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Campervan Vacation: Oregon Dunes, National Forests, Crater Lake National Park, Columbia River Gorge and So Much More

While we were at the visitor center I noticed a sign saying Hwy 101 was closed due to a wildfire in Oregon. 

I had already figured two different options into the day, so we just had to make a decision on where we wanted to go.

We weren't sure if we would stick to the coast or go to the Oregon Caves. With the highway closed we decided on the Oregon Caves. As we moved away from the California coast and drove onto the Oregon border, the temperature kept climbing. 

Neither of us had looked at the forecast.

We went from waking up to 50 degrees F at the Sue-meg State Park to 109 degrees F when we arrived in Oregon. 

We stopped for lunch in Cave Junction with plans to stay near there. As we were driving to our potential campsite we quickly changed our minds and headed for Bandon.

For about an hour we'd decided to head toward Crater Lake National Park, but we weren't sure if the temps there were actually cool while we could rely on the Pacific's built-in AC.

I don't even think that was the highest reading on our cars thermometer.

It seems we can't escape wildfire smoke this summer.

In this case we were just northwest of one of a few forest fires burning in Oregon.

We drove through the first of many national forests to get back to the coast: Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. 

On our way to Bandon we saw a sign for a campground that we thought we'd try instead. Of course it was booked. 

While there was no campgrounds open at Bastendorff Beach Park, we did end up making the right decision heading this way. There were a number of motor parks with openings, but we thought we'd give the campgrounds in Siuslaw National Forest a try.

We decided not to continue on south and head north on the coast instead. Which worked out for me because I had hoped to see the Oregon Dunes during this trip.


We lucked into the last campsite at Spinreel Campground. Boy were we lucky. And the view wasn't bad either.

Day 6 
Lakeside - Crater Lake

We were probably the only ones at this campsite that didn't have dune buggies.

Apparently the friendly guy across the way told his neighbor his life story. Sometimes my bad hearing pays off. Only Brooke was stuck listening to this guy embarrass his daughter.

I literally knew his whole life story by the time I fell asleep. He also stopped to talk to us when were booking the site. His first reaction was, "What's up with your van?"

I mean, its paint job is kind of a constant talking point wherever youg.

We wanted to see more of the dunes before we would leave the coast for the rest of the trip. Near our campground was the John Dellenback Dunes Trailhead

Theo decided to hike this barefoot, but complained some areas were too pokey. 

After a brief hike through a sandy forest, we made it the dunes.

This was so cool, really wish we could have hiked to the ocean. 


I never made it to the Saudi desert, but this was just as good, right? Actually much better with the family in tow.


Should have brought sleds.

The kids were having a blast in this giant sandbox.


The kiddos ran and rolled down the giant dunes. I don't think they were ever happier on this trip.

While fog followed us around the California coast, this was sadly smoke from the Rogue River wildfire.


I think a trip to White Sands National Park is in our future. 


We could've stayed all day but needed to find a place to stay near Crater Lake National Park.

So long, Pacific.

We had to make a stop to mail more postcards. 

And pick up more groceries. 

I guess Dollar Generals are OK, on occasion. Just pay your employees, jerks.

We backtracked through the Rogue River-Siskiyou and onto the Umpqua National Forest. There were a ton of available sites at Broken Arrow Campground. With a site secured, we took the short drive to Crater Lake.

It was surreal to drive through forests that were recently hit by fire. We stopped to get gas that was seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The owner shared how when everyone was told to evacuate they stayed behind to serve those that needed them. She said there was a lot of praying in those days. 

After a long drive down the road into Crater Lake National Park we finally saw the epic vistas I'd been hearing about on my favorite Packers radio show, Wilde & Tausch. Tausch raved that it was the best view in any park he'd been to (his family goes to one or two every year). Dude was right.

I guess the saying here is, there's two seasons at Crater Lake. Snow and smoke. 

The NPS only puts out fires that put visitors at risk, but most of this smoke was blowing in from the west.

We had to pick up more junior ranger books.

We found this nice picnic area behind the visitor centers that no one seemed to know about. I have been loving being able to eat anywhere thanks to our built in kitchen. 

We thought we'd try to get one hike in before it got dark. The East Rim Drive was beautiful but very few if any barriers. 

Brookie got a picture of me in front of Mount Scott. It's way off behind my shoulder. We thought about going there, but we weren't up for that long of a hike.

Maybe if the kids were a little older. 

We stopped on the way to view the Phantom Ship. Well, at least Brooke and I did. The kids stayed in the car. Boring.

The drive around the rim of Crater Lake made me super nervous on our first go around. Theo mentioned how it seemed like we could fall down the mountainside. That did not help.

I was relieved to be on solid ground after the drive to our hike.

We did the Plaikni Falls Trail. As we were just starting a group warned us of a mama and baby bear on the trail ahead. This was our first time encountering a bear while hiking. 

Brooke and I have been backcountry hiking for more than 15 years, crazy that this was our first bear sighting.


Brooke was in her element. The first honest-to-goodness waterfall of the trip.

Scott = Old growth forests
Brooke = Waterfalls
Meadow = Beaches
Theo = Volcanoes

We would cover all our favorites on this trip.


I guess you needed to see this from both angles. Ha.





I thought for sure we wouldn't find any available campsites near Crater Lake. 

Well, there were many.

Broken Arrow had a gray water dump and showers! 

Which was great since Theo pooped his pants without telling us.

Day 7
Crater Lake - Toketee Lake Campground
In the morning we emptied the grey water and filled 'er back up.

Before going back to Crater Lake we took a gander at Mount Thielsen. These broken top dormant volcanoes ooze cool.

There's a hiking trail to the top too. Ah, someday...

After going low yesterday I wanted to hike high today. We were going to climb the top of the Watchman Peak Trail.  

Hey, gorgeous. Yeah, you, Crater Lake.

Theo was not having it on this hike and cursed the sun the whole way. Needless to say we had to take a lot of breaks going up. 

Nonetheless, we made it to the top where we found some shade.


We took a break in the shade to work on our ranger booklets. It's funny at the entrance there was a sign mentioning that there was a heat warning today but it was only in the 70's. Can't imagine what it's like on a normal day. 

Theo's mood changed and we were ready to go back down. 


Thanks to the Junior Ranger booklets we learned that all the Whitebark Pine trees here were planted by birds. They would overfill their mouths with seed and bury some to come back to in winter. The ones that were forgotten grew into trees. 


I spy the last bit of snow. 


Then it was time for the kids to get their badges. 

We had to wait forever for some guy to ask every question possible. Do people not do any research?

Reading their Junior Ranger pledge two parks in a row? Couldn't be.

So proud of these kids. 


The lake seemed less smokey from this view. You could actually see the blue water. 


You know Brooke had to checkout the historic Crater Lake Lodge.

If there's an old building you know I'll want to see it. 

Inside there's a small history display about how bad this place was built and how it very much needed a renovation decades back. Strange tone to say the least. The lobby is lined with logs, bark and all.

We had our lunch again in the not so busy picnic area. 

Doctored instant ramen and sandwiches would do.

For our last hike we took the Cleetwood Cove Trail down to the lake. Unfortunately it started pouring and the wind picked up right as we started. Maybe it was fortunate that we were able to grab our raincoats. 

I'll take the fact that we were the only folks that were prepared as good omen.

The trail warns that although it's only 2.2 miles there and back this is considered a strenuous hike. 

The way down is very easy, but it's not a quick hike.

This is the only place in the park where you're allowed to swim. Scott and I thought we'd do it but you had to climb over rocks to get to the water and we didn't want to just leave the kids behind. 


My little bestie and I took in the epic views. And I probably held onto him tightly like the worry wart I am.

I should've gotten this guys email. He probably would've loved this photo.

We told Theo there wasn't to be any complaining on this hike. He was so proud of being able to hike it by himself. After we finished, I told him he could probably handle Mount Scott, the highest point in the park. When he found out we weren't actually going to do it he started crying. 

Little bub and the whole crew did a great job and honestly it wasn't so bad. But, my god, if you're out of shape, don't do this hike.

We definitely passed a few people that should not have done it. 

We traveled deeper into the Umpqua National Forest to our campsite for the night, Toketee Lake Campground. But first we had to make a quick detour.

Our campervan included a book of places to see that was near their locations. One of the things to do was a hot springs that just happened to be up the road from our campsite. 

Well, let's just say that the hot springs are not kid friendly. Free spirits only need apply.

The kids were very disappointed so we tried to find them a swimming hole. 

Toketee Lake didn't really have many areas to dip your feet. And when we finally found a spot, the water was freezing. I don't want any west coasters making fun of our Midwest beaches and lakes. There's may be epic, but it ain't somewhere to take a dip.

We went back to our campsite, set up camp and ate dinner before calling it a night.

Meadow and I pretty much claimed the roof tent for the whole trip. 


Day 8
Umpuqua National Forest - Bend

Meadow kept asking everyday when we'd be able to eat in the van. If you take the bed down you can set up a table. After the first night we found that it was just easier to keep the bed in place instead of having to take down and put back together every day. Well thanks to some rain, today was her lucky day. 

The reason we stayed here was to see Toketee Falls. The trailhead to the falls had this eery water pipe. It looked like it might burst so we parked a little farther away. 

Apparently this redwood water pipeline is meant to expand and contract. So, no worries, I guess.

Before the main falls there were a number of  waterfall pools that had carved circles into the river.

Deep into the douglas fir-studded forest was Toketee Falls. Two waterfalls in 3 days and we weren't even done chasing waterfalls.

This area reminded me a bit of Upper Michigan. 

I had read about Watson Falls recently as it's the tallest waterfall in southern Oregon.

So, we made the short drive down the Umpqua Highway from Toketee to Watson.

Both of these hikes are less than a half mile each way.




Tall, indeed, and we only saw two other groups here.

Theo and I decided to skip the last segment of the hike since the view was stellar from below.

After climbing some rocks, Theo and I realized we could get right up to the falls without damaging any vegetation.

Meadow and I got ahead and were waiting for Scott at the top. When he never came up we found him down below saying you can walk right up to it. This was by far the coolest waterfall I have seen. Sorry Tahquamenon. 

Brooke pointing out how they hiked up to the overlook for no good reason.

3 waterfalls down and a few more to go. We honestly could've went to a handful more along the Umpqua Highway, but we had plans to hang out in Bend.

Somewhere along the way we needed to mail more postcards. This post office had some vintage PO boxes. 


While we were driving up US Highway 97 we decided we ought to stop at the Newberry National Volcanic Monument.

I had heard about it and wanted to see it, but didn't really know much about it. Also, the main point of this trip is that Meadow is in 4th Grade so she has an Every Kid Outdoors Pass which gets you into public lands. Her pass was also good here. 

Theo was in his element.

He loves volcanoes. 


Is this even planet earth? It looks Death Mountain in Zelda.


There's Mount Bachelor and the Three Sisters in the distance. 


When we were walking into the visitor center Scott said, I'll bet they have a junior ranger program here. I didn't believe him but then we overheard another dad asking the ranger and sure enough there was. The kids had to do a bingo on things they saw on our walk. 

Pretty cool bonus badge.

Photo bomb!

I wanted to take the family to the Podski Food Cart Lot with an adjoining bar with one of kind beers brewed nearby. I'd stopped here on both my work trips to Bend last year.

This space is a cool idea. C'mon Minneapolis. 

The west coast gets food truck lots and we get food halls. Too cold back home.

We went with Big Ski's Pierogis. I guess I should've bought more plain ones, but I love this food truck so much I may have bought a sticker.

They were all so good. 

Ice cream a day keeps the doctor away...err makes for a happy Tuska. 

Bonta might be the best ice cream we've ever had. And I've ate a lot of ice cream.

We drove over the Deschutes River and I saw people surfing. We had to pull over to watch. 

Brooke and the kids wanted to tube down, but we had to find a campsite for the night.

We wanted to spend more time in Bend but also needed to find a place to stay. We thought about finding a site and driving back. At this point in our trip we were already way over our miles with our campervan. If we had gone back it would have been $15 just for the extra miles. 

Most of the second half of the Oregon half of our trip we didn't book sites ahead. There are so many National Forest campgrounds around Oregon. If it's not near Portland, you're probably gonna find a campsite available. We took the bend around Mount Bachelor and camped at Soda Creek Campground.

Fortunately the creek ran right by the campground. The kids were so excited to have water to play in, even if it was glacier runoff from the mountain. 


The Three Sisters in the background. A gentle haze. Dreamy.


The smokey haziness in the background would only get worse as the day went on. 




Good night, Cascades.


Day 9
Bend - John Day Fossil Beds

We also just discovered while at this campground that you get a discount on camping fees with the 4th Grade National Parks pass. Wish we had known that earlier. 

At least the smoke cleared away when we woke up. 

We stopped back in Bend for more groceries and gas. Our gas station happened to be next to the last remaining Blockbuster store. 

A true American landmark.

We thought we were clear from the smoke but it kept getting thicker and thicker. 

We saw an alpaca farm on our way to Smith Rock State Park. I thought the kids would have been more excited but they could of cared less. 

A short drive and magically the haze parted and Smith Rock State Park appeared.

I am really loving the different landscapes of Oregon. So much variety.

Thankfully the smoke was starting to clear, but it was hot. 

This park is known as the birthplace of rock climbing, so naturally they had a kids rock climbing area. Theo was getting so frustrated that he couldn't do it. 

Both kids were having trouble and then a little girl just climbed to to the top like no big deal. Meadow had to keep trying. 

After some falce starts we found the path down to the river.





Meadow pretending she loves hiking.


The bridge to get across the Crooked River was closed for repairs so we just looked on in the distance. 

Another day, another ice cream stop. 

Theo was thrilled to get some sherbert.

Come on, you have to stop at Juniper Junction.

The kiddos missed most of the vistas along our drives.

We would say, look outside kids look how beautiful it is. Theo would at least say, whoa. Until we later realized he was just saying it and not even looking up...Trickster. 

Next stop fossil beds, but first we had to book a campsite in the Ochoco National Forest. We found one at Walton Lake.

After lucking out once again on booking the last campsite we had to make a quick drive to make it to John Day Fossil Beds before their visitor center closed.

This drive was taking a lot longer than anticipated. I had put the Painted Hills in Google Maps, but Brooke wanted us to go to the Thomas Condon Visitor Center.


We had made it with almost an hour to spare. 

We had a lot to learn to get our booklets completed before they closed. 

If you come here, not right before closing, you can watch the paleontologists cleaning the fossils. Luckily we caught the last video of the day that explained where we were. It was very helpful since we didn't have time to read much. Theo LOVED the video and wanted to watch it again. I'll have to try to find it on YouTube. 

And they got their badges with 2 minutes to spare. 

This type of landscape might actually be my favorite. 

Wait, they have mountains, coastline, dunes, badlands... Maybe I understand the housing prices in Portland.

We wanted to do to a couple hikes but first we needed to eat since we hadn't eaten since breakfast. Part of John Day Fossil Beds is the Cant Ranch Museum. The house had already closed before we got here but the grounds are open. 

The ranch had fruit trees throughout the property that you could harvest yourself. 

We got ourselves some tiny apricots. 

Dinner with a view. 

Lol. I mean, I must eat like a weirdo.

You make the kids mac and cheese and you end up having to eat a bunch.



We would have liked to stay in the Sheep Rock Unit but wanted to get to the Painted Hills before the sun set. 

I can't believe this is just a monument and not a park. 

Recently learned that National Parks are declared by congress, National Monuments by presidential executive order. The more you know.


I wish we had planned an extra day here, there was so much more I wanted to see. If we find ourselves in Oregon again I'm coming back. 



The best sunset of the whole trip. But also the most unexpected vista.

One last look before it gets dark. 

Theo had peed along the road and somehow lost his shoe. Thankfully we found it before the last light.


Our ride back took way longer when I thought we could avoid the unpaved road. I took a suggested alternative route by Google Maps which ended up being a private road, which means it added an extra half hour of pitch black driving. Whoops.

Day 10
Ochoco National Forest - Portland
Walton Lake is beautiful, but mostly just a place to sleep. That's kind of our way of road tripping with a campervan or a tent.

Had we had more time here we would have definitely swam. 

Our last full day in the campervan. 

Second to last campervan breakfast.

Deer sightings in the town of Prineville. 

We said goodbye to the badlands and made our way to the mountains. 

Taller ones at lest. The Ochoco aren't quite the Cascades.

I had wanted to stop at the historic Timberline Lodge as I had heard it was the only ski resort in the US that's open year round and was also where they filmed the outdoor shots for the movie The Shining. 

I was worried we would be underdressed to go here but was pleasantly surprised to see this place was a pitstop for PCT hikers. 

I loved all the details here. 

I don't even remember sitting here.



Maybe we can stay if we come out here again.



We decided to grab lunch while we were here. They have a variety of restaurants to choose from. 

The Blue Ox Bar seemed more up our alley.

What was once a woodshed turned into a tiny bar complete with Paul Bunyan. We were finding him everywhere on this trip. 

They planned on using it for wood storage, but when they realized they didn't have a bar, it was quickly converted. The 1938 vintage murals are amazing, but I'm not sure about orange and black flannel.

Maybe he changed his shirt when he moved to Oregon. 

We were so close to missing out on one of my favorite restaurants of the trip.

Would have been fun to hike to the summit. Next time. 

The rest of the day was set aside for the Columbia River Gorge. When I traveled here last year on my own, it was one of my favorite drives.

And we were back to smoke territory. 

Ugh. But we'd make the most it.

We decided to check out the Bonneville Lock and Dam. 

Again, Scott was right that they had a junior ranger program here. 

I just had a feeling.

We happened to arrive right as they were about to do a special tour to the inside of the dam. 



These kids were swimming in junior ranger badges at this point.

Another bonus badge for the kids. 

We left the dam to explore the main event.

We took the historic Columbia River Highway to see all the waterfalls. Okay maybe only a few.


Once you got up to the hidden Ponytail Falls. One of my favorites.

After Watson Falls I wasn't as impressed with these, but it was cool to get to walk behind it.


We pulled over to see the original tunnel from the old highway.

We had to see Multnomah Falls even if it was the most popular and well known spot. We later read that the kids could have gotten another badge here. 

The waterfalls are all part of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

We couldn't find any parking near these falls and parked at Wahkeena Falls and hiked over. 

Then we backtracked to one Oregon campsite we actually booked at Eagle Creek Campground. Not nearly as loud as reviews might make you think.

Day 11
Portland
The next morning we got up early to see Vista Point before having to return the van. 

Though covered in smoke it was still cool to see. 

The inside was beautiful too. 

I missed this on my solo trip. Was definitely a fitting way to end the Escape Campervans portion of our trip.

We were way, way over on miles. But holy cow, I drove almost 53 hours over nearly 2 weeks.

Theo was really sad to say goodbye to the van. Me too Theo, me too. 

If they weren't so expensive we'd totally get one of our own.

This time we rented a car so we could explore more of the city. Since the last time Scott came to Oregon he couldn't stop talking about Maple Bars. Our first stop was to find doughnuts. 

We ended up at Annie's Donuts. No maple bars (just the Oregon name for long johns), but still stellar.

I had heard there was a Paul Bunyan statue here too so we had to make a stop to see him again.

Dudes across from a defunct strip club. You do you Portland.

Meadow wanted to see Chinatown (Old Town) but it wasn't as cool as San Francisco. 

I wanted to show Brooke and the kids the West Hill neighborhood and we happened upon the Pittock Mansion.

I was being cheap by this point in the trip and pooh-poohed the idea of going on a tour, but thought it would be fun to walk the grounds.

Theo later told me he wished he could have seen the inside. I guess I could have taken just him since he was free anyway. 

Then we hiked in nearby Forest Park to a mysterious spot on Google Maps, Witches Castle. 

I knew there was an old stone house along the trail. There's tales that this was an old home, but I read that it was just bathrooms for trail users when the trail first opened.

This place kind of gave me the willies. It wasn't helped by the druggies (I'm sorry, not sure what else to call them) hanging out and the shrine to their fallen brethren. Apparently a few years ago this had no graffiti on it.


Anyways, we were getting hungry and I decided to take the family to Nob Hill Bar & Grill in Northwest Portland. We may have overindulged.

I would have shared with Scott had I known my meal was going to include a whole plate of tator tots. 

There was an ice cream shop nearby that was on my list to do. 

I kept getting lots of recommendations for this place. 

Scott is not a fan of ice cream shops that use unique flavors. 

We were finding Meadow's everywhere on this trip. 

A lot of Portland feels meh to me, but Northwest Portland has some great houses.

Portland is the city of roses so we had to see their Rose Gardens. 

This place is massive compared to the modest rose garden along the shore of Lake Harriet back in Minneapolis.



City of Roses indeed.

Then we checked into our Airbnb and relaxed for awhile. 

We discovered there was a splash pad nearby so took the kids there. 


The blocks in Portland are extremely square and tiny compared to almost any city I've been to. It makes for very walkable neighborhood interiors.

We found a place for dinner that is an actual sushi train.

Sushi Ichiban in Portland's Old Town. Despite the extreme homeless problem in the area (this is coming from someone who lives in the epicenter of homelessness in Minneapolis), I knew the family would love it.

It did not disappoint. A perfect end to our campervan vacation.

Definitely would come back if we are in Portland in the future.

Back at our rental we took some much needed showers before heading to bed. 

Even baby got his own bed. 

Day 12
Portland - Minneapolis
Rise and shine Theo, it's time to go home. 

Noooooo.

All the badges and stickers the kids earned on this trip. So proud of them. 

I have not always been super into the badge challenges, but it definitely helps you dive deeper and learn more about the national parks and monuments we explored. And the kids adore them.

We totally had this in my childhood bathroom. 


Meadow got to stay in the pink bedroom. 

Nice AirBNB in a good central location.

OK. One more treat before heading home. The Waffle Window just down Hawthorne Blvd from our AirBNB.


We dropped our rental car off at the bus/lrt stop and hopped on a bus to the airport. 

We used the car rental service Kyte since they drop off your vehicle anywhere in Portland and other west coast cites. Worked perfectly after dropping off the campervan and was easy to drop it off at the nearest airport transit stop.

We already can't wait to start planning our next trip. 

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