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From High Desert to Hidden Coast: Great Oregon Vacations for Families

Venture beyond Portland and Cannon Beach and explore a different side of Oregon this summer

The Hood River region offers a wonderful getaway for families. Photo credit: Hood River Chamber of Commerce

The “problem” with Portland and the Oregon coast is that it’s often easier to stay with the known — and loved — than risk striking out to parts unknown. But in Oregon an adventurous spirit reaps big rewards, including the magic of the rugged central coast, the beauty of the high desert and the drama of the Columbia River Gorge area. Here are three family trips that are absolutely worth the extra miles. And you still get to stop in Portland, just to help ease the transition.

1. Wind and river: Columbia River Gorge and Hood River

The Hood River area is a much-treasured weekend getaway for Portlanders, and it’s no wonder, since the drive to the scenic sun-lovers’ paradise can take as little as one hour from Portland on Interstate 84 east. If you have time to spare, though, follow the more-scenic Historic Columbia River Highway, a 70-mile route that starts at Troutdale and meanders beyond Hood River to the Dalles; allow at least a half-day to enjoy the lookouts and waterfalls along the way. The Columbia River, second largest in the U.S. by water-flow volume, cuts a swath through miles of basalt rock, 4,000 feet deep in places, creating awe-inspiring views.

Noteworthy stops include the Vista House viewpoint, about nine miles east of Troutdale, 733 feet above sea level. Here you’ll see your first panoramic views of the Columbia Gorge — and get used to some wind-styled bad-hair days. (The wind, waves and weather have made the area a haven for windsurfers.)

Multnomah Falls. 

View waterfalls right from the road, or take an easy, just-right-for-kids hike at Latourell Falls or a more moderate hike at Multnomah Falls (another six miles east), with plenty of switchbacks to get the kinks out. Either way, Multnomah Falls is a must-see. At 620 feet, it’s Oregon’s tallest waterfall, and a quarter-mile walk from the parking lot brings you past the Multnomah Falls Lodge and onto the much-photographed Benson Bridge, with close-ups of the falls.

Your home base of Hood River — with shops, art galleries and a bookstore — is a small town with big views of the river. If you have younger kids, visit the wooden fortress-like play area at Children’s Park for a good dose of unstructured playtime. Or plant yourself at Hood River’s Waterfront Park for the day. It has a shallow designated swimming area, playground, climbing wall and expansive lawns. Swim, play in the sand or just read a book and look up now and then to watch the windsurfers glide across the Columbia.

If you have fruit lovers in your crew, the 35-mile Cascade Loop, also called the Fruit Loop, is a tasty way to discover the nearby, fertile Hood River Valley. Visit farm stands and orchards; stop to pick berries at one of the many U-pick farms; make a sip stop at a winery (kids are allowed at many of them); and get to know alpacas. 

Eat: Try the Country Girl Cherry Pizza, topped with chorizo sausage, goat cheese and, yes, cherries at the Solstice Wood Fire Café located across the street from Waterfront Park. Or savor the view from the outdoor patio at Full Sail Brewery Company and partake in Mike’s Ice Cream anytime.

Stay: Stay in the classic 1911 Hood River Hotel, located right in town. Or set roots down at the kid-friendly Best Western Hood River Inn, located on the waterfront, with an outdoor pool. Breakfast is included; each room has a refrigerator and microwave, and some have kitchens.

Tip: On this trip, the journey is the destination, or at least a big part of it, because there is a lot to see along the way. Wake early, set out fresh from Portland and spend the whole day exploring the beauty of the Gorge.

2. Coast magic: Yachats and the Central Coast

If beach strolls, tide pools, sea stacks, lighthouses, quaint coastal towns and a slower pace sound like an ideal vacation, the central Oregon coast might be right for your family. Yachats (YAH’-hots) is your home away from home, a charming village located on a rugged stretch of coastline halfway between Newport and Florence.

The Cape Perpetua Scenic Area, three miles south of Yachats, is one of the highlights of the central coast. At 800 feet above sea level, it offers a bird’s-eye view of miles of coastline. Check out the visitor center and then Spouting Horn, one of Cape Perpetua’s saltwater fountains. At high tide, you’ll catch the waterspout; at low tide, the tide pools teem with life. Thor’s Well is another fountain that builds with the rising tide. At low tide, find starfish, sea anemones and blue mussels clinging to the rocks. There are also more than 20 miles of hiking trails in the area.

Heceta Head Lighthouse

Thirteen miles south of Yachats is the spectacular Heceta Head Lighthouse (Ha-SEE’-ta), said to be the most photographed lighthouse on the West Coast. (Photographers: Get your best shots in the late afternoon.) It’s an easy half-mile walk to the lighthouse.

It may be a tourist trap, but the Sea Lion Caves, a privately owned wildlife sanctuary located a mile south of Heceta Head, is especially memorable for kids. An elevator takes you 200 feet down to a massive cave where you can observe the resident herd of Steller sea lions. Keep an eye out for gray whales and other wildlife, too.

For a fun side trip, leave the coast to explore the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, a 47-mile stretch of sand dunes about an hour south of Yachats. Activities include horse riding and hiking, but taking a sand buggy tour of the dunes might just be the trip highlight for everyone.

Eat: Foodies don’t need to stick to Portland. In Yachats, try Ona restaurant for dinner, and get your coffee and croissant fix at Bread & Roses coffee shop and bakery.

Stay: Splurge at the Overleaf Lodge & Spa in Yachats, or select one of the many coastal-style budget motels such as the Fireside Motel.

Tip: If you want to skip the long drive down from the northern coast, take Interstate 5 through Portland, before heading west to the coast. To avoid traffic in Lincoln City, pick up scenic Oregon Route 34 in Corvallis. It will eventually drop you in Waldport, just north of Yachats. 

3. High desert: Bend and Sunriver

To get a sense of Bend think “Portlandia,” but with a lot more flannel-clad drivers in half-ton pickups — who happen to enjoy both microbrews and kombucha on tap. Located on the eastern side of the Cascade Range, at over 3,500 feet elevation, this is what’s known as the high desert, land of ponderosa pine and dry sagebrush and warm days and cool nights.

Central Oregon is a mecca for outdoor sports and activities. Get the layout of Bend from above by hiking Pilot Butte (two-mile loop). Or get the lowdown (50 feet below ground) by seeing the largest uncollapsed lava tube in Oregon at the Lava River Cave. The cave tour is best for school-age kids and anyone who feels brave in the pitch dark. Wear sturdy closed-toe shoes, bring a flashlight (headlamps are ideal) and wear a jacket; the temperature never rises above the mid-40s inside the cave. Learn about the tubes at Lava Lands Visitor Center in the heart of the Newberry National Volcanic Monument.  

Waterfront Park in Hood River. Photo credit: Adam Lapierre

A day of pure play is advisable on any vacation, and if you’re staying at Sunriver Resort, an expansive family-oriented resort about 20 minutes south of Bend, you’ll have plenty of opportunities, such as the SHARC Aquatic & Recreation Center. Splash around in the pools, epic waterslides and lazy river; toddlers can stake their claim at the kiddy pool and sandy play area.

In the Bend area, cycling is a great way to get around. If you’re staying at Sunriver, explore more than 35 miles of paved bike paths — a safe excursion even for the youngest in the group. Or bike in Bend along the Deschutes River on the three-mile path next to the Old Mill District, home to shops, restaurants and an IMAX theater.

On a Sunday afternoon, have a picnic and listen to free music at the Les Schwab Amphitheater, situated across from the Old Mill District in Bend. When the sun goes down, catch an eyeful of stars at the Oregon Observatory at Sunriver, which has the largest collection of telescopes for public viewing in the U.S.

It’s unfortunate that “museum” is part of the High Desert Museum’s moniker since there is nothing remotely musty about this living museum. In the Desertarium, check out the tortoises, turtles, lizards and snakes, and view many other wildlife exhibits on the grounds. Don’t miss the museum’s Spirit of the West exhibit, where visitors can see replicas of a Northern Paiute shelter or a French trapper’s camp.

Eat: With the kids, stop in at Sunriver Brewing Company (the finger fries are to die for). Enjoy Goody’s ice cream in Sunriver anytime, and often. For a date night, go to Bend’s quirky Crux Fermentation Project for inventive brews and food.

Stay: Unpack your bags for a week at Sunriver Resort, either at one of the lodges or in one of the 400 vacation homes for rent.

Tip: Sunriver is an ideal place to share a house with a second family; split cooking duties, save money and trade date nights. Get a place that includes SHARC passes; they’re pricey otherwise.  

Portland pit stop!

Sure, you can make it to Hood River in a few hours, but if you do take the scenic route, it will take five or six hours, as can the drives to both Yachats and Bend. Therefore, Portland becomes the perfect halfway point to spend the first night on all three trips. The three-hour drive from Seattle to Portland leaves plenty of time to go to OMSI, ride the Portland Aerial Tram, hike around magnificent Forest Park or grab lunch from a food cart. Find tips on top Portland activities, and where to stay here.

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