Plan the Perfect Road Trip Across Oregon

Catherine Parker Avatar

Oregon, the Jewel of the Pacific Northwest, offers amazing scenery to explore on a road trip with kids (or maybe without). Find equal doses of the windswept ocean scenery along with fir-covered mountaintops. Don’t forget the lakes, like Crater Lake, sporting a blue that seems like it was painted. For underground explorers, there are also cave tours. In between, you’ll find amazing food to sample and don’t forget the Oregon wines.

How to Plan Your Oregon Road Trip

Exploring Oregon in a giant circle works best. If you fly in and rent a car, starting in Portland might work best and you can drive your trip in either direction. I love Oregon, except for one fact. It really has only one large airport, Portland International Airport (PDX). You can’t find deals on airfare at small regional airports.

Portland for Kids 

Stone pagoda at the Portland Japanese Garden, a must visit on an Oregon road trip
Portland Japanese Garden. Photo credit: Pixabay

While in Portland, we headed to Washington Park. I recommend the Portland Japanese Garden or the International Rose Test Garden. Find lots of space for the kids to run around. My kids do well in gardens.

For book lovers, a browse through Powell’s City of Books is a must. It’s a series of rooms full of books and I nearly lost my three kids in the stacks. We also came out with a handful of books. Located at 1005 W. Burnside St.

Afterwards, grab a snack and I recommend, NOLA Donuts, home of square laminated donuts (think flakey instead of puffy). Find it at 110 NW 10th Ave. Or grab a local beer at Deschutes Brewery Oregon Public House at 210 NW 11th Ave.

Read More: 22 Best Things to Do in Oregon

Astoria at the Mouth of Columbia River

With my kids loaded and ready for adventure, we headed about 90 miles west of Portland to the mouth of the Columbia River. We started with the Oregon Coast road trip first. This area makes a great day trip from Portland too. Beginning in Astoria, the Pacific Coast Scenic Byway runs all the way to the California border.

I have two boys, so exploring opportunities grab their attention. So, we added a beach stop and an afternoon ice cream snack to our drive, and my kids had everything for fun along the northern Oregon coast.

Astoria is a sleepy town at the mouth of the Columbia River offering 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 official 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.

Seaside 

If Lewis and Clark gets blank stares from your kids, consider Seaside, Oregon. I drove through and it features the Seaside Aquarium. The beaches around Seaside also feature tide pools that most kids love.

Cannon Beach and Tillamook along Oregon Coast

Cannon Beach is a stop you must make on an Oregon road trip
Cannon Beach in Oregon. Photo credit: Pixabay

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 Creamery for the cheese and ice cream lovers in your car. This popular stop offers a self-guided tour, a market, a cafe with to-die-for ice cream. It’s located at 4147 U.S.Highway  101 and open daily.

Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area

Farther south along U.S. 101, find some giant sand dunes. Some are 500 feet tall and this area is the largest expanse of coastal sand dunes in North America. The novel, Dune by Frank Herbert, was inspired by these dunes.

To visit, the Oregon Dunes Day Use area offers a viewing platform, located at 81100 U.S. Highway 101, south of Dunes City and Florence. A $5 day pass is required.

Thor’s Well

If you continue down the Oregon Coast, stop by Thor’s Well at Cape Perpetua Scenic Area. Along the rocky coast see a natural phenomenon near or at high tide. The geologic formation acts like a sinkhole where water drops down into the rocks. Cape Perpetua Visitor Center is located about two miles south of Yachats. Open seasonally.

Willamette Valley 

For wine lovers, the Willamette Valley is legendary for its pinot noirs. Running from Portland through Eugene to Salem, it is home to more than 500 wineries. Find lots of opportunity for wine tastings. Even better, the majority of the wineries are really close to Portland, about an hour drive away.

Though I could spend weeks exploring the Oregon coast, I changed gears to get to our next destination, Oregon Caves National Monument in southern Oregon, just north of California.

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 Oregon Caves 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. Admission based on age and tours are offered seasonally, spring to fall.

After our cave tour, we took a hiking trail back through the forest, brimming with ferns and firs to Oregon Caves Chateau, the national park lodge. Built in 1934 it is a National Historic Landmark and currently under renovation.

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 USA. offers families a traditional national park getaway with hiking, tours, a historic lodge and ranger programs.

Crater Lake National Park with Kids

View of Crater Lake, a stop you'll make on an Oregon road trip
Crater Lake. Photo credit: National Park Service

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. The highway into Crater Lake and around it are a part of Oregon’s Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway.

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 Geological 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 scenic boat tour reservations as early as possible. Open year-round and 24-hours a day, admission is $30 per car or use an annual pass.

Top Things 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 viewpoints 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. Note: This hiking trail is strenuous.

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 in Central Oregon, I found Bend. Located where the ponderosa pine forest transitions to the high desert, Bend offers lots of outdoor recreation. Active families will find kayaking on the Deschutes River 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 is 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 you’re 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.

Areas Around Bend

Bend is a great location to stay since there are several areas to explore within the area.

Smith Rock State Park 

For rock climbing enthusiasts, Smith Rock State Park offers over a thousand climbs through deep river canyons. Also find seasonal camping and hiking trails.

Cascade Lakes

Another area worth exploring the the Cascade Lakes in the Deschutes National Forest. It is a series of 12 lakes and two reservoirs on the eastern side of the Cascade Range. It is located west of Bend with seasonal camping and hiking trails.

Find Some Fossils

Painted hills at John Day Fossil Beds in Oregon
Painted Hills at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Photo credit: Pixabay

In Eastern Oregon, the John Day Fossil Beds offers well-preserved fossils along with brightly colored badland rock formations. This area features plants and animal fossils but no dinosaur fossils so an interesting stop for budding paleontologists, not dino-kids.

With three separate units, there’s a lot of ground to cover. Start at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center in the Sheep Rock Unit, along Highway 26. Also find the historic Cant Ranch along with family-friendly hiking trails and the Painted Hills. The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is free to enter and open 24 hours a day with limited services, like limited potable water and no flushing restrooms and no campsites.

Mt 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.

Timberline Lodge

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.

What to do in the Columbia River Gorge

I started my exploration of the Columbia River Gorge in The Dalles, a town at the eastern edge of the scenic area in Eastern Oregon. 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

Multnomah Falls
Multnomah Falls. Photo credit: Pixabay

The most visited waterfall, 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 Native American 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 cannot wear any clothing that has 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 for Your Oregon Road Trip

  • 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 for splashing in tide pools and mountain streams.

One response


  1. How long did his trip take you? I have a week with 3 kiddos.

    thank you!

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