattle to LaConner Day Trip:

How long does it take to get to LaConner? 

Laconner is about 70 miles along I-5, so around 1 h 20 m.

Things to do with kids in LaConner on a day trip?

Pierce County Day Trip

How long does it take to get to Pierce County?

About an hour south along I-5, then along Hwy 167.

Things to do on a Pierce County day trip with kids?

Discovery Village toddler area a fun place to take kids in Gig Harbor

The toddler area at Discovery Village; it’s a fun little place to take kids in Gig Harbor.

Seattle to Tacoma Day Trip

How long does it take to get to Tacoma?

Tacoma is about 40 minutes south, along I-5.

Things to do with kids on a Tacoma day trip?

Seattle to Olympia Day Trip

How long does it take to get to Olympia?

About an hour south, along I-5.

Things to do with kids in Olympia day trip?

One-Tank Trips: 3 great day trips from Seattle with author Chloë Ernst

Wow, this week we have a special treat — an interview with Vancouver-based freelance journalist Chloë Ernst, who has penned guidebooks, newspaper articles and magazine stories. She’s the author of Day Trips from Seattle: Getaway Ideas for the Local Traveler. I own this book; it’s well researched and a fabulous find (which is why I asked her to do a quick Q&A with me).

Ernst doesn’t just try to drop in to local sites: “When I travel (on a day trip or a 3-month stint), my mission is to become a local in each place I visit. Over the years that has meant surfing on the Washington coast, dancing in the Fería de Sevilla, shopping in the New York Garment District, and avoiding bears in Whistler.”

Chloë Ernst

Do you want to tell us a little bit about how you wrote the book? How much time did you end up spending in the Seattle area? Any experiences that you learned from?

I put together Day Trips from Seattle during a series of long-weekend trips. Maps are my major travel must-have. I get lost easily so I try to study road maps intensely before I head anywhere.

During one solo road trip I left my wallet at a gas station. When I backpack, I always have cash and credit cards stashed in different places. But when I travel by car I relax more and am (unintentionally) a little less protective of my valuables. It reminded me to be more prepared if things should be lost or stolen while on the road.

Luckily a lovely gentleman in Arlington bought me lunch (which I couldn’t pay for due to the missing wallet), phoned the gas station where I last was, and ensured I got my wallet back.

Which Seattle day trip is your personal favorite — a destination to which you always want to return?

Heading east on I-90 means a sunnier climate than we’re used to in Seattle and Vancouver. One day trip that stands out connects Roslyn, Cle Elum, and Ellensburg. I love the small-town-nature and history that each offers. Roslyn mixes mines and cemeteries with its faux-history as Cicely in Northern Exposure. Cle Elum has a railroad feel as well as the spirited, community-run Carpenter House Museum. (Read more about Roslyn/Cle Elum with kids)

And Ellensburg make a great final stop, with museums, the eclectic art at Dick and Jane’s Spot, and the chimps at the “chimposium” on the Central Washington University campus who communicate with sign language.

Is there a Seattle day trip in your book that you would recommend for families?

Day tripping south to Federal Way, Puyallup, and Eatonville offers lots of family activities. In Federal Way there’s the pick of Wild Waves Theme Park (with water slides) and West Hylebos Wetland Park (with nature trails). Going on to Puyallup, you’ll find superb bakeries (such as Pioneer Bakery) and the restored Meeker Mansion — although I’m still creeped out by the framed, Victorian-era hair sculptures in one of the rooms. The intricate flowers and shapes are made entirely from strands of human hair!

Eatonville is close to Mt. Rainier and feels very rural. Both Northwest Trek Wildlife Park and Pioneer Farm Museum have lots of animals to engage and activities to entertain kids.

Is there a budget-minded Seattle day trip that stands out for you?

When I think budget day trips, I always think the beach. Driving out to Ocean Shores or Westport is a fair distance, but the sand and saltwater are worth it. Ocean Shores has a free interpretive center with hands-on exhibits, and we always see wild deer along the road. But I prefer Westport. It’s less glossy and has more state parks. The Westport Maritime Museum features a free outdoor exhibit of whale bones and other sea life. [Note: Here’s my piece on Westport with kids]

In the fall, drive a few minutes down to Grayland and you can watch the cranberries being harvested. Before visiting I had no idea that the farmers harvest the berries by flooding the fields so the cranberries float to the surface.

Do you have a favorite day trip from the Vancouver area? Can you give a few highlights of that day trip?

From Vancouver, Squamish makes a quick day trip with wilder nature than we’re accustomed to in the city. The Stawamus Chief is one of my favorite hikes on a sunny day. Hikers climb ladders and rocky slopes to reach one or all of the three peaks on the hulking granite massif. In winter, bald eagles congregate on the nearby rivers and especially in Brackendale.

Also on the Sea-to-Sky Highway (which extends up to Whistler and beyond), the Brittania Mine Museum can happily eat up hours with gold panning. Someone will — almost guarantee-ably — get gold fever and have to be dragged from the sand beds that are salted with gold and pyrite. There is also a fabulous mine tour there that includes a ride on a squeaky mine train and mining equipment demonstrations. The noises can be loud and perhaps not great for younger children, but it’s tons of fun.

Read more:

Washington State Round-Up from Cascadia Kids.

Family Day Trips from the Seattle area from Cascadia Kids.

9 Great Day Trips from Seattle from the Seattle Convention and Visitors Bureau.

4 Great Day Trips from Seattle from RoadTrip America.

Family Day Trips from the Seattle Area

If you’ve only got a day, try one of these family-friendly daytrips from the Seattle area for winter break, spring break or a weekend escape:

Bellingham with kids daytrip

Take I-5 North to Bellingham and enjoy the town’s artsy vibe, parks and museums, then get a cool scoop at Mallard Ice Cream. In fact, there are over 20 family-friendly things to do in Bellingham.

If you don’t want to drive as far as Bellingham, try the picture-perfect, riverfront town of La Conner for spring’s tulip festivals or just to stroll streets stacked with bookstores, toy shops and museums.

A typical storefront in La Conner

Don’t forget to try the Banana Coconut Cakes at Calico Cupboard Cafe.

Time one-way to Bellingham: About one hour, 40 minutes.


Kitsap County with kids daytrip

A quick ferry from downtown Seattle delivers you to Bremerton, where you can pick up a pack of Belgian frites at Fritz European Fry House or tour the U.S.S. Turner Joy warship (my son loved the maze of sleeping bunks and chow hall).

Maybe you can find your sea-legs aboard the U.S.S. Joy — I obviously didn’t!

Drive up the peninsula to enjoy’s Poulsbo’s Nordic theme and the Poulsbo Marine Science Center (note: currently closed for repairs — keep an eye on their website), then end your day on Bainbridge Island’s KiDiMu. Ride the ferry home.

Time one-way to Bremerton: About one hour; round-trip drive time about two hours.

Olympia daytrip with kids

Visit Olympia’s stellar Hands On Children’s Museum with little kids or the Washington State Capitol Building with big kids. Then spend a few hours in the local toy stores, cafes and at Olympia’s April-December farmer’s market. Read more here: Daytrip: Olympia with Kids. Need more to do? On the way down, you can always make a stop at Tacoma’s Point Defiance Zoo and a 19th-century fort at Fort Nisqually’s Living History Museum.

Finding out what’s up with George at the Washington State Capitol

Time one-way to Olympia: About one hour


Snoqualmie Pass daytrip with kids

If the snow skipped your neighborhood, there’s still a chance of catching the white stuff up on Snowqualmie Pass, even into early spring. Whether sledding at Hyak, skiing at Summit West, tubing at Summit Tubing Center or just playing in the snow, the Cascades offer dramatic vistas of cloud-wrapped, evergreen-studded peaks. Read more at The Summit at Snoqualmie website.

Sledding and snowshoeing at Hyak

In summer, either enjoy the cool breezes or push on just a little further over the mountains and let the kids visit “The Other Washington,” featuring a dry, arid landscape and rolling hills of bleached grass. A prime pick: Washington’s weird little Petrified Gingko Forest (about 2 hours from Seattle; head to downtown Ellensburg for food).

Time: 45 minutes to 90 minutes, depending upon road conditions. Pack chains and check road conditions before leaving.


Daytrip! Four Portland day trips with kids

On certain winter weekends, you’re cooped up inside the house, kids bickering and frustrated while the rain pounds outside.

Sounds like it’s time for a daytrip.

A daytrip is a break from the usual routine. Hop in the car for an hour or so, motoring down the freeway and along country lanes. Enjoy a movie or a museum or a hot chocolate (or all three). Bring a change of clothes in case the kids want to play at a park (despite rain or snow). Over the next few weeks, we’ll explore daytrips based out of the Portland, Vancouver and Seattle metro areas.

Home Base: Portland

Oregon Coast with kids daytrip

Take Hwy 26 out to Seaside and Cannon Beach, where the kids can fly kites, make mud castles and storm-watch from the warm safety of a café. Or make your way out west toward Tillamook, Ore., and tour the Tillamook Visitors Center before visiting the quiet little towns of Rockaway Beach and Manzanita.

Time one-way: About 90 minutes.

Mt. Hood with kids daytrip

Take Hwy 26 east to Portland’s beloved mountain and take a free tour of Timberline Lodge, counting animals you find hidden in ironwork, woodwork and on the mountain. Play in the snow, drink hot chocolate at the lodge, then go to Government Camp and stop for a brief 10-minute self-guided tour of Mt. Hood Cultural Center and Museum (check out those tiny, vintage hiking shoes from an elementary-aged mountain climber).

Time one way: About 90 minutes

N. Bonneville Hot Springs with kids daytrip

Fed up with the rain? A day pass to the Bonneville Hot Springs offers a pool and two jetted hot tubs featuring heated, sulfate-rich water. Weekdays are the deal here, though ($15/3 hour pass for adults), and weekends incur significantly higher rates ($25/3 hours pass for adults). Kids under age 2 are free, and the Family Swim Time runs on Sundays from 1:30-7:30. Post pool, head into Stevenson, Wash. (my hometown!) to visit the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center or a meal at the upscale Skamania Lodge.

Time one way: About an hour

Salem with kids daytrip

Head to the Oregon state capitol to enjoy A.C. Gilbert’s Discovery Village, an interactive children’s museum, the Riverfront Carousel and an indoor playground featuring four themes (trains, princess, music and market).

Time one way: About an hour

Daytrip: Olympia with kids

Think State capitols aren’t kid-friendly? Towns plagued by boring subcommittee meetings, too-fancy restaurants and dull plazas, right?

Olympia, Washington, may take you by surprise.

Lavender at the Olympia Farmers Market

When to go: Saturday, so you can check out the Olympia Farmers Market, the people-smorgasbord that is Olympia. You’ll see patchouli students from the nearby Evergreen State College, farmers in overalls, embroidered-denim grandmas, toddlers riding on dad’s shoulders. The market’s a nice mix of locally made items:  soaps, herbs, baked goods and of course, tie-dye shirts.

Where to eat: At the market, order honkin’ huge sandwiches from Heyday! Cafe and listen to live music on the market stage. As an alternative, go to Meconi’s Italian Subs for the best subs this side of the Mississippi.

Getting buried with (plastic) rocks at the Hands On Children's Museum

Little kids will love: The Hands On Children’s Museum, where the museum’s town allows kids to grow apples on a farm, deliver them with a truck, sell them the store, turn them into apple fritters in the bakery – and then visit the dentist for a tooth cleaning afterward. At the other end of the museum’s U-shaped layout, a kids can don lifejackets and pretend to drive a ceiling-height container ship (with a working crane!). The $7.95 per-person entry fee pays off with at least two hours of fun; one of the best children’s museum’s I’ve visited in the Northwest.

George's nose is shiny because so many people rub it for good luck.

Big kids will love: Discussing how government works in the hushed marble halls of Olympia’s Legislative Building, which sports the fourth-tallest, self-supported masonry dome in the world. Tours are offered between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. on weekends, but it’s probably best for you to drop cool history facts on your way through the building’s three floors. Look for the giant brass bust of George Washington — and don’t forget your camera.

Where to shop: Wind Up Here keeps little hands busy with dolls, wooden toys and other playthings. Perfect for a sticker book or two to keep the kids busy in the car.

Trying a mocha-dusted hazelnut.

What to take home: Don’t leave town without picking up treats from the Olympia Farmers Market — dinosaur cookies from San Francisco Street Bakery’s stall or a blend of nuts from Jawa Gourmet Nut Roastery. Recommended: lavender walnuts with orange and mocha hazelnuts.

Find more hotels, attractions and restaurants at Visit Olympia.