Travel | Family fun

Tree Houses, Caves, and Volcanoes, Oh My! Kid Paradise in Southern Oregon

Live the Swiss Family Robinson life for a few days

Treesort,  Nicolás Boullosaflickr CC

“This is the best day of my life!” My 10-year-old has just gotten her first look at our hotel room for the next four days. It’s not so much a room as a couple of shacks. There is no bathroom, no phone, no TV or air conditioning … and these shacks are 15 feet off the ground. We are staying in the Swiss Family tree house complex at the Out’n’About Treesort, a sort of hippie camp for families tucked away in the Middle of Nowhere, Oregon.

It has taken us eight hours to get here from Seattle, but the kids shake off their road woes instantly when they get a load of our home for the week, a compound of 18 insanely creative tree houses circled around a central campfire, cookhouse, and bathrooms. High above our heads, a system of swinging rope bridges connects platforms, gazebos, and tree houses. To my 7-year-old son’s great delight, we discover a river-fed swimming pool and several rope swings. I lose my daughter within minutes to the horse barn and the two Morgan foals capering in a nearby field.

This is kid paradise.

We clamber up stairs and ladders to unload our things and settle in on a sweltering day. The adults hang out in hammocks and read or talk by the fire pit while the dozen or so kids become fast friends and play. They spend happy hours scampering the grounds, peeking into each other’s tree houses, and communing with the patient and gentle dogs and horses that call this weird and wonderful place home. We sign up for classes taught by local artisans: tile mosaic, tie-dye, trail rides. Mornings, we are fed a scrumptious breakfast of eggs, fruit, home-baked muffins and waffles. We stock our tree house’s little refrigerator and eat lunch out of hand. Dinner is more challenging; the cook house is rudimentary at best and after the first night, we forgo trying to prepare our own meals and sample several of the excellent restaurants in nearby Cave Junction.

Ancient beauty

On day three, we take a memorable side trip to visit the giant redwoods, north of Crescent City in nearby California. A one-hour drive down Highway 199 takes us to the Stout Grove Trail, an easy 1-mile hike into a cathedral-like grove of ancient and staggering beauty. We wander with jaws gaping past thousand-year-old redwoods before coming to a river shore where we spend a restful hour skipping rocks and dozing.

All too soon, it’s check-out day, but we won’t leave before daring the Treesort’s famous zip line, a system of wires stretching as high as 45 feet above a grassy field. After harnessing up, the kids go to “ground school,” learning how to hold their bodies, steer, and dismount. Then it’s up an enormous tree and away — zooming above the field with wild euphoria. My son perfects a technique of hanging upside down as he whizzes by. This is the kid who swore no one would ever get him on that zip line, ever. Finally it’s time to go — on to our next adventure, about an hour’s drive away at the Oregon Caves, in Cave Junction.

Creepy fun

The Chateau at the Oregon Caves is a wonder of architecture (and a national historic landmark). Our family suite is spacious and cool despite the heat, though in true lodge tradition it is also without air conditioning, phone or TV. On our first day, we explore the myriad hiking trails that lead through old-growth forest and scrubby ridges, so different from the lush and wet trails we know so well back home.

The next morning, we’re off on our cave tour, a fascinating 90-minute hike through the well-lit but occasionally cramped cave system. (Kids must be at least 42 inches tall to take the regular tour; ask a ranger about a special free tour for smaller kids.) My children are captivated by the many different strange formations we see. We enter chamber after chamber and goggle at stalactites and stalagmites, and the more bizarre but aptly named cave bacon, popcorn and drapery. We hope against hope to see a bat, but they’re disappointingly rare this time of year.

We emerge blinking into dazzling sunlight and immediately sign up for the evening candlelight tour, when we’ll go back into the caves, this time with electric lights turned off, each of us carrying only a candle lantern. It’s magical, thrilling and not for everyone. Besides the height restriction, kids need to be up for a little creepy fun; at one point, candles are blown out to re-enact the adventure of Elijah Davidson, the hapless hunter who first stumbled into these caves 133 years ago and ran out of matches halfway through.

Call of the weird

We leave the caves with regret, but know that more wonders lie ahead at our next destination: the famous Crater Lake Lodge. About 90 minutes into the drive, we get sidetracked, veering onto the side road that leads to the Oregon Vortex and House of Mystery. I’m skeptical but up for some hokey fun as I shell out the $31 for my family’s tour tickets. I’m glad I did. I can’t explain what we saw there — strange fluctuations in height and angle, objects rolling uphill — and, according to the guide, neither can science.

More than a crater

Crater Lake has a violent volcanic history, formed when Mount Mazama blew its top with a force 100 times that of the Mount St. Helens eruption. What remains is the second-deepest lake in the world, and lots to see, especially for young rock hounds. The lodge perches on the rim of the caldera; our room is comfortable if compact, and the restaurant is excellent, with a large kids’ menu.

There are two ways to see the lake and all of its wonders. By car, the 33-mile Rim Drive offers more than 30 viewpoints for taking in the gorgeous vistas. The violence that created this lake left behind strange and beautiful rock formations: islands, spires, pinnacles, ridges — medieval castles of pumice and ash. You can see the same things from inside the crater by hiking a steep 1.1 miles down to the dock for a two-hour boat tour, but take note: The hike to the dock is strenuous, and you need to get in line for tickets at 7 a.m. during summer months.


Out’n’About Treesort
300 Page Creek Road,
Cave Junction, Ore.
Note: The Treesort fills up very quickly for summer months. Reservations are accepted beginning in early July for the following summer. Many tree houses are open year-round and have heat and bathrooms; check Web site for details.

Oregon Caves Chateau
Cave Junction, Ore.
Note: Caves are closed from late November to March.

Oregon Vortex
4303 Sardine Creek Road, Gold Hill, Ore.
Note: Four miles off of Highway 234 between Medford and Grants Pass. Closed November and December.

Crater Lake National Park Lodge
Note: Book well in advance (six months or more), and make dinner reservations when booking your room. Lodge is generally open from mid-May to October.

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