Oregon by Airstream

A three-week camping adventure through Oregon’s diverse wilderness and hipster towns makes “trailer people” out of a California family.

By Cullen Wigginton

 

As we approached an extended climb up Highway 97 in far northern California, it hit me:  “What did we get ourselves into?”

Our 18-year-old Toyota Land Cruiser had never failed us before, but we had also never asked her to pull a carload of four and a 5,700-pound Airstream trailer up a mountain pass.  She was doing her best, but our RPMs were rising as fast as our land speed was dropping. Slowly, we sputtered up the incline as a line of traffic backed up behind us on the two-lane road.  I found my hands wrapped around the steering wheel in a death grip.

“Are you leaning forward?” my wife asked with a smile,  as she looked judgingly at my driving posture.

“Yes,” I replied. “Do you think it is helping?”  

While perching at the front of my seat actually did little to help, we ultimately made it over the crest and began our descent towards the Oregon border and our three-week trailer camping adventure:  Engine sputters, a knotted muscle between my shoulder blades, and a fair amount of evil-eyes from the few lucky drivers who were able to pass our giant rig. My shot nerves made me wonder if our inaugural trip might also be our last.

Were we really trailer people?  Just weeks before, we had purchased a used Airstream trailer as a part of an extended midlife crisis that has been playing out in our family; we were excited to see where “Rusty, the Big Gray Whale” would take us.  A big part of this crisis involves my wife and I busily concocting crazy travel schemes, while our pragmatic kids roll their eyes at each new plan, understanding that any efforts to dissuade us are futile.

But our Airstream scheme was a big hit. We zigzagged the best of the Beaver State – from hiking near cobalt Crater Lake to inner-tubing in Sunriver to sipping “craft everything” in Bend to berry picking in the Columbia River Gorge. We watched lumberjacks “log roll” and tasted “hipster everything” in Portland before moving to the epic vistas of the coast, where the seafood, beach walks, dune rolls, whale watching, and small-town marinas provided nonstop entertainment – not to mention, a chance to master the  “22-point U-turn.”

So by the time I found myself near the California border again on our return home, I was navigating a series of tight coastal turns with ease, pulling up a steep stretch of road, and smiling with a shrug of my shoulders at the glaring drivers whizzing past us when my wife looked over in shock and awe.

“Are you driving with one hand?!?“

I’m not sure what let me shed my ball of nerves. Maybe it was the mountain air of Central Oregon or the salty breeze of the coast.  But somewhere along the way, I had relaxed. Moving at 40 miles-per-hour up a steep incline, I was in my happy place. We weren’t hurrying to get anywhere; we were enjoying the ride.  

Rolling down the hill, my mind wandered to plotting our next trip:  Wyoming? Montana? I couldn’t wait to figure out where Rusty would take us next.  Because after 21 days and 2,000 miles Airstreaming around Oregon, I came to a realization:  Indeed, we were now trailer people.

 

 

The ROAM Report: Oregon by Airstream

Travelers: Cully, Jan, and the kids (9) and (7), plus our trailer Rusty, the Big Gray Whale.

Date: August 2018

Itinerary: 21 days. 7 days up through central California and Oregon, 5 days in Portland and the Columbia River Gorge.  9 days working our way down the coast back home.

Budget: About $50 a night average for our camping spots.  Approximately $800 for gas. $50 to $200 per day for food and activities, depending on whether eating in or dining out.

 

The Good Stuff

 

Crater Lake with Kids

We had heard that Crater Lake was an amazing natural wonder, and it was the first thing we penciled in when creating our itinerary. After a long drive, we pulled into the Mazama Campground, unhooked the trailer, and then immediately made a b-line directly to the lake. As we approached the rim, we were excited to take in the lake in all its glory.  

“Where’s the lake?” asked one of our children. As we peered out over the edge, we were confronted with a giant, hazy bowl of smoke. You couldn’t even see the water, much less the dramatic cliffs that surround the lake. Our trip up to Oregon had been marked by smoke from the many fires burning in the area, but we weren’t quite expecting that it would render the lake completely unviewable. Slightly dejected, we headed back to our campsite and enjoyed a consolation prize of a great meal and a chill evening, and vowed to try again the next day. 

The next morning we made the drive back to the lake, holding our breath that we might have better conditions than the day before. We approached the rim, and – bingo! – it was clear! And what a sight it was to behold. The hues of the lake were a range of vibrant blues and the views from the rim, hundreds of feet above the lake, were amazing — vibrant blues and greens and seemingly the most pristine body of water we’d ever seen.

We looked into taking a boat tour on the lake, only to find out that it was sold out (tip: buy your tickets in advance if you want to take the tour). So instead, we opted for a nice leisurely hike on the Discovery Point Trail near the visitor center, a mostly flat stroll with amazing views. While the trail was generally flat, wide and kid-friendly, there were definitely some dangerous spots with craggy fall-offs near some scary cliffs. Younger kids will need to be held closely, and if you have child hikers who are as absent-minded as ours, you’ll definitely want to hand hold through those parts.

After a picnic lunch, we decided to drive around the lake to take in the views and hopefully find a place for a swim. While the steep cliffs that line Crater Lake make for a dramatic landscape, they do not make for great lake access. Cleetwood Cove is the one point where you can get down to water level, and it is accessed only by a steep trail that descends over 700 feet from the parking lot to the lake. The trip down to the lake was easy enough, and we were rewarded with chilly, 55-degree, crystal-clear water; it was a welcome refresher on a hot day that was quickly getting hot.

The way back? A little complainey. The mile-long steep uphill trail was a tough one in the heat of the day, and our kids definitely could have used a donkey or a sherpa. By the time we reached our car, we were pretty spent. But an air-conditioned drive around the rest of the lake and a stop by the visitor center for some ice cream had everyone feeling better again. After a smokey start to our Crater Lake visit, our second day was glorious. We left Crater lake feeling lucky to have had such an amazing day exploring this magnificent lake.

 

Family Adventures in Sunriver, Bend, and Sisters

Next, it was on to explore Central Oregon. Our first stop was in Sunriver, which is a beautiful little resort town that serves as a ski destination in the winter and a laid-back village of warm-weather activities in the summer. The most notable of these activities is bike riding.  On any given day in the summer, you can find hordes of families that have ditched their cars and hopped on two wheels to utilize the vast network of bike trails that run all over Sunriver. Unfortunately, we hadn’t brought our bikes with us due to weight concerns.

After lunch at the great Sunriver Brewing Company, we lucked out when we ran into some friends who let us borrow their bikes for a quick spin around the trails. With perfect weather and access to meadows and streams as well as restaurants and pools, I can see how you could spend a week here without ever picking up the car keys.

We, however, were on the exact opposite end of the auto-dependent spectrum. With our trailer in tow, our home base was the Bend-Sunriver RV Campground which was our first foray into the massive RV parks. The sites were a little rustic and there were some things that were rough around the edges, but there were a lot of fun activities for the kids including putt putt golf, disc golf, horseshoes, swimming pools, and even a river float on the property. The kids had a fun time and so did we.

While in the area, we also spent some time in Bend which is a booming town with a whole lot to offer. While Sunriver was full of vacationing families, Bend was our first exposure to the Oregon hipster in the wild. A bit different from its big city (Portland) brethren, the Bend hipster was sure to have a Yakima rack on their car for their outdoor gear and a pair of Tevas on their feet for river exploration. Much like their hipster city (Portland) counterparts, the Bend locals seemed to revel in having created a scene with good food, creative spaces, and “craft” everything.  This was on full display at Spoken Moto – an almost-too-hip motorcycle shop that included several food trucks, a coffee shop, a craft beer bar, and a clothing boutique.  We had some great grilled cheeses and fried chicken sandwiches from Scoutpost and washed it all down with lemonades and local beers.  

We had also heard that a trip to Bend wasn’t complete without getting in the Deschutes River, so we made our way by floating on the Deschutes River. While renting tubes from Tumalo Creek Kayak & Canoe, we happened to run into some old friends from our high school days and formed a giant flotilla on the water. Even in August, the water was a bit chilly, but floating the river was a lot of fun; we enjoyed seeing the town of Bend from this point of view as we floated down through the center of the city.

Our only mishap happened when we all decided to be brave and go down the “rapids” rather than walk our tubes around. While 3 out of 4 of us had fun shooting down the fairly gentle rapids, our oldest daughter ended up catching a funny angle and tipping her tube over. Getting out wasn’t super easy and there were definitely some tears involved. While it was a bit frightening, everyone was okay, and we finished our river run without any more missteps or anyone getting hurt.  

Our next stop was Sisters, another small town in the area with a completely different vibe than either Bend or Sunriver.  Set against the Cascade mountains, this little town is comprised of a cute smattering of shops, restaurants, and businesses that felt one-half working ranch town, and one-half tourist destination. At places like Sisters Coffee, you could find locals and visitors intermingling. After walking around town for a bit, we settled on dinner at The Open Door; we had one of the best meals of our trip on their quaint little patio, and we followed it up with a game of cornhole. With a glass of wine in hand and the sun setting over the nearby meadow, I found myself strategizing just how we could ditch our busy lives back home to get our own horse ranch and become “locals”.

Until we win the lottery, the next best thing is probably the Bend Sisters Garden RV Resort.  This stop was our first foray into the luxury end of RV campgrounds. While it wasn’t quite the Four Seasons, nestled in the woods, this campground impressed us with its manicured grounds, nice swimming pool, and beautiful spacious bathrooms and showers. It was a welcome bit of glamping in our itinerary.

 

Exploring the Columbia River Gorge

Our next destination was the Columbia River Gorge, the beautiful valley formed by its namesake river that also serves as the border between Washington and Oregon. We enjoyed a stop to pick up some Huckleberries at one of the many orchards that dot the highway on the approach to the town of Hood River. And while in town, we had pizza and sampled a flight of beers while stopping at Double Mountain Brewery & Taproom, one of the many craft breweries in the very cute town of Hood River.  

The Columbia River Gorge has a lot to offer. We watched windsurfers, hiked up the short but steep Beacon Rock Trail for breathtaking views of the valley, and visited the impressively high cascade of Multnomah Falls.

Dining-wise, a can’t-miss stop on a trip through the valley is the Brigham Fish Market. From their outdoor tables overlooking the river, we enjoyed amazing local, smoked-salmon chowder and sturgeon fish & chips before picking blackberries off of the bushes outside for dessert.

Dining-wise, a can’t-miss stop on a trip through the valley is the Brigham Fish Market. From their outdoor tables overlooking the river, we enjoyed amazing local, smoked-salmon chowder and sturgeon fish & chips before picking blackberries off of the bushes outside for dessert.

The highlight of our stop here was the Stephenson County Fair, which occurs each year on the shore just across the river in Washington, and happened to be going on the weekend we were staying in the area. Our kids loved watching the horseback riding competitions and meeting other children who were showing off their prize-winning livestock before heading to auction.  

Perhaps the most fun part of the weekend was the “timber games” where locals competed in team log sawing and a few different competitions that involved balancing on unstable logs floating on the river. Over the next couple of hours, we watched, mesmerized. We listened to the debates among locals on whether Big Johnny Williams would repeat as the overall champion.  It was such a fun opportunity to gain exposure to a different slice of Americana than we are exposed to on a day to day basis at our home.

Family-friendly Hipster Spots in Portland

After several, a lot smaller-town stops on the first leg of the trip, we were excited to visit the “big city” of Portland. It had been on our radar for quite a while, but we had never been able to visit this bastion of hipsterism. We settled in at the Sandy Riverfront RV Resort, a great location right on the bank of the X River, where we were able to break out the inner tubes and enjoy an afternoon swim. We also enjoyed a little laid-back golf and an al fresco dinner while exploring the sprawling Edgefield McMenamins, a hard-to-describe hotel compound that has revitalized a property that was previously a poor house from the 1920s. With restaurants, bars, a winery, brewery, movie theater, and a very short, par-3 style golf course, these beautiful grounds had something for everyone in the family.

Our RV Park was just a short jaunt into downtown Portland, so while in town, we eagerly took in some of the burgeoning food scenes. From the outstanding brunch at Tasty N Alder to the Vietnamese Street Food at Pok Pok to the stops for sweets at Voodoo Donuts and Salt and Straw, the eating in Portland did not disappoint.  

While exploring Portland’s many hip neighborhoods, we also stopped at the appropriately-named Powell’s City of Books, which occupies an entire city block; our family of avid readers was not disappointed. Our little avid readers were able to pick up some new titles for the rest of the trip, which made this stop both fun and functional. Afterward, we stopped by Heart Coffee Roasters to get our caffeine fix for the day and also to procure some tasty local, ground coffee that we could make in the trailer each morning.

We were also lucky enough to meet up with some friends who lived in Portland for some paddle board time on the river just outside of the city and enjoy a fun family dinner with old friends. It was the perfect end cap to our time in the Portland area, and a good people recharge before hitting the road again.

Road Tripping the Oregon Coast

We left Portland and headed West, where we would make our way down the coast over the final 10 days of our trip.  

The first stop was Astoria, perhaps best known as the setting of the movie Goonies. It was a very foggy day when we visited this spot at the mouth of the Columbia River, which lent the town a befittingly spooky feel. We didn’t find One-Eyed Willie, but we did ride the local Astoria Riverfront Trolley which was one part informative tour and one part comedy show, thanks to the wonderful volunteer tour guide who educated us on the history of the area and also kept us laughing.

In stark contrast to some of the manicured parks we had stayed in, the campsites at the nearby Fort Stevens State Park were beautiful little nooks nestled amongst stands of tall trees. The coastal access and big stretch of beach within the park was a popular vacation spot for families enjoying the coastline. We enjoyed spending a morning walking along the beach and checking out the shipwreck from 1906 which still sits on the beach today and can be accessed at low tide.

Cannon Beach was our next stop, and we really enjoyed this cute little town. We had a fun lunch at the Cannon Beach Hardware & Public House, a unique restaurant/hardware store combination that had us dining right next to a large display of screws and bolts.

After having some fish and chips and picking up a coaxial cable (All in one stop? check!), we headed down to the main attraction in town: the beach. We had seen the famed Haystack Rock in pictures and on TV, but we weren’t quite prepared for its impressive size – it is was really a natural beauty to behold jutting out of the surf and into the salty air.

As we continued our drive down south on highway 101, we found ourselves amazed by the beauty of this part of the world. Giant, green, tree-covered hills plunging down to the ocean made for dramatic views and many picture-taking opportunities. It was tempting to stop frequently, but we had to pick our shots discerningly with so many things to do and places to see. 

One of our favorites was stopping at Kelly’s Brighton Marina for a lunch of Dungeness crab and clams right on the water, and then spending an afternoon piloting our own little boat on the bay and fishing for crabs with the baited nets provided at the marina.    

We then found ourselves a little further south in Depoe Bay, where we went on a fun whale watching tour and saw many gray whales breaching including a full tail-in-the-air breach less 50 yards from our boat. It was a very cool experience being so close to these enormous creatures.  

Later that day we stopped at the impressive Tillamook Creamery and visitor center where we were initially intimidated by the two hundred plus people in line for ice cream. But with the dozens of employees scooping behind the bar, we found the line moved quickly and we easily became Tillamook converts after tasting their ultra-creamy ice cream.  

Our last couple of stays along the Oregon coast were at state parks that were among our favorites. Jessie M. Honeyman state park, outside of Florence, sits right on the edge of giant sand dunes that fall down into tree-lined lakes.  In addition, spotting bald eagles while exploring the lake in kayaks, we also just enjoyed taking beach chairs out on the dunes and relaxing while the kids entertained themselves rolling down the sandy hills.

Intrigued by the sound of motors revving that we could hear periodically just over the hill on the dunes, we also decided to go on a dune buggy excursion with Sandland Tours.  More roller coaster ride than a gentle tour, this was an incredibly fun way to explore the dunes while getting a shot of adrenaline.  We opted for the 30-minute version, which was fine for my queasy stomach, but our girls came out of the dune buggy covered in sand and begging for more.

The beautiful coastal, bluff-top setting of Harris Beach State Park was also one of our favorites parks.  Our kids made friends at the large playground in the park, and we enjoyed a hike down to the coast to spend a little time at the beach.  We didn’t book early enough to get one of the coveted ocean view RV sites but found ourselves plotting a return to camp at what were the most dramatic campsites we encountered on our trip.  

Good to Know

Go local We loved sampling the local goods everywhere we went. Coffee from local roasters in Portland. Ice cream from Tillamook. Locally caught seafood in the Columbia River Gorge.  And let’s not forget the beer. It seems even the smallest towns in Oregon had at least one craft brewery. Trying something new is half the fun of traveling!

Go slow Packing up every day doesn’t let you stop to smell the roses. And you miss so much when you’re constantly on the move. We tried to stay at least 2 nights in every spot so we could explore the area we were in and found that some of the real gems we found were when we stayed that one extra day.

Go gourmet Just because you’re camping doesn’t mean you have to eat hot dogs and beans every day. I love to cook, and the combination of a real (albeit small) kitchen in the trailer and being on ‘vacation time’ meant some pretty tasty meals on the road.

 

Plan Ahead  The idea of roaming around without an itinerary is a romantic one.  Just be aware that almost all state parks and the best RV parks book up well in advance of the peak summer months.  Sometimes you can roll into a great campsite and find a last minute cancellation, but more often than not you’ll be turned away.  The good news? There is usually always somewhere to stay.  You just may have to put up with a night in a Walmart parking lot or some sketchy neighbors cooking meth.

Use the Tools of the Trade ParkAdvisor, by [Allstays], is a good app with map-based tools to find RV parks and see how they are rated.

Get on Two Wheels Once at your destination, bikes are a great way to get around and explore as a family.  Unfortunately, weight concerns kept us from bringing our bikes, but the kids had scooters and used them almost every day.  

 

 

Cullen Wiginton – ROAM Contributor, May 2019

 

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