The Pacific Northwest is often cited for its family-friendliness. If you are traveling with children, you will indeed find that there are many child-oriented things to see and do in Seattle, Portland, and along the Oregon coast. This is a great opportunity to introduce your kids to nature—perhaps as you learn more about it yourself. You can, without too much difficulty, go carless in Seattle and Portland, and you can get from one city to the other via train or bus if you don’t want to drive. For the last 2 days, however, you will need a car.
Days 1–2: Seattle
A stroll on the Seattle waterfront is a lovely way to start your visit. Here you’ll find the Seattle Aquarium, a great place to spend the morning getting your kids acquainted with the animals that live in and around Puget Sound. Have a seafood-themed lunch at Ivar’s Fish Bar right on the waterfront. In the afternoon, enjoy one of the boat tours offered by Argosy Cruises. There’s a 1-hour harbor cruise, and longer cruises to Lake Washington and the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks.
Instead of or in addition to a boat tour with Argosy, you can take a passenger ferry over to Bainbridge Island or a shorter ride on the King County Water Taxi to Alki Beach in West Seattle for a fun and easy excursion that gives kids the excitement of being on the water. A lot will depend on the age of your children and their patience levels. While you’re on the waterfront, the kids will certainly spot its newest attraction, the Seattle Great Wheel. This is the tallest Ferris wheel on the West Coast; the ride takes about 15 minutes.
On day 2, get on the vintage monorail downtown at Westlake Center and whiz north to Seattle Center, built for the 1962 World’s Fair. At Seattle Center, you can zoom up to the observation deck of the Space Needle. Younger kids will find plenty of play activities at the Pacific Science Center, which has some great animatronic dinosaurs and a lovely butterfly house, in addition to many other hands-on science-related exhibits. I personally find the Museum of Pop Culture to be vastly over-rated and overpriced, but if your kids are avid, and I mean avid, Trekkies or lovers of sci-fi, they will probably enjoy it. More fun, and educational, would be to head over to Pioneer Square and take the Underground Tour through the tunnels of Seattle’s past.
Days 3–4: Portland
On day 4, head down to Portland. If you’re not driving the 178 miles (286 km), there are other transportation options including Amtrak, which makes the Seattle-Portland run several times a day and takes about 3[bf]1/2 to 4 hours. By car, without traffic snags, the trip takes about 3 hours.
Explore the City of Roses via MAX, the light-rail train, and/or the Portland Streetcar—kids love both of them (so do I, and I’m not a kid). Start your first day at Washington Park. Your kids may not flip for the roses in the International Rose Test Garden, but they will enjoy the little train that runs from the garden to the Oregon Zoo. It’s a large zoo and you can easily spend 3 hours there.
On your second day, head over to the east side via MAX or Portland Streetcar to visit the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI), a hands-on museum, with an actual submarine to tour. After exploring the museum, if it’s summer and the weather is nice, take an excursion to Oaks Amusement Park, about 5 miles south on the Willamette River. One of the last remaining “old-style” amusement parks in the U.S., Oaks Park was built in 1905 for the Lewis and Clark Exposition. The rides are pretty gentle and there is a famous roller rink where you can all rent skates and spin around to music. If you’re not driving, I’d suggest you take an Uber or taxi over to Oaks Park. This is a lovely way to end the day, and you can even walk from the park right down to a beach on the Willamette River.
Day 5: Portland/Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area/Mount Hood
On day 5, head east out of Portland on I-84. The spectacular Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area begins just a few miles east of downtown. For maximum excitement, take the Columbia Gorge Historic Highway, the first scenic road to be built in Oregon back in the 1920s. The old highway takes you up to Crown Point, where the breathtaking view up and down the gorge extends for over 30 miles. Continue on the old highway and you will pass a handful of gorgeous waterfalls until you come finally to the tallest and most dramatic waterfall of all—Multnomah Falls. You can walk up an easy paved path to view the thundering falls from fairly close up. Just after Multnomah Falls, the old highway ends and returns you to I-84. Continue your expedition up and over Mount Hood to Timberline Lodge, where you can hike or have lunch or dinner. Returning to Portland will take you about 2 hours. (But please note: a September 2017 wildfire in the Gorge scorched the area around Eagle Creek, and the full extent of damage was not known as of press time.)
Day 6: Cannon Beach
Today, it’s time to introduce the family to the Pacific Ocean. From Portland it takes about 2 hours to get to Cannon Beach by car. Make this an overnight trip, and be sure to book your hotel or campsite well in advance if you are traveling in the summer. With towering Haystack Rock jutting up from the shore, this flat, sandy beach is one of the best along the entire coast for long beach walks. And I have never yet met a kid who didn’t love running, walking, skipping, and digging on Cannon Beach.
In addition to getting all revved up on the beach, try to pay a visit to Ecola State Park at the north end of town, where you’ll find miles of beach and forested hiking trails with stunning ocean views.
Day 7: Three Capes Scenic Loop/Depoe Bay/Newport
Continuing south from Cannon Beach on U.S. 101, in about 40 miles (64 km) you’ll come to Tillamook. Just south of Tillamook, watch for the turnoff for the Three Capes Scenic Loop, a 35-mile loop drive that winds past three giant headlands (one with a lighthouse) with viewpoints, beaches, picnic areas, and hiking trails. From Pacific City, where the loop drive ends, continue south on U.S. 101 for 34 miles (55 km) to tiny Depoe Bay, where you can take a whale-watching expedition out onto the open waters of the bay to view (hopefully) giant gray whales on their annual migration. Again, it’s best to reserve a whale-watching trip in advance of your arrival. What could be more thrilling than to spot a spouting whale!
From Depoe Bay, continue on U.S. 101 for 13 miles (21 km) to Newport. If you’ve taken the Three Capes Loop and done a whale-watching excursion in Depoe Bay, you won’t be arriving in Newport until later in the afternoon. Spend the rest of the day strolling along the busy Bayfront and the charming, artsy neighborhood of Nye Beach with its long, sandy beach.
There’s a lot more to enjoy in Newport before you head back to Portland. Start your explorations at the not-to-be-missed Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, site of Yaquina Head Lighthouse, one of the most photogenic and easily accessible lighthouses on the Oregon coast. The offshore monoliths here are wildlife refuges where you’ll see seals and hundreds of seabirds. You’ll need to allot about an hour-and-a-half to explore the beach and the lighthouse.
Finally, if you haven’t taken the whale-watching trip, and if you’re up for another aquarium head south, back into Newport and across the Yaquina Bay Bridge. On the south side of the bridge, you’ll find Newport’s star attraction, the Oregon Coast Aquarium. It’s one of the great aquariums of the West Coast—yes, it’s better than Seattle’s—and a place you don’t want to rush through. Give yourself at least a couple of hours. The facility concentrates on local and West Coast marine life and has a walk-through aquarium with sharks and outdoor exhibits with tufted puffins, sea otters and sea lions. It will be a fun and memorable way to wind up your Pacific Northwest adventures.