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.

Kid-Friendly Hikes Near Victoria, BC

To find out more about family-friendly hiking and camping near Victoria, BC I interviewed Kari Jones, a mom to one son and the author of the book “Hiking Adventures with Children: Southern Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula” which you can order from Kari’s blog or from Amazon.com.

Q: Is there a kid-friendly hike within Victoria’s city limits that you recommend? What do you like about it?

There are so many walks within Victoria; it’s hard to choose just one. But if I have to, I’d say Mystic Vale is my favourite. The walk starts at the University of Victoria, which is easily accessible by car or bus, but once you are in the Vale, it’s hard to remember you’re in the middle of the city. It’s a little bit of wilderness.

Mystic Vale (This photo and one at right — also Mystic Vale — courtesy of Sarah Pugh)

There are tall trees, wildflowers, and a little stream that runs its length. With small children, going to Mystic Vale can be a whole morning’s outing. The best place to park is along Cedar Hill Cross Road, and if you go by bus, you have to walk across the campus to Cedar Hill Cross Road (not far, about 5 minutes of walking). The Vale itself is probably only one kilometer or so, but I will see if I can get a specific length. If you look at the map at this link, the vale is the red line. As you can see, you can make a loop out of it by walking on the red line, which is up above the vale (in the valley).There is no cost, and it is always open, though I wouldn’t recommend visiting it in the dark. It would be easy to trip.

Can you recommend a hike (within 45 minutes of downtown Victoria) that’s good for families with toddlers? Is there a spot accessible via public transportation?

Francis/King Regional Park is about a 20-minute drive from downtown Victoria, and is a fantastic place for toddlers. There are several hikes, the easiest of which is the Elsie King Trail. This park is inland, so it’s drier than some of the coast walks.

Francis/King park, photo courtesy Marci Zoretich

The area is home to so many species of plants and animals I can’t name them all.  In the spring there are wildflowers all along the trails, and we have seen newts, moles, owls, and other hard-to-see creatures there.

If you are on a bus, Beaver Lake is a nice place to walk. It’s flat, and the trail is well defined. It’s less “wild” than Francis King, but there is still a lot of wildlife to entertain a toddler with.

Q: Can you recommend a hike (within 45 minutes of downtown Victoria) that’s good for elementary-age kids — children who can go a little further without complaint?

Witty’s Lagoon is a fantastic place for families with kids of any age. It’s a bit of a hike from the road to the beach, so be prepared to carry toddlers. Any kid will enjoy watching the water cascade down the waterfall and running along the lagoon. Once you reach the end of the trail, the beach opens up and you can spend a whole day amusing yourself in the sand and water. On a sunny day the water warms up on the sandy flats, and many people enjoy swimming when the tide is high.

Q: Where is your favorite kid-friendly hiking spot mid-island? What do you like about it? Who is it good for (age-wise)?

In the winter, people visit the ski resort at Strathcona Provincial Park, but many aren’t familiar with the great summer hiking. This park is really best in mid-summer, once all the snow has melted. There are lakes to swim in, mountains to climb, and alpine meadows to walk through and camping platforms to erect your tent on. It is a wilderness destination, so you have to carry in everything you need and carry it all back out again. It’s great for families with children small enough to carry or old enough to carry a small pack.

Q: Do you have a favorite Victoria post-hike spot to take your kid for treats?

After a hike we often stop in at Demmitasse (1320 Blanshard Street, Victoria) in Oak Bay for a baked treat and a hot chocolate or coffee (depending on your age!). It’s a family-run bakery on McNeil Avenue, which has seats outside where you can sit, even if you are stinky from hiking, and sip at lattes, cappuccinos or hot chocolates. My son always chooses a popsicle, even when the rest of us are having hot drinks. They cater to all our needs.

Q: How about camping? Can you recommend a great car-camping location not too far from Victoria, with trails or a lake (or similar) nearby?

My favourite car camping location is Ruckle Park. It’s on Saltspring Island, and what I love about it is that you drive to a parking lot, park the car, and walk to your campsite a few meters away. So when you’re camping, you have easy access to your car, but your view consists of ocean and trees. There’s a lovely hike from the campground to a small beach where kids can safely wade or play in the sand or search for purple shore crabs. The campsite is very near to a working sheep farm, which you can also walk around if you want a longer hike.

Thanks, Kari! Readers, can you suggest any hikes?

Rainy Day Rambles: All-weather hikes with kids

You’ve got a hike planned. But it’s raining, pouring, dumping outside.

Just go, says Jennifer Aist, the author of the book “Babes in the Woods,” a guide to hiking, camping and boating with babies and small children.

“If you live in the Pacific Northwest, you need to embrace the wet,” Aist says. “Otherwise you’ll rot away on your couch.”

An Alaska resident, Jennifer’s been on plenty of hikes with her three kids in Washington State and British Columbia. She knows rainy days. “I can’t tell you how many hours I have spent in the rain in campgrounds, on trails and on beaches,” Aist says.

But rain is a magical, surprising twist on the everyday hike, in Aist’s opinion. Let’s find out how to make your drizzly-day family hike a fantastic success.

Why is a rainy-day hike such a great idea?

Aist: To kids, rainy days just mean putting on another layer of clothing.

Rain brings out different critters on the beach. Rain brings earthworms to the surface for easy picking. Rain makes for perfect fort-building conditions. Rain sounds neat. Rain makes fantastic puddles. Rain makes for better wildlife sightings. Rain makes great little creeks for damming up.

Rain keeps lots of folks inside so you get the whole trail to yourself.

I hadn’t thought about it that way. But how do you prevent wet babies?

Aist: ERGOBaby makes a sport model of their carrier, which uses a fabric that is a bit better for rain than their cotton counterpart. Ergo also sells a cool add-on Weather Cover, made from fairly waterproof/windproof material that you put on over the carrier. But really, all soft structured baby carriers are going to get wet.

The makers of the Kindercoat have rain ponchos and jackets that are designed to be worn over a sling/wrap/mai tai or ergo or other soft structured carrier. These are great! A bit pricey, but great. You can even wear 2 babies at once in them.

External frame backpacks, like those made by Kelty and Sherpani are generally made of nylon and come with rain/shade hoods so they fare better. If you’re pushing an infant on a fairly flat, even trail, the Chariot or other system has very effective rain flies that keep baby nice and dry.

And of course, you can always carry an umbrella.

The author's daughter in Puddlegear.

Good tips. How do you keep walking-age kids dry?

Aist: For mobile kids, I’m a big fan of the one-piece rain suit and some tall rain boots. Puddlegear makes some really nice PVC-free ones. Molehill Mountain makes great kids outdoor gear. Great poly pro options, rain gear, all sorts of cool stuff.

You have to assume that little kids will stomp in puddles and get lots of water in their boots, so wool socks are a must.

Hats from Sunday Afternoons keep the rain off your face.

I also avoid cotton clothing wherever possible (wet cotton makes you cold). I give more details on how to dress in warm layers in the book, as well.

How long of a hike should parents aim for?

Aist: Length of trail really depends on lots of different things. With young infants, it is much easier to go farther and longer. You may have to stop and nurse on the trail, but otherwise they are usually pretty content just hanging out.

Toddlers and preschoolers are a whole different story. Start short and test out the waters. Thirty minutes may be plenty for some.

My oldest could easily hike 10 miles at age 4, but her brother pooped out at 3 miles at the same age. Better to get back to the car wanting to do more than dragging a kid in the midst of total melt down back to the car.

Also, is the trail interesting? All uphill? Easy? Good views? Cool landmarks like a fun bridge along the way? Look for those little extras to boost your child’s interest.

Are there any warm-your-soul snacks or drinks for a rainy-day hike with kids?

Aist: I bring a thermos with hot cocoa or hot apple cider with us on cold days. This is always a big hit. I also aim for snacks that hold up well when wet.

Sandwich bread is a total bust. Apples are good, berries are great, hard granola bars do OK.

Is there a good rule of thumb that parents should keep in mind regarding rainy-day hikes?

The author with two of her three children.

Aist: Rule of thumb? Make it fun! Make it so they want to get out and do it again. Better yet, make it so fun that mom and dad want to take them out again.

So go ahead and stomp in the puddles yourself. You can clean up when you get home.

The number one reason people don’t like to take kids out in rainy/cold weather is because someone is cold. Gear up to keep everyone toasty. Bring snacks–or pick them along the way. Sing, be silly. Share in the natural wonder kids enjoy.

And know when to call it a day. If a meltdown is imminent, head for home!

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Discover Canadian-made rainy day clothing recommendations from Yoyomama.

Hikes for Kids Near Downtown Seattle

When visiting Seattle, don’t miss the chance to scramble up a fewhiking  trails with the kids. The city limits yield plenty of hiking treasures, and if you’re in town for a few days and you’ve rented a car, spectacular scenery is within a 45-minute drive of the Seattle.

This week, hiking expert Joan Burton tells visitors and locals where to hike in and around Seattle with kids.  Burton is the author of Urban Walks, 23 Walks through Seattle’s Parks and Neighborhoods, published by Thistle Press and Best Hikes With Kids: Western Washington & the Cascades, published by Mountaineers Books.

Burton offers great information on kid-friendly hikes in our area. For even more tree-lined trails, plus driving directions and complete hike descriptions, order Burton’s book, Best Hikes with Kids in Washington.

Q: Can you recommend a hike within the Seattle city limits, good for toddlers and preschoolers?

A: Located within Seattle city limits are two large waterfront parks, which families with toddlers and preschoolers can enjoy at any season.

Just 20 minutes from downtown Seattle, Seward Park has a paved trail around a level, 2 1/2 mile peninsula on south Lake Washington. Walkers can push a stroller or carry a toddler in a backpack while walking a dog. The lakeshore beside the trail all the way around the point offers on clear days views of Mount Rainier and the Cascades floating above it. Protection from wind and weather is available in picnic shelters.

In West Seattle (also about 20 minutes from downtown), Lincoln Park lies on Puget Sound, so its western views are of the Olympics. It offers steep wooded paths and level paved trails, but to get to the shoreline promenade with the most gentle descent, drive to the south part of the park and find the path near the ferry landing to reach the paved waterfront path.

The saltwater beach is accessible to families with toddlers, and there are shelters for picnics. Families will find the 1 3/4-mile trail north to Colman Pool — filled in summer with warm salt water — a good option.

Q. Is there a spectacular hike for older kids, within 45 minutes of downtown Seattle?

Snoqualmie Falls is so beautiful the local Indian tribe considers it a sacred place. You can admire the 268-foot falls from a parking lot viewpoint and walk down a steep path to the plunge pool, or you can hike with your children one mile to the base of the falls and gaze upward in awe.

Puget Sound Energy has harnessed the falls for their power, but you can walk around the power station gate to the station powerhouse. See kayaks and rafts being launched there in the eddying current.

On the other side of the powerhouse, follow the rocky trail to a dead-end viewpoint up the face of the waterfall. The sight is so compelling it is hard to turn away and the sound of the falls drowns out all conversation.

Q. Can you recommend a hike for parents of babies or non-walkers, 35 to 45 minutes from downtown Seattle?

In North Bend, Washington, Scenic Rattlesnake Lake has a wide trail around it, past a picnic area on the west side to the south end. In addition, you can see the Cedar River Watershed Visitor’s Center with good natural history exhibits, a three dimensional map of the watershed, and in its courtyard a magical group of large drums being played by amplified raindrops.

Above the lake lies Rattlesnake Ledge, the eastern-most peak in the Issaquah Alps with a sweeping view. It’s a hike popular with parents, who are able to carry a snoozing baby up to its summit. Switchback upward to a rocky ledge with views for 270 degrees of the horizon, toward the city, along the valley and lake below and back to the Cascades.

Rattlesnake Lake is only 36 miles east of downtown Seattle.

Q. Is there another hike you’d recommend for families?

Discovery Park is Seattle’s largest park, with 534 acres of beaches, meadows, ravines and woodlands, It lies between Elliott and Shilshole Bays and offers a maze of walking paths and roads, some left from the 19th century when the park was a federal Army fort, Fort Lawton.

discovery park seattle hike

Discovery Park, Seattle

The park was named for George Vancouver’s ship, the HMS “Discovery,” which sailed past this point in 1792.  The story goes that when Vancouver first saw the madronas along the bluff, he thought they were magnolias and so named it Magnolia Bluff.

Paved roads and trails are open to bicycles and paths are open to hikers only. The park holds a mix of natural and cultural resources, including old military installations.

You can look for woodland second growth, grassy meadows, an historic district of old officer’s homes and barracks; Daybreak Star, an Indian cultural center; viewpoints along the bluff high above the Sound; and miles of undeveloped salt-water shoreline beach lit by a historic former U.S. Coast Guard Lighthouse, open for tours during visiting hours.

This park offers kids long beaches and woodland trails and a meadow where they can fly a kite in the breeze.

The Environmental Center offers children’s activities, nature walks, and displays. The Daybreak Star Center has a collection of Native American clothing, tools, carvings, and baskets, an alternative on a rainy day.

Another beach access trail on the south of the park avoids the steep stairs, and also offers long beaches to play on. Beachcombing on a low tide day is a treasure hunt.

Thanks, Joan! Check out her site (www.joanburton.org), which also describes easy city hikes, trail closures and her work with the Washington Trail Association.

Do you have a favorite Seattle hike to recommend to families?

Also, visit My Little Nomads for even more Joan Burton hiking goodness!