An Unconventional Family Road Trip Across Oregon

December 20, 2017

“Life will change with kids.”

That’s what we heard more times than we could count. It felt scary and like growing up that we weren’t ready for.

But my wife Meg and I have learned that with some extra effort and grit, life with kids can actually be an adventure. Not the kind that gets thrown around in hashtags and captions, but real adventure.  This is my list of inspiring places in Oregon that are possible to visit with an adventurous family.


Timberline Lodge

Our first stop was Timberline Lodge on the slope  of Mount Hood. New snow made everything a winter dreamland as we wound our way up the mountain. The craftsmanship of the lodge is incredible with all of the historic details still intact. We explored inside, then went outside to watch our girls make snow angels in the waist-deep snow. Warming up with hot chocolate, we waited for the storm to calm before engaging the four-wheel drive and driving back down to green forests.

Ecola State Park

Cannon Beach is certainly no secret. Located next to the Pacific Ocean on Oregon’s North Coast, the town can be hectic in the summer months, but we found it tranquil in mid-November.

Just north of town is Ecola State Park. The waves rolled past massive stone towers, and we all raced each other up and down the path to the overlook to stretch our legs. Our 4-year-old likes to get just out ahead of us, yell “Race ya!” and take off. Sunset streamed through storm clouds and we could just make out Tillamook Rock Lighthouse on its perch offshore.

On our way back to town, we watched a herd of Roosevelt elk graze on an unlucky cabin owner’s landscaping. I expect to see elk in the mountains, but was surprised to find them within earshot of the surf. Our girls debated if they were deer or elk, one sure they were elk and the other sure they were not.




“I expect elk in the mountains, but was surprised to find them within earshot of the surf.”

Nehalem Bay State Park

The overnight rains had wiped all tracks from the beach and dunes when we woke up in Nehalem Bay State Park in Manzanita. We took our shoes off and explored the sand in every direction. The dunes are tall with hidden paths through the grass that are like a maze for kids.

After rinsing the sand from our hair and feet in the hot showers at the campground, we stopped by Sisters and Pete’s Cafe for tea and snickerdoodles (for the girls as much as for us).

Treasure Cove Overlook

The Elk Flats trailhead is unmarked but easy to find just a few miles north of Manzanita in Oswald West State Park. We found it with Google Maps. The trail itself is easy enough and just a bit muddy from the rain.

About 1/4 mile walk brought us to Treasure Cove. The scale of the sea cliffs here is hard to wrap my head around. I’d guess the ocean is 300-400 feet below the viewpoint. We kept a close eye on our girls here, and I think a cautious parent has nothing to worry about. A small fence keeps the little ones back from the edge and a tiny path can bring you closer if you are feeling more adventurous.

Heceta Head Lighthouse

Eleven years ago was the last time Meg and I had explored the Oregon Coast. We were on our honeymoon and drove from Astoria to Florence. I surprised Meg with a stay at the iconic Lightkeeper’s residence at Heceta Head Lighthouse. Our stay there was dreamy, complete with a room that overlooked the ocean and a seven-course breakfast.

This time we camped nearby and arrived for sunrise. I rolled into the visitor parking while the girls slept in their beds in the back. After watching the clouds turn pink and the sun come up, we all had breakfast and we showed our girls where we spent one of our first nights together.

The path up behind the lighthouse is my favorite vantage point. You see the light eye to eye and watch it sweep across the hills.

This place will always have a special meaning for us, and we hope our girls will always remember it.

Samuel H. Boardman Scenic Corridor

We stopped here on the recommendation of a friend with no idea what to expect. We started the walk at the Natural Bridges trailhead and diverted onto another trail that very quickly (and steeply) brought us down to an ocean view.

This trail is no joke. Roots and logs make it a bit of a scramble. Our girls are used to us leading them down trails like this, but we moved slowly while helping over every obstacle. When you reach the end of the trail, you will be looking out on several natural arches and sea rocks.

The landscape is fantastical, right out of a fantasy movie. The ocean swells move under the arches making great thuds and pushing sea spray high into the air. We stayed until almost sunset then hiked back to the car before dark. This hike takes effort, but we would do it again in a second.

Willow Creek Hot Springs

Hundreds of miles from nowhere in one of the emptiest landscapes in America, we found this little oasis. On the way, we saw wild Kiger mustangs grazing and drove 30 miles of dirt road with only one house in sight.

When we arrived, we knew we had made the right choice to come so far out of the way. No one was here and in the two days we spent at Willow Creek Hot Springs, we would only see one other person.

The pool is large enough for 20 people and about chest deep. Until our girls started swimming laps, the water was emerald green and clear. We stayed in the hot spring for hours at a time, even waking up for sunrise soak with coffee while the little ones were still sleeping. The area is BLM-managed and rarely visited.

Alvord Desert

When you see the Alvord Desert playa for the first time it doesn’t feel real. The white expanse stretches in every direction with a uniformity that plays tricks on your mind. We drove out on to the flat and parked while erratic snowstorms blew in and out with surprising speed. We could see them coming by the shadow that raced across the ground.

Climbing to the top of our truck camper only increased the feeling of massive scale. The playa is so smooth that I could roll around on my skateboard like it was concrete. After playing a bit, I asked Meg to tow me behind the truck while I rode the skateboard. This was 10/10 on the fun scale. The girls ran around and felt the smooth white alkali surface. This place is way way out of the way and yet a better destination than any “in the way” place. We will come back here for sure.

About The

Isaac Johnston
Isaac Johnston is a photographer, storyteller and sometimes model based in Bigfork, Montana. Isaac grew up in the mountains of Montana working for a backcountry outfitter and was a co-founder and CEO of a large vacation rental company near Glacier National Park. Working with social media influencers, Isaac became enchanted with telling stories and the power of stories to create excitement in others. In early 2016, Isaac quit the corporate life and now spends his time telling stories with a camera and creating the most fun adventures he can dream up. Find Isaac on most all social media under the handle @isaacsjohnston.