Fun comes in assorted varieties on a family trip to Oregon

The author and his sons heading out on their Rogue Jet Boat Adventures tour in Oregon, a highlight of their family vacation.
The author and his sons heading out on their Rogue Jet Boat Adventures tour in Oregon, a highlight of their family vacation. Photo Credit: Paul J. Heney

Our family -- my husband and our two sons, ages 14 and 20 -- generally takes a summer vacation together. But we're often split on what to do; we love cities and the urban adventure that they offer, but we also enjoy the outdoors and our country's splendid national parks. For this year's trip, we explored the western side of Oregon from north to south and discovered that we could have some of each.

Portland: Urban bliss

We started in Portland, well known for its progressive bent and its lively food scene. Our home base here was the Kimpton Hotel Vintage Portland, located downtown near the hip Pearl District. The property is an oenophile's dream, with a nightly happy hour for guests and a wine theme throughout. You'll see wine bottles in the artwork and in lighting, corkscrew images on the elevators and similar fun touches. Our room was stylish and comfortable, and the kids loved the pool table and other games on the second floor. The building has been a hotel since the 1800s (the oldest in the city) and features 117 rooms.

We found all sorts of attractions in the city. The kids loved the Nike store downtown (the company was founded in Eugene and is headquartered in nearby Beaverton) and the Platinum Records Light and Sound store, which has been in Portland for 28 years. The boys were fascinated browsing through all the vinyl on the shelves and enjoyed checking out the audio equipment for sale. Powell's Books is the biggest bookstore I've ever seen (and claims to be the world's largest independent one). We spent more than an hour wandering the color-coded rooms, and each of us bought something, from a hiking guide to a current biography to Manga books.

After checking out downtown and the leafy Alphabet District on electric scooters -- a huge hit with kids! -- we ventured to the hills just west of the city to explore the stunning International Rose Test Garden and the Portland Japanese Garden. Give yourself an hour or two for each. The Rose Garden, with downtown's skyscrapers peeking out from beyond the trees, is a magical stop, with 600 kinds of roses to be found. The colors and varying scents are intoxicating -- and a photographer's dream. There's a fee to enter the Japanese Garden, right across the street, but the dreamlike and restful aura there is well worth the price. The garden underwent a $37.5 million expansion in 2017.

Our children enjoyed both of these attractions more than they expected to. Both boys commented frequently on how they never imagined that there were so many different types of roses. And our older son was transfixed by the Japanese Garden's life-size Zen garden, rakes and all -- he had to buy a small desktop replica to bring home with him as a memento. For younger kids, the Rose Garden does have a large accessible playground, complete with slides, swings, a sand pit and restrooms.

Mutlnomah Falls is a must-see in the Columbia River Gorge, not far from Portland
Mutlnomah Falls is a must-see in the Columbia River Gorge, not far from Portland Photo Credit: Paul J. Heney

Portland is a perfect starting spot for driving the Columbia River Gorge, which starts at the eastern edge of the city's suburbs. The gorge can be done in a day, with stops at places like the Vista House at Crown Point and 600-foot Multnomah Falls. A fun option is to come back to the city via the Mount Hood Fruit Loop, which winds around majestic Mount Hood and features 29 seasonal fruit stands along with way. We purchased plums and Rainier cherries to enjoy for the rest of the trip.

Each one of us has a sweet tooth, so we thought we'd indulge that a bit on this trip, with ice cream and doughnuts. We had to stop at the famous Voodoo Donuts, of course, but the city has plenty of other delicious options, such as Blue Star Donuts, Pip's Original and Doe Donuts. For ice cream, Eb & Bean, Salt & Straw and Kate's Ice Cream all satisfy cravings.

Attractions in the Willamette Valley

About an hour to the southwest, we spent time in and around McMinnville, a delightful city that's in the heart of the Willamette Valley. Known around the world for its pinot noirs and other varietals, the valley is extensive and quite scenic. McMinnville itself has a bustling main drag on its Third Street, lined with restaurants and shops.

We sampled more food (yes, more doughnuts and ice cream ... Mac Daddy Donuts and Serendipity Ice Cream were both fantastic) along the street but also visited the weekly farmer's market, which was bustling with locals and tourists alike. Pizza Capo (Neapolitan pies) and Pura Vida Cocina (Latin American cuisine) are two restaurants here that are not to miss.

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We also sampled a few area wineries for tastings: Coeur de Terre Vineyards, Flaneur Wines, and Lemelson Vineyards, all of which had a nice variety of wines and beautiful grounds.

That sort of activity obviously wasn't the kids' speed, so the following day, we took them to the incredible Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville. This Smithsonian-affiliated museum is split into two huge buildings, one focused on aircraft and the other on space. The signature attraction here is the Spruce Goose, the famed wooden aircraft built by Howard Hughes in the 1940s. Its 320-foot wingspan ranked as the widest in the world until 2019.

Both boys loved wandering around the aircraft, as well as the opportunity to climb in some of them. Also intriguing to them was a huge Air Force missile standing upright. They both clambered down the steps that led to the rocket engines, two stories below the floor of the museum. The view was impressive, and they even convinced me to come take a look.

Next door, the (unaffiliated) Wings and Waves Waterpark captured the kids' imagination with a 747 aircraft on the roof, water slide spirals bursting out its sides. It's an indoor park, open Fridays to Sundays between Labor Day and mid-June, and Covid-19 procedures and policies are in place.

Exploring Oregon's coastline

Oregon's coastline stretches for more than 360 miles, and almost any part you choose will be a winner. We focused on the stretch from Coos Bay to Bandon, the latter a quaint, historical town in the southern part of the state. The kids really enjoyed several beaches: the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area; Sunset Beach, near Coos Bay; and Face Rock State Scenic Viewpoint, near Bandon. All of us delighted in hiking, exploring tide pools and photographing the many sea stacks along the coastline.

The author's sons examine Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, Ore.
The author's sons examine Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, Ore. Photo Credit: Paul J. Heney

Our final focus was on Medford and Ashland, pleasant and quiet cities in the state's southwest. Ashland is well known for its art galleries, restaurants and as the home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. In Medford, we had a blast on Rogue Jet Boat Adventures, racing up and down the stunning Rogue River, getting very wet, learning some area history and doing multiple spinouts on the high-powered vehicles that held about 20 passengers.

The boys also were able to rent a paddleboat during a 45‐minute break halfway through the trip and had a blast steering themselves all around a small lake before reboarding the jet boat.

We all decided that it was our favorite activity of the whole vacation.

For our trip's finale, we ventured 100 miles northeast, to Crater Lake National Park. Roughly 7,700 years ago, Mount Mazama erupted and collapsed, leaving a huge crater that eventually filled in with water; the resulting lake is now the second deepest in North America. The 33-mile rim drive around the crater offers endless scenic views and trails, including ones to the water's edge and to nearby waterfalls. We've visited more than a dozen national parks in the West, and the views alone at Crater Lake put it near the top of our list. A family visit to Oregon would be incomplete without seeing this natural wonder.


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