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.

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.

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.

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.

7 Don’t-Miss Oregon & Washington National Parks

Painted Hills, Oregon

Painted Hills at John Day Fossil Beds

Desert sands, old-growth forests, mountain glaciers, spooky caves, dino bones and pig wars. There, I’ve summed up the National Parks for you — but your kids need to see these sights for themselves. Here are seven don’t-miss National Parks in Washington and Oregon, in honor of National Park Week. Can you visit all the parks by the time your offspring turn 18?
  1. John Day Fossil Beds (Oregon). Can you imagine dry Eastern Oregon covered with rainforest? It was in prehistoric times. Three separate land areas – or “units” as the NPS calls them – make up the John Day Fossil Beds, a window into the past. Dino bones are still being uncovered in this area, so keep an eye on the red, gold and black  soils of the Painted Hills. The Sheep Rock Unit offers the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, where you can touch (not taste!) dinosaur fossils or ask someone on staff to I.D. one of your fossils.
  2. Mount Rainier National Park (Washington). Located only 50 miles southeast of Seattle, Mt. Rainier sits like a goddess above 235,625 acres of National Park. Look for black bears while hiking. Even if you don’t spot a bear, you’ll probably see one of over 56 mammal species while out and about. Catch gorgeous views of windswept mountains and wildflower meadows at the Paradise location and spend the night at the 1916 Paradise Inn. Or camp — we loved the family-friendly campground at Cougar Rock, which featured sing-a-long and storytelling during our stay.
  3. North Cascades National Park (Washington). You want drama? This is where you’ll find it. Knife-sharp peaks surround the winding Highway 20, which takes you past emerald-green and sapphire-blue lakes. Animals howl, screech and huff at night in the park’s wilderness area. This park’s six visitor info centers also offers Junior Ranger activity booklets for four different age groups — even preschoolers can get a ranger badge.
  4. Oregon Caves National Monument (Oregon). These hardcore, 90-minute cave tours are for big kids only – children must be over 42 inches tall (and not afraid of dark caves, of course) to climb stairs, sidle through passageways and avoid steep drops. Learn about bats and geology as you wind past otherworldly stalactites and stalagmites – and enjoy some creepy fun, as well.
  5. San Juan Island National Historic Park (Washington). Don’t let your preteen think that history’s a bore. Come here to learn how Washington State’s history is also a little weird. The Brits and the Yanks almost went to war over a dead pig. Visit the American Camp and the British Camp – only 13 miles apart – to consider the hair-trigger tempers of 1859. If odd history doesn’t interest you, spotting orcas from the American Camp probably will.
  6. Olympic National Park (Washington).  The whole park’s diversity is fascinating, featuring rocky tidepools, a jumble of mountains and plenty of deer sightings.  But it’s the Hoh Rain Forest that your kids will remember forever. Trees dripping with moss and water, giant mushrooms blooming on the (pine) needle-covered ground, and the scent and heaviness of a true Pacific rainforest. Head to the Hoh!
  7. Crater Lake (Oregon). I first came here at age 8, and I’ve never forgotten the visuals of the United States’ deepest lake, surrounded by cliffs and firs. And look — a small island pops out of Kodachrome-blue water, looking like a giant’s knee in the bathtub. Cool facts for your 8-year-old kid: that island is called Phantom Ship, and look for “Old Man,” a hemlock log that’s been floating upright in the lake for over 100 years.

Photo at right: North Cascades National Park

Do you have a favorite NW National Park?