Eastern Oregon,  John Day Fossil Beds

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.

Lora Shinn writes about family travel, Pacific NW travel, grown-up travel...and travel in general. Her travel-related articles and essays have appeared in Family Fun, Parenting, AFAR, National Geographic Traveler, AAA magazines and Redbook, among others.


  • Kerri (Earringopia)

    I’m a friend of Cari. I know how much she and her family enjoyed this vacation, so it was really fun to read about the trip in more detail. One place I would recommend in Goldendale, Washington on the way to Eastern Oregon is Maryhill Museum. Beautiful grounds provide a great spot for picnicking. There is a roving band of fairly docile peacocks and kids love to feed them. There’s also an outdoor sculpture garden that’s free to visit as well. If this is all you get to see of Maryhill, it really is fun (and free), and the view out over the gorge is out of this world. If you do go inside, there is a fee charged to visit the museum, but it is worth it. Kids seem fascinated by all the royal trappings of Quenn Marie of Romania and there are several exhibits that will appeal to young ones. They do have a hands-on craft area that has lots of stuff for the kids to make various pieces of art on their own and this is free.

  • SarahBee

    Great article!
    Thank you for sharing your photos and your adventures – I always look forward to your latest installment. I cannot wait until I can take my family exploring Oregon.

  • Ben

    The Wallowa Mtns are beautiful and an excellent corner of Oregon to visit for some outdoor recreation. Joseph and Wallowa lake are great stops with a family as well.