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.

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.

Camping with Kids in Oregon

An Oregon yurt

An Oregon yurt

I loved e-mailing back and forth with the knowledgeable Paul Gerald, author of 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles of Portland. After I looked over his bio a little more, I discovered that he’d also written Best Tent Camping in Oregon (you can order both books from Paul Gerald’s site). So it was obviously time to ask Paul about family-friendly campsites in Oregon!

1. What’s the best thing about camping in Oregon? Why do you love it?

I love it because I love being outdoors: hearing the birds first thing in the morning, sleeping to the sound of a stream, seeing the stars, and being away from electronics and cars. And Oregon is easy to love because of the variety. Within a few hours of Portland we can sleep on the beach, in old-growth forests, way up in the mountains, in a desert, by a trout-filled stream, or a deep blue lake.

2. Can you recommend a great kid-friendly campground along the Oregon Coast?

Cape Lookout State Park has it all: yurts, ranger programs, a fine beach, some easy and scenic hiking trails, showers … and it’s even close enough to Tillamook that you can head into town if you want.
Location: 90 minutes west of Portland.

3. Can you recommend a great kid-friendly campground in a forested area?

I think Lost Lake Resort & Campground can be a great place for family camping. It’s a paved road all the way there, and the lake is beautiful, with an amazing view of Mount Hood. It’s a Forest Service “resort,” which just means it has a store and boat rentals, and the lake is stocked with fish. There’s even a quiet, walk-in tent camping area near the Old Growth Interpretive Trail, and another trail that goes all the way around the lake. Location: About two hours east of Portland, Oregon.

4. How about a family campsite in Central or Eastern Oregon? Anything near Bend?

Try Tumalo State Park. It’s right on the edge of Bend, and it has both yurts and camping, but it’s also a quiet retreat along the Deschutes River, and close to everything Central Oregon has to offer: access to the Three Sisters, the desert, lava beds, and Newberry Crater.

Location: About 15 minutes north of downtown Bend.

5. Are there any other Oregon campgrounds that stand out as being particularly family-friendly?

For quiet, low-tech camping, I really like Riverside along the Clackamas River. A lot of the campsites along the Clackamas get busy and crowded, but Riverside is an exception. It’s only got 16 spots, and you can’t get a big RV in there. And it’s right on the river, with an easy hiking trail leaving from one end of the camp.

Location: About an hour east from Portland, Oregon.

Find more great information about traveling in Oregon from Travel Oregon.

Thanks, Paul!

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?