Editor’s note: Oregon’s COVID-19 restrictions have eased, but businesses may ask you to wear a face cover – bring one along and be patient and kind if asked to wear it. It’s also wildfire season – plan ahead and do your part to prevent wildfires.
Sometimes when you’re road tripping with the family, the best moments come when you discover something unexpected along the way — and this is especially true here in Oregon. From geologic wonders and abandoned pioneer towns to shipwrecks and the world’s only known Bigfoot trap, Oregon claims dozens of roadside attractions and weird treasures. Here’s a checklist of wacky detours to explore on your next family road trip. Each is sure to bring out the kid in all of us.
Go back in time and walk with dinosaurs: When cruising the southern stretches of Highway 101, you’ll find the Prehistoric Gardens in a lush, temperate rain forest near Port Orford. This perfect example of roadside Americana represents the life passion of the late E.V. “Ernie” Nelson, who built the park in the 1950s; Nelson traveled to natural history museums to study each dino before building these statues by hand. In total, 23 life-size dinosaur replicas lurk in the thick undergrowth, waiting to thrill the young and aspiring paleontologists among us. This is only one of many secrets to discover on Oregon’s South Coast.
Explore the rusting remains of a shipwreck: Along the northern Oregon Coast, on Clatsop Spit at Fort Stevens State Park in Warrenton, you’ll find a relic of the Pacific Ocean’s unforgiving waters: the wreck of the Peter Iredale. This four-masted, steel ship ran ashore in 1906 and is now one of the most accessible shipwrecks on the West Coast. It has remained here, slowly decaying on the shore for more than a century. At low tide, big kids can walk up to the vessel’s remains and wonder about how it met such a fate. Find out more about Oregon’s curious shipwrecks history here, and be sure to visit the Columbia River Maritime Museum to learn more.
Stroll to the bottom of an “explosion crater”: Fort Rock Basin — better known as Hole in the Ground — is a mile-wide explosion crater that drops 150 meters below ground level. But don’t worry about falling in. A few different trails will let you stroll at your leisure to the bottom, where you can ponder the geologic events that caused the crater. The area is so desolate, it was used by astronauts in training in the 1960s, as it resembles the moon’s surface. (Fort Rock cave tours are temporarily suspended during COVID-19.)
Hike through a narrow volcanic fissure: Just north of Christmas Valley, Crack in the Ground is another stunning natural wonder. The volcanic fissure is more than two miles long and up to 70 feet deep and can be hiked along the trail on the bottom. Fissures are typically filled in with soil and rock through erosion, but this one remains unfilled because of the arid conditions. The bottom of the crack can be about 20 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than at the surface, so bring a jacket.
See the world’s only Bigfoot trap: In Southern Oregon, you can find the world’s only known Bigfoot trap, a funny way to show affection for our native son of the Pacific Northwest. Built in 1974 by a group of enthusiasts who reportedly baited it with meat for six years (only to catch bears), the 10-foot-square wooden box with a trap door is all about the story — so talk it up. It’s in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest — between Cave Junction and Ashland — about three-quarters of a mile into the hike on the Collings Mountain Trail starting at the Applegate Lake Hart-Tish Park picnic area. Find out more about Oregon’s cryptid hunters here, and then visit the family-friendly North American Bigfoot Center in Boring — a showcase of collectibles and artifacts including a life-sized replica curated by Cliff Barackman, one of the nation’s leading Bigfoot researchers.
Visit a house that appears to defy the laws of physics: Yet another must-see is the Oregon Vortex and House of Mystery, just a quick 10 minutes from the highway in Gold Hill. Strange things happen here, like balls rolling uphill, brooms standing on end, and people’s heights changing based on where they stand. Legend has it that John Litster — a Scottish geologist, mining engineer and physicist — opened the area to the public in the 1930s and conducted thousands of experiments here until his death in 1959. Is it all a bunch of illusions, or a real magnetic vortex? That’s for you to ponder on the way home.
Editor’s note: You’ll need to make a reservation before you head to the Oregon Vortex and House of Mystery.
Relive fairy tales in a DIY theme park: In the Willamette Valley, just south of Salem, it’s hard to miss the Enchanted Forest, a quirky and homemade theme park inspired by classic fairy tales. The park celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2021. Since 1971, the Enchanted Forest has entertained families with its unique rides and stunning DIY craftsmanship. The park is filled with storybook characters like Humpty Dumpty, Alice in Wonderland and Pinocchio — each with an old-school made-in-Oregon flair.
Take a selfie with “The Simpsons” in Springfield: In 2014, Oregon native and “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening collaborated with Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation artist Julius Preite to create a larger-than-life street mural in the very town that inspired the fictional Springfield. You can’t miss the 15-by-30-foot mural gracing the exterior wall of the Emerald Art Center. It’s one of several murals that make up the Springfield Mural Walking Tour as well as the Unofficial Simpsons Tour, which includes stops around the South Willamette Valley.
Take a ride on America’s only vertical street: Locals in the historic town of Oregon City call it “elevator street,” and that’s because it’s the only outdoor municipal elevator in the United States — and it’s one of only four so-called “vertical streets” in the world. Originally opened in 1915 with the intent of connecting two different levels of the town, the Oregon City Municipal Elevator was rebuilt in the 1950s, and this mid-century modern structure has a retro-futuristic “Jetsons” charm. Take a free ride for views of the town center and the Willamette River, then explore more of the Oregon Territory’s original capital city.
Discover the secrets of Oregon’s ghost towns: Some have said that Oregon has more ghost towns than any other state. While it’s hard to validate a claim like that, there’s no denying that there are a lot of ghost towns dotting the windswept landscapes, especially in the Eastern, Central and Southern Oregon regions. Plan a side trip to uncover Old West secrets and see firsthand the crumbling remains of Oregon’s pioneer heritage. When you go, it’s important to plan ahead, as these once-lively towns are often found in remote parts of the state. Check out these cool ghost town detours and top touring tips.