Oregon is not all rain, dense forests, and chai-tea stands. Take a trip inland and within 300 miles you’ll experience boutique vineyards, lava fields, high-altitude desert, and pristine river valleys that evoke visions of Lewis and Clark canoeing toward the Pacific. Throw in rugged mountain ranges, countless trout streams, and the U.S. kite-surfing capital at Hood River and the journey becomes a thrill for every member of the family.
Head east from Portland on the scenic Columbia River Highway. Built in the early 1900s and modeled after European highways that hug the cliffs, the road runs alongside the most dramatic parts of the river gorge.
With postcard views of Mount Saint Helens, the Vista House, a 1916 rest stop perched on a hilltop 733 feet high, is a spectacular first stop. Only nine miles down the highway is Multnomah Falls, a 620-foot waterfall. You can stand on the bridge in front and get misted by the spray. Refuel at Multnomah Falls Lodge, a 1920s hotel that is now a restaurant and gift shop.
Hood River is the place for kite surfing. Sign up for a two-hour lesson at Hood River Waterplay, or pick up a kite at Pass-Times (413 Oak St., 541-386-6347). Directly south on Route 35 is the Hood River Fruit Loop. Pull over for a fresh seasonal fruit shake at one of the many stands along the highway.
Continuing south on Route 35; you’ll soon spot Mount Hood in the distance. Drive to Timberline Lodge at the summit’s base: Adults will appreciate the design of this ’30s WPA project, while kids will love the hotel’s Saint Bernard dogs, Heidi and Bruno.
Day 2: Mt. Hood to Camp Sherman
Descend Mount Hood on Route 216 and watch the scenery change from dense fir to arid desert. Head toward Maupin on the Deschutes River, famous for its steelhead fishing, and eat lunch at the Oasis Café, a fisherman’s favorite for its hearty burgers, ribs, and shakes.
After lunch, look for signs to the Crooked River Gorge, an awesome site, where you can walk across the bridge and look 300 feet down into the gorge. Right there are fragrant juniper groves which you should walk through—they’ll inspire you to try the local gin later. Turn off Route 126 for a visit to the Bit of Heaven Riding School, which provides just that for kids who love pony rides and cowgirl songs.
Follow signs to Camp Sherman, a recreational area with fishing, hiking, and several lodging options, including riverfront cabins in the Metolius River. The Camp Sherman General Store is nearly 100 years old; browse through the stock postcards and Oregon wines before having dinner at the funky Kokanee Café, popular with locals and tourists for its delicious organic fare.
Day 3: Camp Sherman to McKenzie Bridge
Six miles upriver from Camp Sherman is the Wizard Falls Hatchery, where you can feed salmon and trout and enjoy a beautiful stretch of the Metolius River. And close by is Sisters, a Western-style town with a café-lined main street and shops that are perfect for poking around. Pick up a Davy Crockett cap at Antler Arts, or trout flies at The Flyfisher’s Place.
From Sisters, drive up the McKenzie Pass Scenic Byway Route 242, a winding road that cuts through the pines of the Deschutes National Forest. At the top, the trees give way to a vast expanse of lava-created rock. Stop at Dee Wright Observatory, a castle-like overlook made out of lava rock. It’s a bit like you’ve landed on the moon, but with amazing views of the Cascades.
On the other side of the lava field is the lush Willamette National Forest, located on the rainy western side of the Cascades. Belknap Hot Springs makes for a relaxing destination at the end of the pass. Book a room and have the local salmon for dinner at the cozy, family-run Log Cabin Inn, which dates back to the 1880s.
Day 4: McKenzie Bridge to Portland:
From McKenzie Highway, you’ll pass through the scenic Santiam Pass in Willamette National Forest. The road parallels the Santiam River and overlooks Detroit Lake. Take Route 22 to Breitenbush Hot Springs. Earthy to the extreme, this ’70s throwback offers a vegetarian community lunch, yoga, saunas, and mineral bathing. Several of the pools are not too hot for children. Clothing optional. Route 99 runs through the heart of the Willamette Valley, which is dotted with vineyards and tiny towns. Owen Roe in St. Paul is an excellent winery that produces four different labels, ranging from $13 to $60 a bottle (the cabernets deserve particular notice).
Across the road is Champoeg State Park, a lush heritage area crisscrossed with trails and trout streams, and even a Pioneer Museum. End the road trip in Portland, checking in to the Heathman Hotel, where you can order room service and a bottle of fine local wine from its award-winning restaurant. Before leaving, pick up a pair of sturdy logger boots at the Danner Outlet Store—they’ll inspire you to make your next trip in Oregon a hiking one.
Photos: Matthew Hranek