Driving a big rig is not on my list of skills. At first I was nervous to drive the 19-foot-long camper van (which our kids nicknamed “Lava,” as in “we lava you!”). But just a few miles down the highway, I was already feeling great. Maybe it was just hitting the road, moving further away from home and closer to adventure? After all, Trackers got Lava the Camper Van for families to rent and help connect them to the outdoors.
But first we needed to take it for a test spin.
In my last camper van blog, Van Life Part 1, I shared why this is such a great way to travel and explore as a family. This blog focuses on where you can go and how to plan some short, easy trips. My husband and I were born in Oregon and although we’ve done a fair amount of traveling around the region, there are many areas neither of us have been to. During this past year, we’ve been working from home, taking our kids to local parks and nearby wilderness areas when we need to escape. But after a year of staying hunkering down, we were ready to expand our range and forge new experiences in the camper van!
Our first two camper van destinations: Prineville, Oregon and Raymond, Washington.
Keep it Easy!
Getting motivated and finding ways to uplift the kids has been a struggle for me at times this past year. We needed a fun adventure, but not something that was too overwhelming to pull off. When planning our first camper van trips, we decided to keep it easy by doing short weekend adventures. Friends who lived not too far away and who we’d only seen over Zoom invited us to come park in their backyards. Having an easy, set destination waiting for us made things very easy. And the promise of an outdoor visit with friends was an extra incentive. The 4-5 hour drive was perfect, and planning a 2.5-day trip allowed us to get a not-too-early start and enjoy the destination for a full day. We were able to return home in the late afternoon of day 3, avoiding a late night dinner/bedtime circus with the kids.
Plan the “Right” Amount & Make Time for Detours
Our goal was to plan the “right” amount—not too much and not too little. Honestly, it was overwhelming just getting out of the house with our three young kids. Setting a destination that’s just a few hours away means you don’t have to look for an overnight camp spot in-between and your drive time can be flexible. If you want to change your route—pop into a small town for ice cream or check out a cool-looking hike—it’s super easy. The camper van is small enough to pull into parks and small towns on a whim. One of our favorite detours on our Washington road trip was stopping at the Custard King in Astoria for ice cream. We also got a glimpse of the Columbia River Maritime Museum, which looked amazing. We are excited to check it out on the next trip, post-pandemic. Now we have a reason to go back and explore some more!
4 Must-Haves for Van Adventures
- Paper Road Maps – in this digital age, there seems to be little need for a paper map. But our kids love pouring over the turns and keys. It allows them to participate in spontaneous planning as we drive. Plus it teaches them (and us all) that you don’t need a phone! Which is good because sometimes you don’t have reception!
- Camp Chairs – although we previously rejected camp chairs (they are for the weak!), we gave in and invested in one for each family member. Now there is no reason to fight over a place to sit at the campfire.
- Jiffy Pop popcorn – whether over the propane camper stove or a campfire, this is the best treat and entertainment, all in one.
- Treasure Box – no matter where you go, you and your kids will find treasures—small rocks, special leaves, even a handful of sand! Bring a small shoe box or mason jar to store them in, or they will get lost forever in the camper van (we think Lava eats them).
Explore Your Adventure Radius
An “adventure radius” is the area around your destination that includes something amazing that you just have to check out. Even if it means an hour’s drive there and back. Under normal circumstances, a 2-hour round-trip drive might feel like “too much time in the car.” But in the camper van, driving is part of the fun. During our visit to Prineville, Oregon we had a few hours to kill, so we drove an hour to the Painted Hills. I can’t believe I’ve lived in Oregon for over 40 years and had never seen the Painted Hills! We loved it, the kids loved it, and we even learned a lot about geology and geography! Check out what’s inside your adventure radius!
Try a Work-cation
For people lucky enough to be working from home this year, there are some travel benefits: you can do a meeting or conference call on the go and you can work on your computer anywhere, any time. Which means you can work while you travel. The downside is that it’s hard to disconnect and just enjoy yourself. You have to find a balance. Maybe set a limit for yourself, like you’re going to work for a set amount of time each day—only before lunch or only while someone is driving—and the rest of the time is just for fun. Ask your kids to remind you when you’ve gone past your limit. My kids now heckle me whenever I’m on my computer too long. “Your screen is turning you into a zombie,” they say in spooky voices, arms outstretched.
Lucky for me, part of my job includes managing and stewarding outdoor areas and wild spaces for youth camps. We are always looking for inspiration, so during our camper van trips we sought out interesting natural areas and innovative ways people manage those areas. We explored some amazing locations, including a joint-managed demonstration forest, silvopasture on forested land, and wetland and wildlife enhancement areas! Here are a couple of family-friendly areas you can go check out with or without a camper van.
Three-Day Adventure: Central Oregon
Day 1: Portland to Prineville, Oregon
The 3-hour drive from Portland to Prineville is scenic all by itself and the point where you cross from the rainy west side to the sunny east side of the Cascade mountains is truly magical. We like to challenge our kids to spot and name new varieties of flora and fauna (like ponderosa pine and pronghorn antelope) in scavenger hunt games. We stopped in Redmond for our big grocery store stock up and were relieved to discover that maneuvering in the camper van in a crowded parking lot was no problem!
That afternoon we pulled into our friend’s property, plenty early for dinner and fun. That evening we did some stargazing into the cloudless, high desert skies—a wonderful way to cap off the night before tucking into our camper van beds.
Day 2: Exploring Our Adventure Radius
The next morning we helped our friend with ranch chores. She runs H.O.R.S.E.S on the Ranch, a very cool, local non-profit organization that specializes in horse-assisted therapy programs. After chores, she went off to work and we went off to adventure! Here are the awesome spots we explored on our second day:
- Ochoco Lake State Park: This lovely park has lakeside picnic tables, campsites and teepees for rent, and is a great spot for rock hounding and all kinds of water sports.
- Painted Hills: part of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument and one of the “Seven Wonders of Oregon.” It was amazing to see the different geological features and learn more about the area—bonus, the kids loved it, too!
- Ochoco National Forest: We drove back to Prineville through the thick trees and narrow valleys of the Ochoco National Forest. One of 11 National Forests in Oregon, it’s known for its geological formations, ponderosa pines, and 95,000 acres of old growth forest.
- Scenic Crooked River Highway to the Prineville Reservoir: We took this scenic route filled with even more opportunities for family camping, hiking, fishing and boating.
After a fun-filled day of outdoor adventures, we headed back to Prineville where we grabbed takeout pizza from the very tasty Crooked Roots Brewing.
Day 3: Bend to Home
On our last morning we said good-bye to our friend and headed off to Bend. Where it snowed. I guess that’s what happens in October in Central Oregon. We strolled around the quaint downtown area and stopped at Cravin’s Candy Emporium, much to the delight of our kids who were in awe of the amazing selection (plus we let them have some candy)! After fueling up on sugar, we headed for home. The 3.5-hour drive was a quick return trip, which felt just right.
Three-Day Adventure: Oregon-Washington Coast
Day 1: Portland to Willapa Bay, Washington
A good friend has a farmhouse along the Willapa River, near Raymond, Washington. On the 3-hour drive NW, we cut west at Longview and drove the gorgeous scenic route along Ocean Beach Highway, heading up the Columbia River and then north to Willapa Bay. I was amazed at how much there was to see and talk about with my family on this part of the drive.
- Solo and Coal Creek Sloughs: Being nature nerds, we honed in on the man-made duck tubes sticking out above the water of these wetlands. These are also great spots for fishing and paddling.
A few hours into the trip, we got stuck for twenty minutes at a construction stop, and of course that’s when everyone had to pee. With the camper van’s in-house toilet, potty time was a breeze! That afternoon we pulled into our friend’s sheep field and parked beside the Willapa River. As the kids explored the riverbank and befriended the sheep and llamas, we got lunch ready in the camper van. After lunch, we explored the farm, met the chickens and Nigerian Dwarf goats, and then enjoyed a socially-distanced campfire and hotdog roast at the outdoor firepit.
Day 2: Exploring Our Adventure Radius
The next morning we set out to explore our adventure radius. First we checked out the boats at Raymond Port Dock. The harbor manager gave us a fascinating historical rundown on the old boats there. Next we headed to the nearby riverside town of South Bend, where we strolled and window shopped. Being so close to the ocean, we definitely wanted to eat local seafood for lunch. We found Linda’s Fish & Chips, a fabulous food truck cooking up local catches! After lunch we visited another friend and the kids saw their first wild porcupine toddling through the yard. That night brought an inch of rain so we moved the camper van away from the river and up next to the farmhouse. It was useful to recharge by plugging into the house power! And nothing is better than being lulled to sleep by the sounds of a rainstorm on the roof.
Day 3: Astoria to Home
The next morning we headed back, again taking the coastal highway and checking out these sights along the way:
- Willapa National Wildlife Refuge: This beautiful area is full of great hiking, paddling, birding, and camping opportunities for families, both on the mainland and Long Island.
- Astoria, Oregon: this cool coastal town is located at the mouth of the great Columbia River, where it empties into the Pacific Ocean. As boaters in the area know, it’s home to one of the most dangerous river bar crossings on the planet, with waves that can exceed 40 feet! It is also the town where many movies were filmed, including The Goonies!
- Seaside, Oregon: Driving down the Oregon Coast is always awesome with the kids, and would never be complete without a stop at the beach. We stopped in Seaside for about an hour to play in the sand and dip our toes in the ocean before making our final leg east. Seaside also features a classic, old-fashioned beach boardwalk on Broadway Street, chock full of kid fun: a carousel, mini-golf, bumper cars, an enormous game room (with videogames, air hockey, games where you win tickets and can redeem for prizes), candy stores, goofy hat stores… the works! Kids love Seaside.
These 2.5 day trips really feed my soul. With the camper van, we can get away with relative ease and try something new—new sights, new experiences, new food, new adventure. I wasn’t prepared for just how rejuvenating it would be just to visit friends face-to face (or mask-to mask?). I brought a book on the trip, thinking I’d have lots of time to read, but in the end I didn’t even pull it out. There was so much to see, to observe, to talk about, to look up. Where to eat? Where to stop along the way? Scenic byways? Local shops? Local sights?
Staying on top of work, through the magic of emails and conference calls, actually allowed us to unplug more than we expected while on the road. And the times we had no reception? Priceless. Our kids got to run around with new friends (mostly sheep, dogs, horses, llamas, and more sheep). And these small taster-adventures—an hour here, an hour there—in entirely new environments like the high desert, river wetlands, and sandy beaches really fed their souls and resulted in huge smiles and lots of fun.
With so many amazing places for our family to explore within a 4-5 hour drive from home, I can’t wait to plan our next camper van adventure!
If you don’t have friends who are willing to let you camp on their property, here are some good resources to find awesome pubic camping spots:
Campendium: website/app with the skinny on campgrounds, RV parks and free campsites.
Reserve America: website to find and reserve spots at public and private campgrounds.