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.

Sea Monsters, Star Wars and SNOT: This summer’s museum attractions for families

If making plans for summer, check out these new and upcoming kid-friendly museum exhibits in Seattle, Vancouver or Bend — the exhibits may inspire a day trip, weekend excursion or week-long adventure.

Sea Monsters Revealed
Vancouver Aquarium. Vancouver, BC.
March 5 to September 7, 2015

From now through the end of summer, discover what lies beneath the sea’s deepest reaches, where few humans have ventured. Sea Monsters Revealed uses plastination (seen in many human anatomy exhibits) to preserve the bodies of deep-sea creatures and ocean oddities, including a mako shark and a car-sized sunfish.

Vancouver with Kids, Summer 2015: Sea Monsters

Vancouver with Kids, Summer 2015: Sea Monster Exhibit. Photo courtesy Vancouver Aquarium.

GROSSOLOGY: The (Impolite) Science Of The Human Body
Pacific Science Center. Seattle, Washington.
June 20 to September 7, 2015

Two words: burp machine. This summer, animatronic exhibits and (probably too much) information edifies on snot, stink and other disgusting things that entertain kids. For example: The “Gas Attack” pinball game, “Urine: The Game,” a kidney-riffic experience, and a “Tour du Nose.” Despite being somewhat gross, it’s all in the service of teaching kids cool stuff about biology. Also, maybe, not to pick their noses so much. We’ll see.

Ultimate Dinosaurs
Science World. Vancouver, BC.
Opening Saturday, May 30.

Meet dozens of dinosaurs that evolved in the Southern Hemisphere, in the flesh (or close to it). The exhibit combines augmented-reality tech with fossils to create realistic Southern-Hemisphere dinos rarely found in North America, including those that outsize the toddler-beloved T. Rex.

Disguise: Masks and Global African Art
Seattle Art Museum. Seattle, Washington.
June 18 – September 7, 2015

This exhibit will include 50 masks and 10 costumes from SAM’s African art collection and about 100 objects on loan. The masks imitating and replicating animals are particularly fascinating for children.

Star Wars and the Power of Costume
EMP/SFM. Seattle, Washington.
Open January 31 to October 4, 2015.

If your kids are going through a Star Wars Phase (it’s a thing!), check out the 60 costumes at this traveling exhibit. Costumes cover the movies’ greatest hits; your Chewbacca, your Leia, your Darth Sidious, and so on, and there’s also an opportunity to see how illustrations become costumes and interactive pieces that encourage kids to touch fabrics. Who knows, it may inspire a costume design (or two) at home, as well.

Titanaboa: Monster Snake
Burke Museum. Seattle, Washington.
Aug. 22, 2015 – Nov. 15, 2015

He measured 48 feet long. He weighed up to 2,500 pounds. He was Titanoboa cerrejonensis, the largest snake in the world. This exhibit reveals more about the 60 million year old remains found in Columbia, along with other post-dino Paleocene critters. Skittish? It’s only a full-scale model of Titanoboa; the real thing is extinct. Whew.

Growing Up Western
High Desert Museum. Bend, Oregon
Through July 26, 2015

Kids at the turn of the 20th century — did they have it easy or rough? View kids’ clothes (like wooly chaps, kid-size saddle and Chinese shoes), learn about children’s work and play, and visit a replica of a child’s 1900 bedroom.

Gold Rush! El Dorado in BC
Royal BC Museum. Victoria, BC.
May 13 through October 31, 2015

Understand more about why some people traveled continents to seek a fortune. See BC’s largest existing gold nugget (The Turnagain Nugget), indigenous, pre-hispanic gold art treasures from Columbia and a million-dollar coin (May 13 to June 14 only).

30 Things to Do with Kids in Bend, Oregon

Bend, Oregon is one of my favorite family destinations, due to sunny skies, warm summer weather, and sheer number of outdoor options, from hot-air balloon excursions to biking trails. Families can go cheap (finding free or low-cost options, such as lake days or skate parks, free family concerts or skywatching experiences). Or pay extra for Bend-area tours and camps, such as horse-riding or rock-climbing camps, giving parents time together.

Fun Stuff to do with Kids in Bend

  1. Learn homesteading skills on a 1904 ranch, enjoy an eagle’s-eye view, hang out with a monster (gila monster, at least), and burrow in an outdoor play area at the High Desert Museum. This is one of my favorite museums in the Pacific Northwest, and head here first to better understand the region’s fascinating history with hands-on exhibits.

    30 Things to Do with Kids in Bend: High Desert Museum

    30 Things to Do with Kids in Bend: #1 High Desert Museum

  2. Float the Deschutes River, using the great instructions in the link, plus your float of choice and a free kids’ life jacket rental.
  3. Meet a well-known local: Smith Rock, at Smith Rock State Park. Hike, climb, fish or watch for deer, falcons and otters, or even spend the night (I love camping here).
  4. Spelunk at the Lava River Cave; don’t forget warm clothing, headlamps for everyone in your party, solid hiking boots and water.

    30 Things to Do with Kids in Bend: Lava Caves

    30 Things to Do with Kids in Bend: #4 Lava Caves

  5. Ride down a lazy river, splash in a zero-entry baby pool or play in the sand at SunRiver’s SHARC complex. But get there early — poolside seats go fast, and shadecan be hard to come by.

    At the SHARC

    Things to Do with Kids in Bend: #5 At the SHARC

  6. Go rolling skating at Cascade Indoor Sports (kids 4 and under free!).
  7. Let the kids climb the rocks (versus the walls) with a 4-day Kids Camp with Chockstone Climbing Guides.
  8. Spy nebulae in Central Oregon’s clear night skies or stare at the sun at Oregon Observatory at Sunriver or the Pine Mountain Observatory.
  9. Laze away an afternoon (pack a picnic!) at a local greenspace such as Columbia Park (which boasts a pirate ship!).
  10. Cycle along Bend’s beautiful paths next to the Deschutes River, renting from outfitters like Let It Ride Electric Bikes, or Wheel Fun Rentals, which offer trailers, trail-a-bikes/tag-a-longs or kid-sized bikes. Life Cycle Bikes includes delivery of adult or kid bikes to your hotel.
  11. Giddyup among the sage and pines with a horse-riding lesson or tour from Flyspur Ranch, Diane’s Riding Place or Sunriver Stables.

    30 Things to Do with Kids in Bend: Horseriding

    30 Things to Do with Kids in Bend: #11 Horseriding at Sunriver Stables.

  12. Balance a stand-up paddleboard on Elk Lake or kayak the Deschutes with a rental (or class) from Tumalo Creek Kayak & Canoe, which also offers kids’ camps in Bend.
  13. Visit a 1916 schoolroom at Des Chutes Historical Museum.
  14. Snap gorgeous family pictures at the top of Newberry National Volcanic Monument’s nearly 8000-foot Paulina Peak, which offers awesome vistas of Oregon.
  15. Stop into Lava Lands Visitor Center and learn about the region’s super-heated history (younger kids may not find it as enjoyable).

    30 Things to Do with Kids in Bend: Lava Lands Visitor Center

    30 Things to Do with Kids in Bend: #15 Lava Lands Visitor Center

  16. Heft your inflatable raft into one of Central Oregon’s fresh waters, such as Sparks Lake, Mirror Pond or Hosmer Lake.
  17. Ollie at Ponderosa Park’s 8000-square-foot skate park.
  18. Play putt-putt golf and billiards or crash bumper cars at Sun Mountain Fun Center.
  19. Meet local wildlife at Sunriver Nature Center, go on one of the center’s moonlight hikes or sign the kids up for one of the center’s camps (they’re great!).

    30 Things to do in Bend with Kids: Sunriver Nature Center

    30 Things to do in Bend with Kids: #19 Sunriver Nature Center

  20. Hike a trail and encounter a (cooled) lava cone at Pilot Butte State Park.
  21. Don’t cry over rainy days in Bend; take the kids to Bouncing Off The Wall for a family fun night.
  22. Ride the rapids or float serenely on a multi-day river adventure with Ouzel Outfitters River Trips (kids must be over 50 lbs) or Sun Country Tours.
  23. Sample the sweet side of nostalgia at Powell’s Sweet Shop, which stocks hundreds (yes, hundreds) ofcandyriffic options, including gums, bars, sodas and even wax lips.

    30 Things to Do with Kids in Bend: Powell's Sweet Shop

    30 Things to Do with Kids in Bend: #23 Powell’s Sweet Shop

  24. Become a Junior Ranger at Tumalo State Park, then go for a hike, slide on the playground or sleep in a yurt.
  25. Bowl a strike at Lava Lanes Bowling Center in Redmond, about 23 minutes north of Bend.
  26. Fly into the sky with Big Sky Balloon Company (kids ages 8 and up only).
  27. Make a splash at the indoor children’s pool at Juniper Swim & Fitness Center.
  28. Catch a cheap movie and a slice of pie at McMenamin’s Old St. Francis School, a quaint school converted to a quaint hotel/brewery/theater. If you don’t care about atmosphere, watch a $1 flick at Regal Cinemas during the summertime.
  29. Enjoy a free summer concert in Bend at the Les Schwab Memorial Center or Alive After 5.
  30. Slip into the sweet little nook and pick up a great new picture book at Dudley’s Bookshop Cafe or Sunriver Books and Music.

    30 Things to Do with Kids in Bend, Oregon: #30 Browse Books

    30 Things to Do with Kids in Bend, Oregon: #30 Browse Books at Sunriver Books and Music

Oregon Water Parks

Oregon’s water parks are few and far between — most people flock to the sunny Oregon Coast to fill up on watery good times. But as if to make up for the lack of water parks, Oregon offers wonderful municipal aquatic centers. Here are Oregon’s water parks, aquatic centers and water slides.

 

Oregon water parks

Oregon Water Parks: Wings and Waves Waterpark

Wings and Waves Waterpark at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum. McMinnville, Oregon.

It’s an air museum. No, it’s a water park. Well, it’s both. Although admission is pricey ($32 for an adult), you’ll get to enjoy a wave pool, a vortex pool, fountains, slides that take you right past an airplane (and nine more slides), along with an indoor playground. Located about an hour away from downtown Portland.

Splash! At Lively Park. Springfield, Oregon.

In a Eugene suburb, this indoor city water park is one of the best in Oregon. Ride inner tubes in the wave pool, slip down the 144-foot water slide and let babies and toddlers sit in the bathtub-warm infant pool.

Pendleton Aquatic Center. Pendleton, Oregon.

A fantastic outdoor, summer-only aquatic center in dry, hot Eastern Oregon. Fountains, a giant pool (with zero-depth entry), huge slides and baby slides, too.

North Clackamas Aquatic Park. Milwaukie, Oregon.

A suburban indoor water park with three brightly colored water slides, an 85-degree wave pool and free lifejacket rentals. Just south of downtown Portland.

City of Astoria Aquatic Center. Astoria, Oregon.

When the weather just won’t cooperate, this North Oregon city aquatic center offers two slides, a hot tub, lazy river and toddler pool, along with the usual lap pool.

Emigrant Lake. Ashland, Oregon.

Yes, this is a lake — but it’s a lake with a water slide. How cool is that? A 280-foot twin flume water slide splashes down into the lake, right next to the campground.

Jamison Square. Portland, Oregon.

Located in the Pearl District shopping area — just a few blocks from Powell’s Books — this is a low-stress water feature. Fountains of water create little water falls down steps, which pour into a shallow bowl below, filling it. The water drains, and the cycle repeats. Great for toddlers and preschoolers.

Oregon Road Trip: Dig for Fossils, Meet Dinos & Haunt a Ghost Town

Each turn on an Eastern Oregon road trip presents a new view of the region. Driving through valleys and over peaks carved by ancient floods, you’ll encounter flat range where cattle graze, basalt mountains that stretch thousands of miles into the blue sky, yellow wheat fields bending with the breeze, white windmills generating power for a growing urban population. Truly unusual sights dwell here, yet it’s not too difficult to find a room, even during summer’s peak travel season. It’s like a little slice of undiscovered Oregon — so get out there. Here’s a trip to remember.

Eastern Oregon Road Trip with Kids, Stop by Stop:

Shop a tiny Powell’s at Country Flowers Soda Fountain, a one-woman emporium of gifts, lattes, great kitchenware, beauty supplies and yes, a very small Powell’s Bookstore. Really! It’s a book-lover’s oasis.Condon Café offers microbrews on tap, bottles, pizza, salads and fine service.

Country Flowers; Powell's in Oregon

Country Flowers; Powell’s in Oregon

Wash the grit off at the restored Hotel Condon, a welcome sight after a day driving along hot, dusty roads. This 1920-era hotel offers spacious rooms for families, cable, and yes, hot showers. Truly one of my favorite little Oregon hotels. Wine and cheese hour and a continental breakfast is included in the nightly rate.

Kid-friendly Hotel Condon in Condon, Oregon

Hotel Condon in Condon, Oregon

Drive back in Time. From Condon, it’s a 20-minute drive south along the John Day Highway, a valley with giant basalt mountains cut by floods, flanking both sides of the road, until you reach the town of Fossil.

Find fossils in the aptly named Fossil. Behind Fossil High School, you’ll find Oregon’s public fossil beds, where you can scrape and brush aside layers of dirt and rock to find your very own plant fossil, such as the needles of a metasequoia that fell 33 million years ago. The fossil tools are free for use by anyone, but there is a $15/four-person family admission fee.

 

Digging for fossils with kids in Fossil

Digging for fossils with kids in Fossil

Meet ancient residents at Oregon Paleo Lands Institute, which has a full-size Plesiosaur found right in Fossil, along with little puzzles and playthings for younger children. Don’t miss the family activities at OPLI, if you can arrange your visit around one of the hikes.

Oregon Public Lands Institute with Kids

Oregon Public Lands Institute with Kids

From Fossil, you have two good choices. You can drive for another hour south toward the Painted Hills, which are stunning; I recently wrote about the Painted Hills. Or you can drive a half-hour west  for an otherworldly hike at the Clarno Unit of John Day Fossil Beds, just 18 miles west of Fossil; giant rock outcroppings almost look like a sci-fi high-rise made of stone (those little holes/windows look they belong in alien condos, for sure). It’s a great place to picnic.

Clarno Unit with Kids

Clarno Unit with Kids

Heading north again, don’t miss a chance to creep through the Oregon ghost town Shaniko, where the town’s  remaining buildings are painted in almost-giddy colors. You can still get lunch or ice cream in town though — without scaring your wallet.

Shaniko Ghost Town with Kids

Shaniko Ghost Town

From here, it’s about a 90-minute drive to The Dalles. Eat at Burgerville, just for me. Drive back toward Portland along I-84, through the Columbia River Gorge.

Oregon Dunes (Florence) with Kids

Skateboarding kid at Oregon Dunes in Florence, Oregon

Skateboarding kid at Oregon Dunes in Florence, Oregon

The Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area — the largest coastal sand dunes in North America – makes you feel exactly like Luke Skywalker. Well, maybe you won’t look or sound like him, but after 10 minutes here, you’ll empathize with Luke’s long walk over those huge, majestic dunes on Tatooine.

Naturally, kids LOVE this place.

As if  dropped right into a giant’s sandbox, you’ll find giant 500-foot-tall (152 m.) peaked mounds and “tree islands,” where trees cluster together, surrounded by sand.

The Oregon Dunes NRA Visitors Center offers hiking tips through the dunes, info on the area’s natural history and summertime programs on the plants and animals of the dunes. No tusken raiders actually live here, boo.

Jessie M. Honeyman Memorial State Park is a great place to experience the area’s unique landscape — walk the dunes, watch kids sled or snowboard down dunes, and visit the beach. The park’s freshwater lake (Cleawox) was warm enough to qualify as a “bath” for my kid, who hates baths but didn’t complain here.

Cleawox Lake, Florence Oregon with Kids

Cleawox Lake, Florence Oregon

The dunes stretch for forty miles long along the coast, so many visitors opt to see them in a giant, slow-moving dune buggy (you can even bring a baby in a carseat on a buggy) or a faster sand rail (required: goggles, a helmet and age 3 & up).

In either case, reservations must be made in advance with one of the dune buggy outfits. Sandland Adventures has a nice little Family Fun Center with bumper boats, if you want to cool off after a Sandland buggy ride.

If sandboarding looks more your kids’ speed, Sand Master Park rents gear, gives lessons and offers family packages. The park is right next to a Fred Meyer, and it’s funny to see the sand actually moving into the parking lot – it creeps inland 16 feet per year. Maybe some day we’ll all be driving sand buggies.

Oregon sand dune

View from the top of a Oregon Sand Dune

Where to stay in Florence with Kids

You can stay at Jessie M. Honeyman in one of the yurts — or bring your tent. Book far in advance, because it’s a popular destination with great weather.

We stayed at the Driftwood Shores Resort right on the beach, which was fine and clean, if a bit dated and mildewy in spots (hey, it’s the Northwest Coast — only so much you can do about things like this). A bonus: The Inn has a small children’s aquatic play area with fun showers and sprinklers — a nice back up if you do arrive on a very windy or rainy day.

Where to eat in Florence with Kids

After some deep research, we went with a few fun places:

Mo’s in Florence Old Town. 1436 Bay St., Florence, Oregon. So,  the seafood is similar, perhaps, to your grandparent’s seafood restaurant (like a fancy Skipper’s, maybe). You can’t beat the location (right on the water), the kid-friendly aspects (really noisy restaurant, crayons, kid menu) and the fact your child’s palate and your grandparent’s palate are probably not too dissimilar. It’s fine. Order an appetizer if the restaurant is busy, as you may wait a while for your food.

Maple Street Grille. 165 Maple St., Florence, Oregon. An upscale restaurant with solid meal options, including well-cooked salmon, chicken and pasta. A bit more formal and expensive. No kids’ menu, but kid-friendly restaurant staff will help your children find yummy food, such as mac ‘n’ cheese.

Nature’s Corner Cafe and Market. 185 Hwy 101 Florence, Oregon. Hearty, healthy breakfasts in a very casual setting  — more like a store than a restaurant. Vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options. It can take a while for the food to arrive (maybe order something small to take the edge off). But when it does  arrive– yum.

1285 Restobar also looks like a decent option for pizza and Italian food.

Read more about Florence with Kids.

Oregon Coast Road Trip with Kids

Oregon Coast Road Trip with Kids

Just south of the busy tourist towns of Cannon Beach and Seaside is the 40-mile, quieter Three Capes Drive, which has a few haystack rocks of its own. From north to south, you’ll follow the gentle C shape from Tillamook to Pacific City. This coastal drive — rich in over 2,500 acres of warm-sand beaches, dramatic cliffs, dunes dotted with evergreens and coastal rainforest – encourages you to slow down, smell the sea air and unwind. Here’s an all-day itinerary for enjoyment:

10 a.mOregon Coast Road Trip 1: Tillamook Cheese Factory with Kids, Oregon

The town of Tillamook acts as a road-trip gateway to the coast, tying Highway 6 from Portland to the Oregon Coast’s Highway 101 (Portland is about 90 minutes away). A quick 30-minute self-guided tour on at the Tillamook Cheese Factory reveals quirky facts. For example: Why is the Oregon Coast a great place to make cheese? Facts are always best served with samples and treats, so try the facility’s complimentary samples and pick up a picnic lunch for later.

Tillamook Factory Signs

Tillamook Factory Mad Men-Era Ads

11 a.m. Oregon Coast Road Trip Stop 2: Cape Meares Scenic Viewpoint 

Just 8 miles from Tillamook and over 200 feet above the ocean, Cape Meares Scenic Viewpoint offers ocean-view housing on a bluff – to the largest colony of common murres south of Alaska. From the parking lot, walk a paved .2 mile down to the 1890s-era lighthouse and watch for migrating grey whales (nearly 18,000 pass Oregon’s shores annually), puffins, seals and Stellar sea lions. Kids will love running the paths guarded by giant evergreens — and don’t miss the “Octopus Tree,” a 250+ year-old sitka spruce shaped by time and wind into a many-trunked fascination. Read more about the Octopus Tree so you sound like an expert to the kids.

Octopus Tree Oregon Coast

Octopus Tree

12 p.m.  Oregon Coast Road Trip Stop 3: Oceanside

From Cape Meares, take Bayshore Drive south and pop into Oceanside’s heart-stopping idea of real estate. Oceanside’s vacation community steps up the face of sheer cliffs, rewarding inhabitants with incredible views of the offshore Three Arch Rocks Refuge, the oldest National Wildlife Refuge west of the Mississippi, where over a quarter-million nesting birds land annually. Grab a latte at local coffeeshop Brewin’ in the Wind, dig your toes into Oceansides’s sliver of sand and marvel over the gravity-defying habitats surrounding you. I would really like to stay here someday.

1 p.m.  Oregon Coast Road Trip Stop 4: Cape Lookout State Park

Stop at the 700-foot Cape Lookout State Park for a hike and picnic lunch. Set right in a lush coastal rainforest, the cathedral-like setting also acts as a sanctuary for deer, elk and yes, even a bear or two (hide the roast beef sandwiches). Get back in the car and move south along the two-lane Cape Lookout Road past glossy salal, stout firs and twisted spruces blanketing eastern hills. Blackberries brambles offer juicy gems in summer, a roadside snack that one-ups store-bought candy. To the west, waves fall like dominoes on sandy, quiet beaches.

2 p.m.  Oregon Coast Road Trip Stop 5: Whalen Island

The Clay Meyers State Natural Area at Whalen Island‘s gentle contours are the perfect setting for a post-picnic hike with the kids after a long day on the road. It’s an easy loop hike, about a mile and half long through a variety of Oregon Coast land, from mudflats to dunes. Read more about the Whalen Island hike at the Portland Hikers Field Guide.

4 p.m.  Oregon Coast Road Trip Stop 6: Pacific City

Spend the night in Pacific City’s beachfront community, the southern entrance to the Three Capes drive and home to Cape Kiwanda and the Pacific dory fleet. Pacific City is similar to Cannon Beach, right down to the signature haystack rock and sandy coastline — but it doesn’t have the shops or crowds. It’s like Cannon Beach’s shy Oregon Coast sister.

Surfing, shopping and sunsets are all here in Pacific City. Put down the car keys and pick up a micro-brew at Pelican Pub and Brewery. The brewery offers a sophisticated kids menu (grilled salmon is an option),  and the staff brings a packet of goldfish crackers ASAP after you order a kids’ meal, a godsend for starving kids and anxious parents. After the meal, sit on the pub’s back deck, immerse yourself in the salt air and let the craggy-faced haystack rock offshore hypnotize you as the kids play in the sand.

Pelican Pub: Oregon Coast with Kids

View from the Pelican Pub outdoor patio

You can walk from the pub to the Inn at Cape Kiwanda, where every room has an ocean view. However, be aware that the hotel’s rooms are right above the road. Although I was anxious about reviews that disparaged road noise, I really enjoyed this hotel.  The Inn kindly rents DVDs from a complimentary library with many family options, a board game library and a hunt through the hotel’s trinket “toy chest.” Other cool benefits of staying here: Free chocolates, manager’s reception on Friday nights (cheese, wine, etc.), free coffee for mom and dad, and nice family-sized vacation packages.

If you need lots of room or are staying multi-generational, you might look into the vacation rentals that dot the Oregon Coast; VRBO or Google some options.

Inn at Cape Kiwanda: Kid-friendly Oregon Coast Hotel

Inn at Cape Kiwanda: Kid-friendly Oregon Coast Hotel

For breakfast, head to Grateful Bread Bakery and order the Gingerbread Pancakes. Do it for me…and tell me how you liked them!

From here, it’s about two hours back to Portland, without traffic. Not as beautiful of a road trip, but you’ll have your memories, right?


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Painted Hills (Oregon) with Kids: Photos & Tips

Painted Hills, Oregon

Painted Hills, Oregon: A national monument

The Painted Hills are one part (or “unit”) of a three-part Oregon national monument: The John Day Fossil Beds, located in Eastern Oregon. They’re all pretty cool, but I think this is my favorite.

Painted Hills, Oregon

Painted Hills, Oregon

Over millions of years, ancient Oregon volcanoes spewed ash that fell, then transformed into these breathtaking mounds of crimson, gold, and ebony claystone (bentonite). Lacy fossil leaves and metasequoia needles were found here — evidence of a once-damp, rainforest-like climate almost impossible to imagine today.

Painted Hills, Oregon

Painted Hills, Oregon

Smart travelers pack a camera — during spring, otherworldly parfait-like layers of color brighten after a rainstorm, and more than 22 varieties of vibrant flowers blossom in the hills and valleys. In the summer, the bright red hills almost seem to show off beneath brilliant blue skies.

Painted Hills Close Up

Close up of ground at Painted Hills

From a distance, the ground looks velvety, or like the playground surfacing now so popular. But it feels like hardened mud. Bentonite expands as it absorbs water, then cracks and breaks as it dries. Today, bentonite clay is used in kitty litter, among other things.

Painted Hills, Oregon with Kids

Walking the Painted Hills Cove Trail

 

Boardwalks weave around the bright red mounds for the gentle (but otherworldly) 1/4-mile Painted Cove hike that even a preschooler or baby-jogger stroller can manage. It’s very hot out here though, with few shady spots. Slather on the sunscreen before leaving the car, and if you decide to go on one of the non-paved, more strenuous hikes that cross the Painted Hills, then bring lots of water for everyone. A mile doesn’t sound far, but in 90-degree temperatures in midday sun, it feels like a slog.

A picnic area is available; pack a picnic, because there are not many food options are nearby, except for the nearby dead-end town of Mitchell, Oregon, nine miles from the Painted Hills. Half of the town’s buildings appear to be sinking into the earth, a ghost town in the making.

Mitchell, oregon

Mitchell, Oregon

 

We ate an unforgettable breakfast at the Little Pine Cafe. Three words: Ice cream pancakes. They were somehow both scary and awesome. The kids loved them (of course), and I liked the cafe’s decor. The service was fast and friendly, and the menu is stacked with classics like onion rings and burgers. It felt very old-school Oregon. We still talk about that cafe. See? Unforgettable.

Little Pine Cafe, Oregon

Little Pine Cafe, Oregon

If you want to find more great places to go this summer with kids, head to Delicious Baby’s Photo Friday.

Where to Ski with Kids in Oregon: Camps, Lessons, Lodges & Daycares

No way to slalom around it — Oregon offers some fantastic, kid-friendly resorts, from Mt. Hood to Mt. Ashland. Here’s your guide to the best in skiing, snowboarding and other family snowplay.

Where to Ski with Kids on Mt. Hood

This 11,245-foot-tall beauty is the tallest mountain in Oregon, and you can ski 3,690 vertical feet of it.   I took my first skittering ski steps in Oregon, sliding-falling down Mt. Hood’s white face. I (eventually) improved here, too — going out for night-ski runs as an older teen.  Mt. Hood offers the best of all worlds – a diverse terrain, plenty of kid-friendly ski, snowboard and snow play options, along with a chilled-out après-ski scene for all ages in Government Camp (Mt. Hood Alpine Village). It’s close to Portland, too. It’s one of the more perfect places to learn to ski in the Pacific Northwest.

Photo Courtesy of MtHoodTerritory.com.

In Government Camp, on Mt. Hood. Photo Courtesy of MtHoodTerritory.com.

And even if you don’t like skiing, there’s also sleigh rides, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, snowtubing and more. The ski season here typically runs through Labor Day, and at Timberline, nearly all summer long.

Mt. Hood Meadows with Kids

Ski school is in session! Daily lessons for kids (including snowboarding lessons for 4-year-old children), half-day childcare-and-lessons, nighttime kids’ lessons, skiing and snowboarding camps for winter and spring break — and there’s likely to be snow here during spring break, even if it’s melted everywhere else. The Meadows daycare really stands out – it’s state certified and accepts babies as young as six weeks old. Don’t miss the page just for families, which spills the secrets of skiing with kids and the Mt. Hood Meadows deal page.

Tubing Mt. Hood

Tubing Mt Hood. Photo Courtesy of MtHoodTerritory.com.

Mount Hood Ski Bowl with Kids

Very popular with big kids and the teen crowd, this Oregon winter resort offers  offers daytime and blacklight tubing (“cosmic tubing”) and special indoor heated area for kids (Super Indoor Play Zone) under 48” tall. Kids ages 4-12 can take one-day lessons or four-week ski lesson programs; the all-day program runs from 10-3 with a one-hour break.

Summit Ski Area

Since 1927, families have flocked to Summit Ski Area, the first and oldest ski area in the Pacific Northwest. There’s no daycare, and the essentials are fairly bare — but it’s a cheap place to snowboard, tube or ski  — or just build a snowman. Kids five and under ski free here, and the bunny hill here is nice and long, so it’s a good place to just practice, practice, practice with your preschooler or big kid.

Timberline with Kids

I love Timberline Lodge; it’s like a little piece of history perched on a peak. Timberline pretty much spoiled me for all other ski-and-lodge deals; there’s nothing better than skiing and then warming up next to the fireplace next to ancient beams or sitting in the stain-glass lit Blue Ox Bar with a hearty slice of pizza. If you take the kids here, it’s hard to ramp back down expectations. Visit the snowsport center  to learn more about the winter offerings – like kids ski lessons — and even the summer ski lessons. The kids’ lessons are offered for skiers 4-10 and snowboarders ages 6-10; rentals can be included as well, which takes one to-do off your list. The Snowplay program is pre-ski full-day childcare for ages 2-4 and offers indoor and outdoor play opportunities.

Cooper Spur Mountain Resort

Unlike the three resorts above, this Oregon kid-friendly resort is located on the north side of the mountain, closer to Hood River. The terrain here is different, and the resort is a laid-back destination. Families can stay at the lodge, take advantage of the “Learn to Ski” program (lesson, lift and rental, starting from $37) or slip through the tubing park.

Where to Ski with Kids in Central Oregon

Hoodoo Mountain Resort with Kids

Near: Sisters

Kids 5 and under ski free here, but if you’d like your kids to have lessons first, Hoodoo offers weekend and holiday ski packages that include rentals and lessons (ages 4-12). Private lessons are offered for ski, snowboard, cross Country and telemark. The small, cute ski daycare takes children from 18 months old, but only takes five kids at a time. Reserve early!

Mt. Bachelor with Kids

Near: Bend

Mt. Bachelor might have some of the best sun-lit, dry, light snow  in the Pacific Northwest (love those bluebird days!), and this is one of the largest resorts in Washington and Oregon. The daily kids lessons program feeds kids, teaches them to ski or snowboard and entertains them while you shred the slopes. The three “L”s — lift tickets, lessons and lunch — are all provided. Multiweek programs are also available. Otter Mountain Childcare’s daycare facility takes kids from six weeks old and up in separate infant/toddler and big-kid rooms. If you’d like an alternative to skiing, try going on a sled dog ride, enjoying the often sold-out snow tubing park (arrive 30 minutes early, the site suggests); kids ages 8 and up (and infants in backpacks) can learn about winter flora and fauna on a free 90-minute snowshoe interpretive tour, led by a forest ranger.

Willamette Pass with Kids

Near: Crescent Lake and Oakridge

If you’re seeking an alternative to the often-crowded and very popular resorts on Hood and Bachelor, you may be happy here.  This resort offers ski lessons for ages 4 and up, and snowboard lessons for ages 8 and up. No daycare, so it’s best if they’re ready to hop on those skis or the snowboard. Tubing and nordic skiing are available for those who want an alternative to the ski/snowboard runs. Or enjoy the 20 km of groomed snowshoe trails.

Ski in Eastern Oregon

Anthony Lakes Ski Resort

Near: One hour west of Baker City

Sign the kids up for lessons, sleep in the 16-person yurt next to a fire or try nordic skiing. There are only three lifts — this is a very chilled-out resort in Eastern Oregon.

Spout Springs 

Near: 22 miles east of Easton, Oregon.

“Great skiing for less” is the motto of Spout Springs. A day pass here will set you back $35 for adults, and $25 for kids, and private lessons (for all ages) are just $35. The place says they avoid “glamour, pretense and crowds,” and that’s probably a safe bet, but there’s still a small restaurant/lounge on site.

Ferguson Ridge Ski Area

Near: Joseph

A T-bar or rope tow will haul you up ($15) at this quiet ski area, where families come for plenty of elbow room and great powder. No lessons, no daycare — just family fun.

Ski in S. Central Oregon

Mt. Ashland Ski Area with Kids 

Near: Ashland

Here, kids (ages 4-12) can learn from ski and snowboard lesson packages and afterschool ski lessons, while children 6 and under ski free.  No daycare, but check out the lodging-ski deals and twilight ski at this four-lift resort.

Warner Canyon

Near: Lakeview

Warner Canyon is more toward the less-accessible Eastern Oregon, and ski options here are limited (one chair lift). But there are volunteer-led, inexpensive multi-week snowboard and ski lessons for kids ages 5-18, along with snowmobile trails and nordic ski options. It’s run by a non-profit for the benefit of local skiiers — so if you’re in the area, enjoy the local angle.

Family Travel! Cari’s family visits Eastern Oregon

Cari Gesch, a Portland-based mom to two kids (ages 10 and 4), travels the Northwest with her trusty camera in tow. This professional photographer (check out her blog, Wahkeena Exposures — it has tons of awesome photos and travels focused on Oregon) recently went with her husband and kids on an Eastern Oregon escape. Let’s discover what her kids loved most about life east of the mountains — and what it’s like to travel Oregon in a 32-foot-long RV.

All photos courtesy of Cari Gesch.

Q: What did you do on your family trip to Eastern Oregon? Which activities did the kids enjoy?

My oldest, Sage (age 10) really enjoyed the Painted Cove Trail at the Painted Hills unit of the John Day Fossil Beds. She said she felt like she was walking on the surface of Mars, and she really enjoyed the pink and purples on the surrounding hills there. Very girly girl stuff for the outdoors. We had joked that we had expected to see an alien pop up around the bend in the trail, but only happened upon a lizard, which was no less exciting.

Painted Cove Trail at John Day Fossil Beds

My youngest, Odessa, (age 4) really enjoyed all the different wildlife that we encountered along the journey, along with the “skulls” at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center at Sheep Rock. This is a great museum and I couldn’t believe it was free. Lots of information on the pre-history of the area and they have a great hands on area for the kids. We could barely drag my youngest out of there she was having so much fun. It was also interesting to see the actual lab where scientists work, though they were on their lunch break when we stopped in. Just gives us another reason to go back some day!

We encountered several kinds of deer, mountain goats, antelope, and especially enjoyed the wild stallion we encountered. There is a special thrill to be had when viewing animals in their natural habitat, especially when it’s a surprise to find them around a corner when you don’t expect them. Odessa, when we happened upon the horse, made a point to “hush” my husband when she thought he was making too much noise and might scare the horse off.

We also stopped in at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center just outside Baker City. As it happened, my oldest daughter was studying the Oregon Trail at the time, so she was particularly fascinated with the exhibits, which really left you with a sense of what the pioneers had to go through to make it to Oregon. However, there is one portion of the museum, where a mannequin of a mother is crying over her son that died, and this seemed to upset my youngest.

Both kids really enjoyed traveling in an RV for the first time. While they are accustomed to taking long road trips, this was just so much more comfortable for them. They could sit at the dinette table and color, draw, have a snack or play games as we motored down the highway, rather than being stuck in their seat. Always having a bathroom in close proximity also made things a lot more enjoyable!

Q: Can you explain a little more about the RV? Did you already own it? Did you rent it? How big is it? Did the RV make a big difference in your actual travel or overnights?

The RV was a 32 foot, Class C (Lora’s Note: Go to JR Consumer Resources to read more about the different types of motorhomes).

Technically, the RV was a rental. My husband happens to work for an RV dealership, and one of the perks of employment is being able to take rental units out at no charge. The normal rental for a unit that size runs around $1000 for a weekend, plus an additional mileage charge for anything above 300 miles.

I think that the RV made a huge difference. While during peak travel seasons it might be a little bit more difficult to find a spot for the night if you haven’t done some pre-planning, in our situation it allowed us to have the freedom of going wherever our mood took us, without being locked into hotel reservations somewhere, or, as in the case of our stop along the Snake River, there not being any hotels at all available. I can’t tell you how convenient it was to have a bathroom always near, because we were definitely in some areas where there were no restrooms close, so it allowed us to explore a little more off the beaten path.

However, there are some inconveniences associated with RV travel, especially if you are not towing a “dingy” vehicle. For instance, if we had wanted to say a couple of nights in one place, we would have had to pack up camp, go enjoy whatever activities, and then return to our spot. Also, there are just some roads and places you can’t take an RV, especially if you are not experienced manning the wheel of one. For example, when we crossed the river at Copperfield and took the road to Hell’s Canyon Dam, the road was very narrow and windy, and might be a little nerve wracking for some. Once we got to the dam, there was a point we could drive no further, due to clearance issues, and had to turn around and go back. Would have liked to have seen what is up there.

Overall, traveling in the RV was a positive experience, especially for the kids. They were not stuck in their seats the entire time. With the big windows, they could really take in the scenery. If they got tired of the view from the road, they could sit up to the dinette table and color, play games, and even eat a snack. We covered a lot of miles during that trip, and the kids handled it 100% better than any long car trip we have taken (even though they are pretty seasoned car travelers), and were even sad when we had to return the RV after we got home.

Q:  How did you choose where to stay overnight in Oregon, in the RV?

On this particular trip, I knew from experience there was a small 3-spot RV park at the Mitchell City Park, and we stayed there the first night. As the town is so small, it was really convenient to just walk down the street to have breakfast. We specifically stayed there because we wanted to eat the biscuits and gravy at the Sidewalk Cafe while we were in the area. The campground we stayed at in Hell’s Canyon was just a luck of the draw thing, since originally going all the way up there had not been in our plans for the trip. Travelling in “off-season” allowed us the flexibility to not have to plan ahead.

Since we travelled in an RV, and it was a whirlwind trip, we didn’t spend much time in the campgrounds where we stayed. However, the campground at Copperfield Park, operated by Idaho Power but on the Oregon side of Hell’s Canyon, was quite lovely. Immaculately maintained, surrounded by lilac trees, and we could see and hear the Snake River from our campsite.

Normally, especially for summer travel, I will do a Google search for campgrounds/RV parks in whatever area we plan on visiting, and try to reserve ahead if at all possible.

Q: Did you come across any family-friendly restaurants in Eastern Oregon?

I can’t recommend The Sidewalk Café (204 West Main Street) in Mitchell enough. You did not feel like you were walking in to a restaurant, but rather someone’s home for breakfast. We were never given menus, we just told the cook/waitress exactly what we wanted for breakfast and she made it. She was so accommodating with the kids, wanted to make sure they got enough to eat and enjoyed it. Even brought them out some fruit, just because she thought they would like it. The food was excellent, the prices were more than reasonable, and we left feeling like we had breakfast with a long lost aunt.

Q: Why do you think more families should visit Eastern Oregon?

I think that so many times, when people think of Eastern Oregon, they have visions of sagebrush and scrub land. I honestly don’t think that they know what a varied landscape is offered on the other side of the Cascades, if they would only take the time to explore.

Painted Hills with kids

It is so refreshing to drive, and literally get away from it all. For instance, on Highway 26 between Prineville and John Day, we didn’t encounter one fast food restaurant. The people are so friendly and welcoming, which really is a nice change from the hustle and bustle of “city life”. The Painted Hills are truly a natural wonder that everyone should see, but I think very few people are even aware that they exist. Families can really relax and spend quality time together, plus learn a little about geology, paleontology and history in the process. My kids are already asking when we could go back again.

We would definitely like to go back and explore more of the area around Hell’s Canyon again. Due to the unseasonably cool spring, many of the higher roads were still closed due to snow. There was so much to see there and we only scratched the surface. We were also limited by time, as Hell’s Canyon was not part of our original itinerary, but I think some time in the Wallowa Mountains is also a must do!

Thanks Cari. If you have a tip on where to go with kids in Eastern Oregon or things to do with kids in Eastern Oregon, let us know in the comments below.