36 Hours On the Oregon Coast + Portland: 9 Free (or Almost Free!) Family-Friendly Activities

Oregon, let me start by saying this: I’m madly in love with your drive-thru espresso kiosks.

I’m all for perking coffee at camp or brewing a cup at a motel, but if you’re visiting the Pacific Northwest, do yourself a favor and treat yourself to one of the indie espresso kiosks you see on every corner. They’re everywhere–weirdly (perhaps especially), in the most rural of areas. And when you’re in a coffee mecca like Oregon? Every cup is guaranteed smooth and delicious. We loved the quirky vibe of these kiosks; we even saw a combo espresso/haircut drive-thru shop. Talk about multitasking! Once you’ve got your caffeine buzz on, it might be fun to consider any or all of the following:

  1. Three Capes Scenic Drive: Instead of taking the 101 inland, veer west and follow the 40-mile coastline for picturesque coastal views that just keep getting better and better. A timeline of an entire day would be ideal, but this scenic drive can also be squeezed into as little as two to three hours with shorter stops. From Newport, we traveled north to Cape Kiwanda in Pacific City, home to Haystack Rock–a less famous but larger iteration of its Cannon Beach counterpart. Cape Lookout State Park brought us to Anderson’s Viewpoint and a view of mysterious Netart’s Bay, framed by old-growth trees and shrouded in fog. Just a few miles away, nearby Three Arch Rocks National Wildlife Refuge offered blue skies and common murre sightings. It’s my understanding that you can even see tufted puffins here.
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    Haystack Rock, Cape Kiwanda
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    Anderson’s View Point of Netart’s Bay along Three Capes Scenic Drive
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    Three Arch Rocks–it’s amazing how much the weather changed along the coast in just a few short miles!
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    Cool and blustery morning on the OR coast, 2013
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    When in Oregon, give these espresso kiosks a try–so rich and delicious (and convenient!)

    Cape Meares completes the capes trio, affording stunning ocean views, a front-row seat to the state’s largest Sitka spruce–the Octopus Tree, and an historic lighthouse, which brings us to…

  2. Cape Meares Lighthouse: Located just 10 miles west of Tillamook, Cape Meares Lighthouse offers free daily tours between April and October, making for a satisfying conclusion to any Three Capes drive. Unfortunately,the lighthouse was closed for restoration when we visited. We were disappointed, as the 0.2 mile asphalt “trail” was perfect for little ones, and the kids were looking forward to touring the lighthouse. Still, we enjoyed wandering the mile-long scenic trail through old-growth spruce trees that eventually led us to the Octopus Tree. Barking sea lions provided the perfect soundtrack to this Oregon Coast experience.
  3. Tillamook Cheese Factory: As a family that eats our weight in Tillamook cheddar loaves annually (thank you, Costco!), a stop at Tillamook Cheese Factory was a must. What we didn’t expect was to have so much fun! With free admission, the tour itself was self-guided and family-friendly. There were cheesy (I hear you groaning!) cardboard cutouts, vantage points overlooking the entire production, and even a classic VW bus Loaf Love Tour display to goof around on. Our favorite part of the factory tour was the eating–Tillamook provides tons of delectable cheese samples, including cheese curds (a first for us…maybe an acquired texture?), aged white cheddar, and spicy jalapeno varieties, all undeniably delicious. Our favorite, favorite part, however, was the rich and luscious Tillamook ice cream. Almost free, and worth every penny.
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    Adventures of Five, coming straight to you from the Loaf Love Tour!

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    Mint chip, pecan praline, and strawberry ice cream at Tillamook Cheese Factory
  4. Astoria Riverfront Trolley: From Tillamook, we drove an hour and a half through rolling hills and bucolic pastures to reach Astoria, a quaint little town on the northern reaches of the Oregon Coast. You may remember Astoria as the memorable town featured in the classic ‘80’s flick “The Goonies;” it’s also home to the Astoria-Megler Bridge, a 5-mile engineering marvel that spans the Columbia River, connecting Astoria to Point Ellice, Washington. While you could easily devote a day or more to exploration here, for those pressed for time, an Astoria Riverfront Trolley tour can’t be beat. For only $1 per person, you can hop on a trolley at any number of locations and see all of Astoria’s major sights in an hour, stress-free. Our conductor relayed fun Goonies trivia, elaborated on Astoria’s colorful maritime history, and entertained and educated us for the better part of an hour. Unfortunately, the younger two were wiped out from all of the day’s earlier fun and fell asleep, but that wasn’t such a bad way to spend an hour, either!
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    Astoria-Megler Bridge
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    Astoria Riverfront Trolley–at only $1 per person, there’s no better deal in Astoria

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    Ocean view from the trolley
  5. Fly a balsa airplane from Astoria Column: While in Astoria, we visited Astoria Column, a 125-foot light tower that overlooks the Columbia River and occupies a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. The spiral frieze on the exterior pays tribute to Oregon’s early history and Astoria’s role therein; the interior features a steep spiral staircase to the top of the column. I’m already on record as being an acrophobe, but I’m thinking I should amend that to include a fear of falling–especially through stair holes! Neurotic but true. Still, the view at the top made it all worthwhile, though the descent was another story entirely (ie: freezing on a flight of stairs while kind strangers literally talked me down). Once at the top, the kids flew simple $2 balsa airplanes we’d purchased and assembled from the gift shop. Watching their planes sail on the wind was a thrill!
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    Ready to fly planes from Astoria Column
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    View of Astoria-Megler Bridge from the Column
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    $2 balsa planes worth their weight in gold

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    Astoria Column–don’t let a fear of stair holes hold you back. Wait, what do you mean, ‘that’s just me?’ 😀
  6. Doughnuts, Coffee, and Books: From Astoria, we drove 2 hours inland to our first City of Roses stop: Voodoo Doughnut. For anyone who watches shows on Food Network or Travel Channel, this doughnut institution needs no introduction. With a quirky and fun array of doughnut shapes, flavors, and toppings (Captain Crunch doughnuts, anyone? How about a Voodoo doll-shaped pastry with raspberry blood filling?), Voodoo Doughnut is sure to satisfy any craving. We enjoyed a box of bubble gum, lemon curd, and maple bacon offerings and were lucky to walk right in without any lines. I’ve heard the wait can sometimes span entire city blocks and several hours!

    Energized by sugar, we made the half-mile trek to Powell’s Books on foot. As a YA novelist, pilgrimaging to this book mecca was a must, and we happily wandered the aisles for several hours. The return trek to our car was made heavier by impulse book purchases (impossible to avoid at Powell’s!), but a stop at iconic Stumptown Coffee Roasters for afternoon espresso and hot chocolate fueled the walk back. I’m a huge fan of Seattle’s Storyville Coffee, but this rich and smooth espresso rivals the best. While the clientele here was younger and far hipper than we could ever hope to be, the set-up made for a very family-friendly stop.

  7. International Rose Test Garden: After an action-packed day, our final stop for the evening was the International Rose Test Garden for a beautiful and fragrant sunset stroll. Admission was free, but I would’ve gladly paid to see these rose beauties in a city renown for them. Lovely gazebos, pathways, and benches enhanced the experience, and the kids enjoyed the sheer variety of blooms, from jumbo-sized varieties to the smallest miniatures in every color of the rainbow. Plus, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to stop and smell the roses. 🙂
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    International Rose Test Garden Portland, OR
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    Stopping to smell the roses after a long day

  8. Historic Columbia River Highway and Multnomah Falls: The next morning, we drove half an hour from Portland along Historic Columbia River Highway to spectacular Multnomah Falls, the tallest waterfall in Oregon. At a height of 620 feet, the falls are divided into an upper and lower section, with a footbridge spanning the lower cascade. Unfortunately, we were pressed for time and had to stop at the footbridge overlook, where we reveled in the falls’ powerful spray and the lush greenery of the gorge. A return trip is in order to venture to the top of the falls for a bird’s eye view.
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    Spectacular Multnomah Falls
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    I wish my little camera phone could do Multnomah justice, but it just doesn’t

    A previous winter solo trip to the Columbia Gorge led me to 2.4-mile Lautorell Falls Loop and half-mile Bridal Veil Falls loop, another stunner in a region of exquisite beauty. Combining Lautorell and Bridal Veil Falls with Multnomah would make for a particularly lovely morning of waterfall exploration.

  9. U-Pick Strawberries at Bella Organic Farm: We ended our time in Portland picking strawberries at Bella Organic Farm on Sauvie Island. Living in the tropics, pineapples and sugarcane mark the extent of our fruit experience, so picking strawberries at Bella Organic Farm was a treat for all of us! There’s no cost for admission, and all seasonal u-pick fruit is sold by the pound. We foraged for the brightest, juiciest sun-ripened strawberries we could find, quickly filling three buckets and then some. We devoured 6 pounds of berries on the drive over to Seattle, and though there were several “Pull over, I’m going to puke!” false alarms, everyone kept their cookies (and berries) in check. We absolutely loved picking our own fruit and can’t recommend the experience enough.
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They picked 8 pounds of strawberries…
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…and ate 6 pounds en route to Seattle…
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Between carsickness and berry-sickness, it was quite a memorable ride!

36 hours on the Oregon Coast and Portland was not nearly enough, but it was certainly long enough to whet our appetite for more! With an abundance of outdoor and city-centric attractions, the coast and Portland offer so many budget and family-friendly opportunities that we’d love to try someday, especially now that the kids are older. Even so, we loved that these nine activities were accessible to the littlest of littles, making our 2013 road trip memorable for both the grownups and little ones enjoying the ride–a special and gratifying mix, courtesy of Oregon.

Walking Among Giants: Redwood National Park & Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area

Every morning in the second grade, our class would belt out “This Land is Your Land” while our teacher held up photos of Redwood National Park and diagrams of the Gulf Stream current to illustrate the patriotic tune’s famous verse. Seeing California’s redwoods has topped my bucket list ever since. To a second grader stuck on a tropical island, nothing seemed more mythical than millennial giants towering over coastal cliffs. The reality three decades later, though? Even better.

After leaving Point Cabrillo Lighthouse (click here for San Francisco/Point Cabrillo Lighthouse trail), we checked into Seabird Lodge in nearby Fort Bragg. It was one of the nicest motels we’ve ever stayed at, probably due in no small part to its proximity to exclusive Mendocino. ‘Posh motel’ might sound like an oxymoron, but with full amenities, spacious rooms, and upscale decor, Seabird Lodge felt more like a coastal bed and breakfast escape than a motel. Given the chance, we’d gladly stay here again.

At the front desk’s recommendation, we dined at D’Aurelios, a gem of an Italian eatery hidden in an unassuming strip mall. This humble diner was true Guy Fieri material: impeccable service, reasonable prices, and outstanding food made this one of our best road trip finds ever! It was hands down the best pizza I’ve ever eaten in my life. Pizza sauce wasn’t something I’d ever given much thought to before tasting D’Aurelios garlicky, addictive, and downright crave-worthy sauce. This stuff was ambrosia!

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D’Aurelios makes THE most amazing pizza! Their “side salads” were gargantuan and delicious, too.

After some much needed rest, we ventured north toward Avenue of the Giants, a 31-mile stretch of old Highway 101 encompassing Humboldt Redwood State Park and purported to contain the most scenic display of redwoods in the area. It did not disappoint.

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I couldn’t get enough of that soft light filtering through the trees
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A true towering giant
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The kids took to calling the soft beams ‘God light,’ which seemed very fitting
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Well, hello, little banana slug

Avenue of the Giants redefines the term ‘enchanting.’ Here, sky surrenders to colossal trees and Lilliputian cars wind through shaded bends. You stretch your neck to pinpoint where canopy ends and sky begins, but it’s folly; even from the forest floor, it’s clear the redwoods climb forever and then some. The forest is all dappled light and prehistoric ferns and majestic giants, but it’s a fragile magic. Too often, we found ourselves seeking ever taller trees instead of appreciating the splendor of the forest. One of the best decisions we made was to pull over and wander on foot for a mile or so. If ever we believed that any of the trees were anything less than tall, all we had to do was lay on the ground and look up for a minute to realize the futility of comparing height when you’re talking redwoods. Walking among gentle giants, enveloped in the kind of deep silence that speaks to the passing of millennia, we loved the peace and serenity afforded here.

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Redwoods may not boast the same breadth and girth as sequoias, but their trunks are still massive!
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Hubby posing for scale, Avenue of the Giants
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Playing by the creek, surrounded by redwoods
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She loved standing in her own custom redwood spotlight

From Avenue of the Giants, it was another hour and a half to Redwood National Park. With a stop to admire Gold Bluffs Beach and check on trail conditions at Kuchel Visitor Center, we got down to business hiking Fern Canyon Loop trail. Fern Canyon is a 1-mile loop through a verdant gully painted in ferns. I’d read that this hike was a must-do (it is!) but failed to note how much of the hike was through a creek, so we got wetter than expected. I’d highly recommend Tevas and towels for this one. The kids enjoyed scrambling over logs, crossing swampy boardwalks, and wading through calf-deep water (thigh deep for our preschooler!): Mom and Dad loved the otherworldly ambiance created by the spectacular 30-foot canyon walls of ferns. The trickling of the creek and the dank, lush gully combined to make this hike a family favorite.

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Entrance to Fern Canyon Loop
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Lots of fun creek crossings
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The kids loved clambering over the wet logs and boardwalks
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Fern Canyon, Redwood National Park

We circled back to Prairie Creek, hoping to catch a glimpse of Redwood’s famed Roosevelt elk. Aptly enough, we found a herd taking respite in the shade at none other than Elk Prairie itself. The was the kids’ first wildlife sighting, and they couldn’t have been more thrilled! We pulled over and watched the family of elk for quite a while before continuing on.

From Elk Prairie, it was back to Prairie Creek Visitor Center to walk 0.3-mile Circle Trail. Realizing we were pressed for time, we nixed 1-mile Lady Bird Johnson Grove Trail from our itinerary in favor of Circle Trail. This easy, level trail was perfect for our 4-year-old, who’d had his fill of driving and hiking by late afternoon. Even he couldn’t begrudge the chance to see Big Tree, a 1,500-year-old colossus and true superlative in a park full of biggests and tallests. Having the trail to ourselves was a treat; in fact, we’d barely passed another soul all day. Redwood might be packed to capacity during the summer, but we were fortunate to visit during the first week of June when many schools were still in session.

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Big Tree: 1,500 years old!!
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Big Tree stands a whopping 304 feet tall

We ended our time in Redwood National Park driving 9-mile Coastal Drive Loop. With narrow, unpaved roads and blind curves skirting precipitous cliffs, this 1-hour drive is not for the faint of heart, but the payoff in panoramic views of the Pacific is unsurpassed. I love Hawaii and our beautiful ocean views, but there’s something about the California coast that speaks to me. It’s a quintessential mix of rugged beauty and slate-blue water just shy of inviting; blue skies tempered by fog echo the mild but untamed sentiment of the coast.

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Stopping to stretch our legs on Coastal Drive
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Coastal Drive, Redwood National Park
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The views were worth those scary hairpin turns
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View of the California coast from Coastal Drive (please forgive the poor photo quality; these were taken on an old phone)

By sunset, we were more than ready for dinner at Good Harvest Cafe, a Crescent City eatery with an emphasis on local, organic cuisine. Dinner was pretty good, though I’ve read rave reviews about Good Harvest Cafe’s brunch fare–worth a try if you’re in the area. We settled in for the night at Front Street Inn with an ocean view of Battery Point Lighthouse to lull us to sleep.

The next morning, we awoke early to cross the California border into Oregon. We traveled the coast for 3 hours, admiring lonely sea stacks and pelicans before arriving at Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. Encompassing more than 40 miles of sand dunes in Reedsport, OR, Oregon Dunes NRA represents the largest stretch of coastal sand dunes in North America. The tallest specimens reach 500-feet high, providing recreational opportunities galore, including dune buggying, canoeing, hiking, and camping. We enjoyed a picnic lunch high atop a covered bluff before venturing down to the sand. Sand and surf may define our summers, but we’d never seen anything like this before! The dunes are marked by undulating sand ripples, paralleled endlessly across miles of coast. There is a hypnotic quality to the unbroken ripples that initially made us reluctant to mar the sand with footprints, but it wasn’t long before we were running and sliding down the dunes, getting the cardio workout of our lives. What comes down must first go up, and climbing up those steep dunes was tougher than we expected! We would have loved to spend all day here, but we had another 100 miles to cover before our final stop for the night: Newport, OR.

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This was the kids’ first time crossing a state line; OR marked their first state outside of CA and HI.
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Like sands through the hourglass…Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area
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Loved the ripple pattern–so striking over miles of dunes
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Life-size sandbox
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That dark speck at the top is the oldest. Sliding downhill didn’t work out so well, but running downhill was lots of fun

With a quick bird-watching stop at atmospheric Heceta Head Lighthouse, we arrived at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport a little after 3 pm. Normally, I’d hesitate to pay for admission knowing we only had a few hours left to closing, but we had a 60% off Groupon that sweetened the deal. The adorable sea otter exhibit was a big hit with the kids, as were the walk-through shark tunnel, aviary, and interactive kids’ exhibit.

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Birdwatching at Heceta Head Lighthouse; seeing pelicans up-close was a thrill!
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Rugged beauty, Heceta Head Lighthouse
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Quintessential PNW mystique
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Oregon coastline, near OR Sea Lion Caves, Florence
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Oregon Coast Aquarium, Newport, OR

We chowed down on clam chowder and seafood at Newport Chowder Bowl, followed by a chilly evening on the beach. Like many quaint summer towns along the Oregon coast, Newport exudes a laid-back, boardwalk charm that we’d love to explore more fully someday. In hindsight, it might have been wiser to explore the coast over 2 weeks instead of cramming it into 5 days, but I’m grateful to have gotten a taste of the coast. Even as I plan Road Trip 2017, this is an issue I continue to struggle with: is it better to see someplace for a little while than never to visit it at all? And what if doing so comes at the expense of more fully enjoying a single destination? This area is very gray to me, so please feel free to weigh in with your thoughts. There’s no denying we were National Park Road Trip rookies in 2013, making classic rookie mistakes: too much time driving, too little time experiencing, and way too much rushing around. No regrets, though; without that experience, we wouldn’t have had a baseline to know what worked and didn’t work for us. Best of all, 2013 was a pivotal year for falling in love with National Parks and road trips–and that’s something I wouldn’t trade for the world.

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Newport Chowder Bowl–their namesake chowder was so creamy and delicious
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Can you tell we were a little cold? 😀
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Father and son bonding time, Oregon Coast (Newport)