Smith Rock, photo by Camille Gullickson
Let’s set any potential state rivalry aside and agree that whether you think Washington or Oregon has the most epic lineup of natural wonders, both states are incredibly beautiful and we’re lucky to call the Pacific Northwest home. If you’re looking for new ideas to add to your all-seasons family adventure bucket list, don’t miss out on Oregon’s seven wonders, each of which is a manageable driving distance from Seattle.
Oregon’s landscape is epic and diverse. Every time I think we’ve seen the prettiest waterfall, hiked to the most stunning vista or experienced the most spectacular coastline, I encounter something new that surprises me. Oregon’s mountain peaks, fertile valleys, high desert, lush forests and sweeping coastline are calling. Let’s go!
Columbia River Gorge
The beautiful Columbia River Gorge, a designated National Scenic Area, is a wonder shared by both Washington and Oregon. Cutting through the Cascade Mountain Range, this magnificent 80-mile-long river canyon offers adventure and fun for everyone in the family.
In summer and fall, the self-guided Hood River Fruit Loop (plan your tour using the harvest season map) is a must for anyone visiting the area, starting in the town of Hood River. Following the loop, you’ll wind through 35 miles of scenic country roads, stopping in at your pick of farm stands, U-pick orchards, wineries and distilleries, and more.
Also, if you like waterfalls (and who doesn’t?), visiting the gorge is a must, because there are 90 waterfalls in this area alone! You’re probably familiar with Multnomah Falls, Oregon’s tallest waterfall, located off the Historic Columbia River Highway and just over 30 minutes outside Portland. Tip: Depending on the time of year you go, you may need to purchase a timed-use permit. There are many other scenic falls to choose from as well, including Latourell Falls and Horsetail Falls.
Other seasonal family experiences you might enjoy in the Columbia River Gorge include windsurfing, hiking (visit the iconic and fully ADA-accessible Vista House, for views without a hike), taking a train ride on the Mount Hood Railroad, and hitting up all of the pumpkin patches and corn mazes in the fall.
The Oregon Coast
Oregon welcomes the public to enjoy all 363 miles of its spectacular coastline for free, thanks to the landmark Oregon Beach Bill. The Oregon coast, stretching from the mouth of the Columbia River down to the California redwoods, will captivate you. Whether you want to beachcomb, hike, surf, visit historic lighthouses, watch storms or experience some other beachy distraction that thrills you, the coast is a perfect destination for a family trip any time of year.
North coast. Oregon’s north coast is home to popular and picturesque Cannon Beach. Climb 164 spiral steps up the Astoria Column for interesting views of the Columbia River and beyond to the Pacific Ocean. Pay your respects to the Peter Iredale shipwreck, located in Fort Stevens State Park. Take an “adventure in history” by investigating the Fort Clatsop replica at the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park. Explore Haystack Rock, Oswald West State Park and Hug Point State Recreation Site near Seaside. Stop for a treat (and take a self-guided tour) at the Tillamook Creamery and meander along the Three Capes Scenic Loop, with its many interesting stops along the way. (See ParentMap’s guide to the Tillamook Coast)
Central coast. The stretch from Lincoln City down to Florence offers so much coastal fun for families. In Depoe Bay, stop at Whale Research EcoExcursions, the only whale museum in the world that focuses on individual gray whales. Newport, a working seaport with a quaint old town, is home to the tallest active lighthouse in Oregon (Yaquina Head Lighthouse), Devils Punchbowl State Natural Area and the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Don’t miss the Cape Perpetua Scenic Area, which, at 800 feet above the Pacific Ocean, is the highest car-accessible viewpoint along the Oregon coast. It features the photogenic Devils Churn and Thor’s Well. Florence is also a favorite with families, thanks to popular attractions such the Sea Lion Caves, Heceta Head Lighthouse State Scenic Viewpoint and the Oregon Dunes National Recreational Area.
Southern coast. If you decide to venture farther south along Oregon’s coast, you will not be disappointed. The Face Rock State Scenic Viewpoint, seasonal Circles in the Sand walking labyrinth and the Washed Ashore gallery (featuring cool sculptures made from ocean plastic waste) will appeal to families with kids of all ages. Cape Blanco State Park (and lighthouse), historic Hughes House and the Mouth of the Sixes River Trail down to the beach are all worth checking out near Port Orford.
Mt. Hood National Forest
If you’ve ever been to Portland, you’ve probably seen Mount Hood looming in the distance, much like iconic Mount Rainier does in Seattle. Standing at 11,239 feet, Mount Hood is Oregon’s highest mountain peak, and it is popular with climbers. The mountain lies within Mt. Hood National Forest, which encompasses more than 1 million acres of forest, trails and lakes just waiting for your family to explore. What’s more, its proximity to the Portland metropolitan area and Hood River makes it the perfect add-on to a multi-destination Oregon trip.
If you are a skiing family, you might like to know that the Timberline Ski Area is the only ski area in the United States that is open 10 months out of the year. And the historic Timberline Lodge is worth a visit to enjoy a variety of family-friendly accommodations and recreational opportunities year around.
If you like hiking, explore the area’s many trails, including those at nearby Mt. Hood Meadows, with its plethora of year-round outdoor activities for families. For more great trail suggestions, check out the Mt. Hood hiker’s bucket list. (I have my eye on the Old Salmon River Trail and the Tamanawas Falls Trail.)
Smith Rock State Park
Rock climbers from around the globe flock to Smith Rock State Park, located near Terrebonne and Redmond in central Oregon’s high desert, for its challenging routes. If you prefer to stay closer to the ground, though, you’ll still be rewarded with incredible views of the cliffs as you ascend into Crooked River Canyon.
Take your pick from among the miles of hiking and biking trails within the 650-acre park, depending on your family members’ abilities. If you’re an avid hiking family with fit and adventurous older children, you might want to try the Misery Ridge and River Trail, which is a harder route but brings you close enough to view the iconic 350-foot Monkey Face spire. Tip: Be sure to come early and bring plenty of water and snacks, as this area can get very crowded and unpleasantly hot during the summer months.
The neighboring towns of Redmond, Bend and Sisters offer endless fun for adventure-loving families. If you’ve worked up an appetite from all of that hiking, you might enjoy stopping at family-friendly taproom Wild Ride Brewing in Redmond. There’s also a wonderful accessible playground in Redmond, Sam Johnson Park, which offers plenty to do for kids from toddlers to teens.
Painted Hills (John Day Fossil Beds National Monument)
Many people who visit the Painted Hills for the first time remark on how otherworldly the landscape seems, and it truly is. Within the Painted Hills, the most frequently visited unit within the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, you’ll be taken on a journey through geologic time and may even feel like you’ve landed on another planet. The hills began to form about 35 million years ago when volcanic pumice and ash from the Cascade eruptions settled in the area, resulting in layers of yellow, gold, black and red, which change color with the changing light of day.
This wonder of Oregon is quite remote, with the nearest town being Mitchell, and many visitors combine it with a central Oregon trip because it makes a worthwhile, although longer, day trip from that area. The outdoor trails and overlooks are free to the public to visit and are open at all times. Overall, the trails here are incredibly family-friendly, with most being pretty short and level and featuring lots of interesting things to look at. Tips: Summer temperatures here can get quite hot, so you might want to consider planning your visit during the wildflower season, April–October, for a very special experience. Also, when planning your visit, be aware that services are very limited, so you’ll need to bring plenty of water, snacks and meals for your outing.
The Wallowa Mountains
Many folks who have visited the Wallowa Mountains compare them to the Swiss Alps and argue that the scenic beauty and numerous family-friendly activities in the area make a visit well worth the long drive. This majestic mountain range in northeastern Oregon, spanning 40 miles on the Columbia Plateau from the Blue Mountains to the west and to the Snake River to the east, is also home to the Eagle Cap Wilderness area, pristine mountain lakes and sprawling ranchland.
Outdoor recreational opportunities abound, including hiking and backpacking, boating, horseback riding and more. Families that want to experience a striking view without the hike can take the Wallowa Lake Tramway, an impressive gondola that transports passengers to the summit of Mount Howard, where there are panoramic views of Wallowa Lake and opportunities to enjoy a hike or a meal. If you make Wallowa Lake State Park your home base (campsites and yurt rentals are available), you can enjoy water sports (and rentals), fishing and stargazing.
In the nearby town of Joseph, check out the large bronze sculptures that line Joseph’s Art Walk along Main Street. Older kids might enjoy the go-karts at Scenic Meadows Go Carts, just a short distance from Wallowa Lake, or a round of miniature golf at Mt. Pines Adventure Golf in Matterhorn Village.
Crater Lake National Park
Crater Lake National Park, the only national park in Oregon, is likely to be the first place that pops into your mind when you think of Oregon’s wonders. Native Americans witnessed the formation of the lake 7,700 years ago, when a violent volcanic eruption resulted in the collapse of Mount Mazama, forming the deepest lake in the United States at 1,943 feet. Located in southern Oregon, Crater Lake is known for its pure (rain- and snow-fed) azure water, which is breathtaking to behold.
While the park is open year round, 24 hours per day, with the exception of seasonal closures, the summer and early fall can be the best times to experience the lake. During your visit, there are many ways to appreciate the lake, including driving along the 33-mile Scenic Rim Drive and stopping at various viewpoints along the way. However, if you’re looking for more exercise, you can bike, hike, snowshoe and more. Two hikes we recently enjoyed here include the short (2.2 miles round trip) and steep (elevation gain of 700 feet) Cleetwood Cove Trail, which takes you to the only legal access to the lakeshore; or for an easier route, try the 0.8-mile Sun Notch Trail, which leads to great views of the Phantom Ship, a natural rock formation in the lake that resembles a ghost ship.
Families might also enjoy stopping to view Vidae Falls, a pretty little spring-fed waterfall within the park; and there are also boat and trolley tours during the summer, the historic Crater Lake Lodge to stay in, and much more to see and do, depending on the length of your visit.
So, there you have it! I hope this article will inspire your family to expand your travel radius farther south to explore Oregon’s seven wonders!