A classic American family road trip is best taken in a '70s-era Ford station wagon with wood paneling on the sides, à la the Griswold-mobile in National Lampoon's Vacation. Still, anything with seat belts and enough "I think I can" to make it over Interstate 5's Sexton Summit (where your saucy teens might beg to slow down to get a picture of those first three letters next to milepost 69) will do for a weekend jaunt to Southern Oregon.
And a family road trip should also have a payoff, something to look forward to amid all the "Are we there yet?" While the Rogue River Valley might be better known for summer rafting thrills or more adult lures like wine trails and Ashland's Oregon Shakespeare Festival (though OSF always includes family programming, too), the area's treehouse hotels, stunning fall foliage, and oddball roadside attractions add up to a fall weekend the kids will really remember.
Leave on a Friday and time the trip for an early dinner at the Cave Junction Farmers Market, 4 to 7 p.m. Fridays through October 8. (If that doesn't work out, the In-N-Out Burger in Grants Pass is open late for smooth-bunned smash burgers, no-nonsense fries, and Bible-verse packaging.) Just past the halfway point on the drive from Portland, stop for fungi photo ops at the Magic Mushroom Oregon Gifts shop in Sutherlin and sugar up across I-5 at Wailani Shave Ice. If you have 90 minutes to spare, detour at Winston for the Wildlife Safari Drive Through Adventure, an auto route through a private zoo that's home to lions, tigers, camels, zebras, and more.
Ideally, the destination for the weekend is one of the dueling treehouse hotels outside Cave Junction: The Out 'n' About Treehouse Treesort has more than a dozen treehouses, stilt cabins, and an elevated yurt, plus zip lines, horseback rides, a stone-lined natural pool, a volleyball court, rope swings, a Ping-Pong table on the lodge's stage, and a bit of a ramshackle summer camp vibe. The glampier Vertical Horizons Treehouse Paradise has four more luxely furnished cabins amid groomed grounds. Which one is right for you? Whichever one has a vacancy! These book out famously far in advance, but fall is an easier time to try to slip in than summer—wherever you land, take note of check-in times and multinight minimums.
On Saturday, grab lunch to go from Cave Junction's Trillium Bakery and head for an underground tour at Oregon Caves National Monument. Some tickets are sold in advance online, and some can be booked day-of at the info center in town. Dress for the caves' constant 41 degrees and be ready to answer whether you or any of the clothes or shoes you're wearing have ever been in any other cave, cavern, or mine—it's part of an effort to keep a deadly bat disease out of this cave system. (After its planned reopening in 2023, the Chateau at the Oregon Caves will be another tempting lodging option, a '30s-era grand park lodge with a design museum's worth of Monterey furniture inside.)
There's an underground element to the Oregon Vortex, too, described as a sphere of roughly 160 feet that's half aboveground and half below, but the tours outside Gold Hill, north of I-5 between Grants Pass and Medford, show off only the above-ground part. Here, in classic roadside-attraction fashion, a smooth-talking cashier takes your payment for admission ($16–22 per person, free for kids 5 and under, with a small discount for teachers, first responders, etc.) before explaining just what to expect or how long you have to wait for the next guided tour. On the tour, optical illusions, tricks of the eye, alleged geological phenomena, and a little showmanship combine to make it seem like people walk downhill but grow taller—the tour guide will invite doubters to come back with their own levels and rulers (though it's hard to imagine anyone paying to go twice). The group then takes a short walk up a trail to the House of Mystery, an old mining outbuilding that slid down the hill and is now suspended at an angle that makes it hard to stand parallel to the plumb bob hanging inside but easy to stand a broom on its end.
While a Vortex visit is an important checkoff on the Oregon tourist bucket list, blowing the same amount of money on bumper boats, mini golf, go-karts, and arcade games 20 minutes away at the Rogue Valley Family Fun Center in Central Point might make for happier passengers for the way home.
If you have more than a weekend, keep the mystery going with a dip into Northern California to visit the Trees of Mystery, a roadside attraction south of Crescent City with a forest-canopy gondola ride, a Paul Bunyan statue that's even taller than the one in North Portland's Kenton neighborhood, the adjacent Motel Trees, and a nearby drive-through tree.
Podcast Pick While driving practically the whole length of the state, dig into the archives of Andy Lindberg and Doug Kenck-Crispin’s Kick Ass Oregon History podcast. Lively episodes (PG-13 for some “sex, drugs, and rock and roll”) explore Bigfoot, our love affair with the beaver, D. B. Cooper (about whom Kenck-Crispin wrote an article for Portland Monthly in 2021), a Japanese bombing during World War II, secrets from the sets of Oregon-shot movies, quirky or doomed historical figures, and more. —MS