Oregon, the jewel of the Pacific Northwest, begs for a family road trip. With a bounty of summer family fun like snow capped mountains, beaches teeming with tide pools and waterfalls taller than most buildings, vow to take an Oregon family road trip this year. National Parks TravelingMom paves the way for families with an itinerary packed with outdoorsy fun along with some kid-friendly history and the best road trip snacks ever imagined.
Family road trips are as American as a Fourth of July hot dog. Families across the country load up the family car with snacks and audio books to discover a new land.
That’s what I did recently with my three kids, 9, 13 and 14, to discover another new state in the Pacific Northwest, Oregon. If driving to Oregon is out of the question, then fly into Portland and rent a car for your road tripping adventure.
Portland for Families
I love many things about Oregon, with one notable exception. It really has only one airport, Portland. I know about the others but no deals on airfare at smallish regional airports.
After flying into Portland and grabbing a rental car, we headed to Washington Park for a day’s full of family fun. I recommend the International Rose Test Garden and the Portland Japanese Garden, especially if mom love flowers.
Astoria at the Mouth of Columbia River
Exploring Oregon in a giant circle works best. With my kids loaded, we headed about 90 miles west of Portland to the mouth of the Columbia River.
Since I have two boys, explorers grab their attention. Add beaches to explore and an afternoon ice cream snack, and my kids have everything for fun along the northern Oregon coast.
A sleepy town at the mouth of the Columbia River offers movie fans scenes from the coming-of-age 80s classic The Goonies. Though if your kids give you that what are you talking about look, I would skip it.
Lewis and Clark National and State Historical Parks
My first stop, the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, offers an introduction to the famous explorers who charted the western U.S. after the Louisiana Purchase. In 1804 President Thomas Jefferson dispatched Meriweather Lewis and William Clark and the men in the Corps of Discovery to discover a water passage to the Pacific Ocean.
Needing a place to spend winter, they built Fort Clatsop. For three months, the Corps of Discovery sewed moccasins, hunted and made salt. In March 1806, they left for the trek back to St. Louis.
During our visit, we stopped by the visitor center at Lewis and Clark National Historical Park first. Then my kids explored the replica of the wooden Fort Clatsop, featuring living history programs. We learned about fur trading and the wool Hudson Bay blankets.
To my boys’ delight, our costumed ranger loaded then shot off a musket. With a blast of fire and a boom that rumbled through the forest, my boys wanted to enlist as explorers on the spot.
During the summer, ranger programming is offered from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. most days at the fort. The visitor center offers an interpretive area and a couple of educational videos.
Other Sites to Learn about Lewis and Clark
- Netul Landing—along the Lewis and Clark River
- Fort Stevens State Park—visit the 1906 wreck of the Peter Iredale along the beach.
- Salt Works—where the Corps of Discovery made salt from ocean water to preserve meat.
- Ecola State Park—Captain Clark and Sacagawea trekked to this area.
Cannon Beach and Tillamook
Continuing south on U.S. Highway 101, a stop by Cannon Beach is a must for beach lovers. Haystack Rock is the star of Cannon Beach and a popular movie location including The Goonies.
After walking the beach, time to recharge with a snack. Top on my list, Tillamook Cheese Factory for the cheese and ice cream lovers in your car. This popular stop offers samples, a cheese shop, a restaurant and to-die-for ice cream. It’s located at 4147 Highway 101 and open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. during the summer and offers free tours.
Though I could spend weeks exploring the Oregon coast, I change gears to get to our next destination, Oregon Caves National Monument in southern Oregon. Leaving the scenic U.S. 101, I merge on Interstate 5, the north-south corridor of Oregon.
Oregon Caves National Monument
Since I birthed a couple of young explorers, my boys want to climb through a cave deep in the Oregon mountains. Just south of Crater Lake National Park, I found a windy road and drove through a dense forest to get to Oregon Caves National Monument.
Discovered in 1874 by Elijah Davidson, Oregon Caves still beckons cave explorers to the fir-covered Siskiyou Mountains of southern Oregon. Early explorers used candles and a ball of string to navigate the marble passages until President Taft declared it a national monument in 1909.
For our visit, we took the Discovery Tour, a 1½ hour trek through the Marble Halls of Oregon. The .6-mile trail passes by stalagmites, stalactites and drapery formations along with flowstone. This tour includes 500 steps and walks by the cave stream. It’s not accessible and considered moderately strenuous. Adults (16+) tickets are $10 and kids under 15 are $7 with an interagency pass ticket for $5.
Stay at the Chateau
After our cave tour, we hiked back through the forest, brimming with ferns and firs to Oregon Caves Chateau, the national park lodge. Built in 1934 and a National Historic Landmark, the bark-covered building features cozy rooms along with a restaurant.
With little to distract us, my family enjoyed dinner at the Chateau’s restaurant, where I found a menu infused with flavors of the Pacific Northwest. After dinner, we grabbed a board game I found in the lobby and sat next to the crackling fire. I sipped on a glass of local wine.
The top destination in Oregon, Crater Lake National Park, lies 150 miles northeast of Oregon Caves National Monument. A must for every road trip, the deepest lake in the U.S. offers families a traditional national park experience with hiking, tours, an historic lodge and ranger programs.
Crater Lake National Park with Kids
After exploring under a mountain, my kids want to see how a mountain became a lake. That’s what happened at Crater Lake when Mount Mazama exploded to form the deepest lake in the U. S.
Protected in 1902 by Theodore Roosevelt, Crater Lake National Park was the ninth park in the NPS system. First discovered by gold miners in the 1850s, the National Geoglogical Survey mapped the lake in 1886.
Visit Crater Lake in late June through the end of summer, when all the park roads open for the season. As it is a popular national park destination, make lodging and boating reservations as early as possible. Open year-round and 24-hours a day, admission is $15 per car or use an annual pass.
4 Must Dos at Crater Lake National Park
During our visit, I stopped at the Steel Visitor Center to pick up Junior Ranger booklets, grab a park map and watch the park movie. Next stop, the Rim Village Visitor Center and a walk along Crater Lake’s paved path overlooking the lake.
Stop by Sinnott Memorial Overlook for the best views of Crater Lake along with information about the eruption that created the lake, a must for kids. If time allows, arrange for a tour; narrated trolley tours depart from Rim Village.
Because I am a national park lodge nut, we walked through the Crater Lake Lodge’s Great Hall. Completely restored, Crater Lake Lodge offers guests refined dining and lodging in a rugged landscape. I ordered drinks at the coffee bar and found a few rocking chairs along the lodge’s back patio. There, we watched the sun set.
Scenic drives top my list at Crater Lake. Take Rim Drive, a 33-mile road that encircles Crater Lake. Stop at the scenic overlooks, like Discovery Point, Phantom Ship Overlook, or Pinnacles Overlook, for unbeatable views of the lake.
Take the 1.1-mile hike down to the lake for the narrated Crater Lake Boat Tour. Other family hikes include Castle Crest, Lake of the Woods or the accessible trail, The Pinnacles.
After learning about the power of volcanoes at Crater Lake, my kids wanted to explore a volcano. So we loaded up the SUV and headed to Bend, about 140 miles northeast of the park.
Climb a Volcano in Bend
In between Crater Lake and Columbia River Gorge, I found Bend, Oregon, located where the ponderosa pine forest transitions to the high desert. Bend offers lots of outdoor recreation, like kayaking and hiking, but my kids had a mission. Climb up a volcano.
On the eastern edge of the volcanic Cascade mountain range, Bend offers a 1,200-square mile volcano. The Newberry Caldera, or Newberry Volcano, is about the size of Rhode Island.
The Newberry National Volcanic Monument features two areas, Newberry Caldera and Lava Lands. Each offers a visitor center with seasonal summer hours and staffed by U.S. Forest Rangers.
At the Newberry Caldera we hiked the Big Obsidian Flow, a 1-mile trail with a 500-foot elevation gain. Another family hike, the Paulina Falls trail, features an easy .25-mile trail to an 80-foot twin falls. I also found two lakes with hot springs, Paulina Lake and East Lake.
Closer to Bend, we stopped by Lava Lands Visitor Center. During our visit, we hopped the shuttle bus ($2 per person, round trip) to the top of Lava Butte, a 500-foot tall cinder cone volcano and an active U.S. Forest Service fire lookout since 1913.
If visiting the Newberry National Volcanic Monument during the summer season (May 1 to Labor Day), explore the Lava River Cave, Oregon’s longest lava tube. Lava River Cave requires a 2-mile roundtrip hike and you must carry two light sources.
After climbing one volcano, my kids wanted to climb another. So we loaded up and headed for Mount Hood, just 110 miles from Bend.
Mount Hood with Kids
Mount Hood stands as a beacon along the Columbia River Gorge, rising up from the landscape with glaciers and year-round skiing. As the highest point in Oregon and an active volcano, Mount Hood offers a relatively easy drive compared to other mountaintop destinations.
Mount Hood features six different ski resorts though only one runs lifts season-to-season for summer skiing and boarding. For avid skiers and snowboarders, summer skiing at Timberline offers a bucket list ski destination.
Since I am a lover of the parkitecture of the National Park Service, Timberline Lodge topped my list of must-dos. Timberline Lodge offers guests rustic elegance.
Built from 1936 to 1938, Timberline Lodge was a Works Progress Administration project. Local materials, like the stone and timber, were used along with local artisans and craftspeople.
With six sides, the four-story building features a central fireplace and handmade furnishings and wood carvings.
With all the climbing, Mom needs a break. So we head to a scenic area boasting seasonal fruit stands and lavender fields along with waterfalls taller than most buildings. Up next, the eastern portion of the Columbia River, about 80 miles north of Mount Hood.
Family Fun along the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area
I started my exploration of the Columbia River Gorge in The Dalles, a town at the eastern edge of the scenic area. After a quick stop by The Dalles Dam, we learned how the Army Corps of Engineers tamed the Columbia River.
Always trying to learn as we explore, we stopped at the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center. The pioneers seeking fortune along with the Oregon Trail and the Lewis and Clark Expedition grabbed our attention in a museum with displays that walked us through history. I’d say this is a must for families.
After a quick stay in The Dalles, I merged onto Interstate 84 and just 22 miles later, I exited to explore the town of Hood River. The main attraction, the Fruit Loop, provides over 35 miles of country roads to meander and endless fruit stands to sample.
So my kids and I acquired a fresh cherry addiction after the first stop that had my kids spitting seeds out of our backseat windows. Not to be outdone, the lavender fields beckoned and I harvested an armful of bouquets.
After snacking and picking, we needed a hike. The waterfalls along the Columbia River Gorge offer spectacular hikes and envy-worthy photo opportunities.
The Waterfalls of the Columbia River
The most visited, Multnomah Falls, offers a must-do. If the parking is full, which happens the majority of the day during the busy summer season, visit the other falls and circle back in the late afternoon.
Take the Historic Columbia River Highway (Hwy. 30) to discover more falls. I adore waterfalls, so I explored all the falls with an easy walk from their parking lots.
Horsetail Falls, 2.5 miles east of Multnomah Falls, along Columbia River Scenic Highway offers a 176-foot waterfall steps from the highway. The Wah-kee-na Falls, .5 miles west of Multnomah Falls, translates into most beautiful from the Yakama language. A 242-foot tiered waterfall awaits with a nearby picnic area.
Bridal Veil Falls requires a short hike from the parking lot, one mile west of exit 28 off Interstate 84. Visitors gaze at the tiered waterfall set among a mossy forest. Latourell Falls, located in Guy W. Talbot State Park, features a 249-foot plunge fall a short hike from the parking lot.
Stop at the Vista House at Crown Point, a memorial dedicated to the Oregon pioneers and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1918, it’s perched 733 feet above the Columbia River. The setting sun casts an amber glow in the windows.
Bats and White-Nose Syndrome
If you plan on visiting Oregon Caves National Monument and Lava Cave, you can not wear any clothing that have been in another cave due to White-Nose Syndrome. This includes shoes. A ranger will stop and ask at both locations.
White-Nose Syndrome kills hibernating bat colonies across the U.S. and Canada. This fungus thrives in low temperatures and high humidity, and has killed 6 million bats since its discovery in 2006.
Tips from a TravelingMom:
- Make reservations well in advance for lodging at all National Park lodges, especially Crater Lake National Park.
- I checked for Crater Lake cancellations daily to reserve my room several months out.
- Make cave tour reservations in advance, tours sell out.
- Bring a rain jacket since weather can change quickly in the mountains.
- Water shoes for the kids are a must with tide pools and mountain streams.