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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Whale Watching in Washington State with Kids: Seattle, San Juan Islands & Beyond

Whale watching tours near Seattle

Orca Whales. Photo via NOAA.

Three resident orca whale pods (family groups of whales) circle our waters  June through September — along with visiting orcas in April, May, and late September and early October. Minkes, humpbacks and gray whales also pop up here and there, along with smaller whales such as white-sided dolphins. Whale-watching trips are fun for creature-crazy kids — the tours’ naturalists also point out the wild variety of birds, deer and other island or sea residents. Here’s a quick rundown of whale-watching trips in Puget Sound (Washington only), including prices and ages welcome aboard.

With young children, look into the short trips; older kids and teens can (probably) handle the longer cruises. Most of the excursions listed here are on bigger sightseeing boats (not the zodiac-style inflatables that are not typically recommended for young children).

Questions to ask about taking children on whale-watching trips:

  • Do children often ride the boat? (More to get an idea of the kid-friendliness of the tour company)
  • How many people do you take on outings?
  • Do you have kids’ activities on board, such as coloring books, toys, etc.
  • Is there a naturalist or marine biologist on board?
  • Is there a heated indoor space?
  • Is there an on-board restaurant?
  • Are there changing tables or a place to change my baby or child?
  • What do you suggest we bring with us? (Binoculars, route maps, snacks, bird ID guides — or are they supplied?)
  • What’s your cancellation policy?
  • What if we don’t see any whales? Do you offer a free trip or money back (or just tissues for the kids, boo hoo).

Whale Watching Options in Puget Sound (Seattle, Friday Harbor, Orcas Island, Bellingham) :

San Juan Excursions
Departs from: Friday Harbor, Washington State.
Ages: All ages
Kids ages 3 –12: $59
Tours last: 3-4 hour trips
Kid extras:  A children’s library, coloring crayons and books, a $1 snack bar, complimentary binocular use and a visit to the wheelhouse where they can “drive” the boat with the Captain.

San Juan Safaris
Departs from: Friday Harbor, Washington State.
Ages: All ages
Kids ages 2-12: $55
Tours last: 3 hours

Western Prince Whale & Wildlife Tours
Departs from: Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, Washington State.
Ages: All ages on Western Prince II; Kids 6+ only on Western Explorer
Kids on WP II 2-12: $56; Kids on Explorer 6-12 $76
Tours last: 2.5-5 hours
Kid extras: On-board snack bar, coloring sheets, toys, two naturalists on boards who are kid-friendly.

Clipper Vacations
Departs from: Seattle, Washington State.
Ages: Age 6 and up. Clipper Folk Say: “The day is long, nearly 12 hours with all but 2.5 hours onboard the vessel.  It is a lot of sitting time to keep young kids entertained.  Although we often see whales along the way, the whale watch excursion itself is 2.5 hours including to/from the dock.”
Kids under age 12: $20
Tours last: All day (12 hours).
Kid extras: An experienced, family-friendly naturalist is on board; three decks seating up to 200 people; rent binoculars for $5/pair; changing table in washroom.

Puget Sound Express
Departs from: Port Townsend, Washington State.
Ages: All ages
Kids 2-10: $65
Killer Whale Tour lasts: 4 hours
Kid extras: Coloring offered to children; kids can accompany parents to the bridge to meet the Captain  (weather and conditions permitting).

Island Adventures
Departs from: Anacortes, Washington State.
Ages: All ages
Kids 3-12: $49+ (lots of deals though)
Tours last: 3-6 hours
Kid extras: Guests receive a 64-page color-photo wildlife viewing guide, free binocular use while on board.

Mystic Sea Charters
Departs from: Anacortes, Washington State
Ages: All ages
Kids 3-17: Start at $49
Tours last: 5-6 hours

Island Mariner
Departs from: Bellingham, Washington State.
Ages: All ages
Kids 4-17: $49
Tours last: 6.5 hours

Deer Harbor Charters
Departs from: Orcas Island (Rosario & Deer Harbor), Washington State.
Ages: All ages
Kids under 17: $42 & up
Tours last: 3.5 hours

Orcas Island Whales
Departs from: Orcas Island Ferry Landing, Washington State.
Ages: All ages
Kids 12 & under: $59
Tours last: 3.5 hours

The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, Washington State

Recent news of whale shows gone horribly wrong may lead some families to avoid live sea shows. San Juan Island’s The Whale Museum, a respectful facility focused on mammal life in the Puget Sound, offers a solid alternative for inquisitive kids.

Located on Washington State’s Friday Harbor, the 1,200-square-foot Whale Museum offers car-sized whale skeletons suspended in mid-air, seemingly just to wow little ones. Jarred whale brains and a nauseatingly long intestinal worm (jarred!) garner an ew yuck awesome reaction from bigger kids.

Children can listen in on distinctive whistles and blurts in a “whale telephone booth,” and look for orcas in a mock research lab. The children’s room encourages kids to don orca flippers, watch entertaining documentaries, read whale-riffic books or color pictures.

In the gift shop, look for the orca hats. We picked one up last year — since then, it’s been a mainstay of my preschooler’s wardrobe. He loves the compliments when he wears the tail-shaped hat, plus the opportunity to tell strangers the startling fact that orcas and killer whales are two different names for the same animal. Sort of like Mom and Lora: Two names, same animal.

Winter’s best for getting a good hotel rate on the tourist-popular San Juan Island, but summer is excellent for spotting orcas from Lime Kiln State Park (a 20-minute drive away from Friday Harbor), because that’s when the whales frolic in the waters.

Lime Kiln is the first U.S. park dedicated to whale watching, and hosts more than 200,000 visitors a year. Lime Kiln’s decommissioned lighthouse looks out over the Puget Sound, making it a perfect vantage point. Inside the lighthouse, researchers conduct acoustic and behavioral studies on orcas, minke whales and Dall’s porpoises.

Even if you don’t catch a glimpse of a sleek black-and-white shape, kids can count boats as the sun melts into the Salish Sea. And you can let them tell you again that orcas and killer whales are the same animal (don’t forget to act surprised).

Best for: Toddlers who like to dress up like orcas; preschoolers fascinated by whales; big kids who can read the museum’s descriptive posters and signs. In short, everyone.

Where: 62 First St. N., Friday Harbor. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Cost: $6 adults, $3 for children 5-18.

Friday Harbor Family Vacation