Our annual car show trip (Buick Nationals this time) took us to Portland this year. Having been to Seattle and northern California, I was prepared for the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest and was looking forward to exploring more of it. However, nothing compares to the real sights, and I have to admit, these were the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. Let me start in the beginning, with the city of Roses. This is what Portland is so lovingly called for the variety of gardens in town. The best known gardens are in the Washington park, which you’ll hear more about further down in the story. On our first day in Portland, we decided to visit the Chinese garden. My encyclopedia-loving child, however, found an interesting spot located “within 10 minutes” from the Chinese garden – the smallest park in the world. Do you think this is something curious little kids could possibly miss being within such a vicinity to such an anomaly from the Guinness book of Records in the middle of town? We set off to find the smallest park in the world (Mill Ends Park), and while on our hunt, got a little taste of downtown Portland with its early century architecture, variety of ethnic food carts (big diversity in food here), rolling streetcars, and a unique way of street naming (alphabetical order).
Long story short, we walked for 30 minutes, in perhaps not the safest part of town in the afternoon, never finding the little plant that was most probably the smallest park in the world. The serene beauty of the Chinese garden was a nice respite from the urban bustle and a long walk. A combination of Chinese architecture, beautiful plants and fluid structure of the garden makes it a true city oasis. Little girls (and moms too!) will definitely enjoy tea time here, a nice ending to the garden visit.
Of course, I have to mention the car show – this year Portland was chosen for the Buick Club of America’s 2014 meet. Here’s a shot of the 50’s era Buicks.
Since we only had 3 days in Portland, we decided to spend the remaining two on the two best attractions in the area – Columbia River Gorge and Washington Park.
Columbia River Gorge
I think everyone visiting Portland absolutely must see this stunning sight of natural beauty. Just thinking about it now makes me exhale. We originally planned more than this for the day, but knowing how much you can see and do, I would plan this for the entire day, especially since kids will love the Fish Hatchery at the end. Start by getting onto US-30 – the scenic drive taking you up to the peaks and along the gorgeous Columbia river that floats east all the way from the Pacific ocean. The first stop we made was the Portland Women’s Forum state scenic viewpoint. The Forum was active in preserving the natural beauty of the Gorge, and there are so many beautiful views all around from here. This was simply on the way to our next destination – the Vista House – but I would highly recommend planning this stop.
There is a reason the women of Portland back in 1962 dedicated this overlook to the Oregon parks. It provides a stunning view on the Columbia river and surrounding hills and forestry, as well as a view of the Vista house. This is the most scenic family picture you will take and no tourist ever refuses that.
Continue on US-30 up to the Vista House at Crown Point in Corbett, just a few minutes away. The Vista House was also a favorite stop of the women of Portland, a “comfort station” on the scenic route for rest and relaxation, it’s now a memorial to Oregon Pioneers.
The views from the octagonal building are amazing, encompassing the river, the trees and mountains. No wonder, since it’s 700 feet above the Columbia river. This observatory (dedicated in 1918) was meant to offer views up and down the river. The views inside are also pretty with the glass mozaic and high ceilings.
The Vista house has a few levels – go to the top for the top view and the bottom for the small period museum and gift shop. This is also a good place to get some coffee and a snack and there are plenty of bathrooms.
From the Vista House, the route takes you to many of the waterfalls along the way – the main attraction of this area. Some of them smaller than others and closer to the road, while others are more of a hike and more densely visited (as in Multnomah waterfall, the biggest but also the hardest to park at due to lots of visitors). Make sure you pick up a map of the waterfalls at the Vista House – even though it’s hard to miss any waterfalls along the way, it’s nice to know where they are to plan your stops. We stopped at 3 waterfalls along the way – a realistic amount, considering our 5 and 7-year old kids were able to take a small hike but that was probably their limit. If your kids are older or you’re traveling solo, visit as many waterfalls as you can – each one is different and worth a stop. The first one was stopped at was Latourell Falls, the first taste of the beauty of this scenic waterfall region and right off the road.
The next one we visited (about 5 miles from the Vista House) was the Bridal Veil waterfall, possibly the most scenic nature sight I’ve ever witnessed. Perhaps, this was because it was about a half mile hike to it along the dirt forest trail, so it was a nice pay-off in the end. The rocky path was a little challenging for the little ones but there were benches along the way and the view at the end was absolutely breathtaking.
Walking for about half a mile in the middle of the forest with the sound of rushing water getting closer and closer felt like a cleansing breath, so quiet and peaceful. The pictures simply don’t do it justice.
Our final waterfall was Horsetail Falls – about 11 miles from the Vista House. This one was an easy “park and walk a few steps” stop.
There are two levels to this magnificent waterfall and the lower portion down the steps is right on the water, so kids will definitely enjoy splashing around on the rocks.
I’m not surprised two of the waterfalls we visited had unusual names – as you can guess the kids picked those and they made great choices! Some of the waterfalls are closer to the parking area – Shepperd’s Dell, Latourell – while some are a longer hike – Oneonta, Elowah and Bridal Veil Falls. Whichever waterfalls you pick along the Columbia River Gorge, you can’t go wrong, this is nature at it’s best.
Bonneville Dam & Fish Hatchery
If you started your journey in the morning, once you go past Multnomah falls, you may get hungry. There is a nice restaurant at Multnomah but it is crowded and often a long wait. Instead, we went a little further to a local favorite – Char Burger. It’s a self-order style restaurant with a big variety on the menu, interesting decor, a sweets shop and stunning views from every table. This is a welcome stop after all the hiking before.
Nearby Bridge of the Gods is a perfect ending to the lunch. The bridge actually connects Oregon and Washington. However, we were not ready to make our way back, since we had one more stop.
Bonneville Lock and Dam was our next stop and it was actually recommended by a local Oregonian. I was skeptical about my little kids having the patience for it but it turned out their favorite part of the day. Take a moment to look at the locks – this is a historic landmark dedicated by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937. This powerful structure provides the power needs for 500,000 homes in the area. On the Oregon side of the Dam, you’ll see the Bonneville Fish Hatchery.
There is a lot to do here and the kids will definitely enjoy this part. Our first stop was by the salmon open tanks where you can actually feed the fish. For a mere quarter, you can get a handful of fish food and throw it into the water for the lively salmon – you will hear gasps and giggles all along.
There is a lot to learn here and it’s all free (except for the quarter if you want to feed the fish). There is an educational building where kids can learn how the process works and you can see the tanks that hold the eggs in the beginning. Kids can watch some educational videos and look at the process behind the glass.
The views from the Bonneville Hatchery are absolutely stunning, it’s actually a very quiet and relaxing place.
Kids will also enjoy the fish tanks with some surprisingly large sturgeon. You can see the fish both from the outside and indoors for a better view behind the glass.
There is a coffee shop here, so it’s a nice stop before heading back to Portland. Word of caution – traffic gets bad on I-5 after 3.30 in the afternoon, so you may want to plan your trip accordingly.
This large park in the middle of Portland is home to a lot of natural beauty and plenty of entertainment for the kids. You can easily spend more than a day here. The park is large – over 150 acres. Some of the highlights here are the Portland Japanese garden proclaimed the most authentic Japanese garden outside of Japan, the International Rose Garden where many rose varieties are tested, Hoyt Arboretum, the Oregon Zoo, World Forestry Center, Children’s Museum, Lewis & Clark Memorial, the Children’s Park with an amazing Playground (largest play structure in Portland), and much more. You can easily move around these sections with a free shuttle – just park your car at your final destination and then take the shuttle between the points of interest you’d like to visit. As I mentioned, Washington Park is the largest park in Portland but a number of its attractions are located closely together. One such cluster is Japanese garden, Rose Garden and the Children’s Playground. The other one is Oregon Zoo, Forestry Center and the Children’s Museum. Since we live in the vicinity of the Chicago Botanic Garden and have frequently visited its own Rose garden and Japanese garden, we decided to spend our remaining day in Portland at the Zoo and Children’s museum.
This is a good size zoo, so you’ll have to do a lot of walking but not so far that it’s unmanageable for the kids. While we were there, a number of areas were under construction but we wouldn’t have had the energy for all of it and I always go with the flow – if the kids have had enough and are ready for a new adventure, we move on. I really liked that there were educational stops all along the zoo where you could learn about the animals. Make sure you pick up a zoo adventure set with your own key, so you explore the stops around the zoo and listen in for more info.
One of the highlights at the Oregon Zoo were seeing the bears play – we were lucky to be there for that moment.
Polar bear was basking in the sun and that was fun to watch.
We spent a lot of time in the Northwest territory and enjoyed seeing the birds of the area while walking through the forest.
The little farm was a nice area for kids to pet farm animals and meet some of the unique breeds.
The underwater areas with penguins and seals were terrific too.
Right across the parking lot, there is the Children’s Museum. Many of the features are similar to the children’s museums we’ve seen around the country but it is really nicely planned and a great way to cool off in the summer after a hot morning at the zoo. The cafe at the museum is excellent – the best salad I’ve had in a long time! The area my kids liked best was the little theater. Not only it’s a fun stage with special effects but also costumes, real seating area for adoring parents, and murals.
Here are a few of our other favorites.
Practicing your dentistry
Water play area at the museum was very impressive with 4 different water play sections.
Grocery store – a usual at children’s museums but this one was wisely connected to a pretend restaurant, so you could see the process from store to table.
Pet shop was a fun area with a lot of interactive play and plenty of space for everyone.
House building and the climbing area. This was a nice connection between building a house, seeing lumber and then having a tree climbing area next to it.
Another stand-out at the Portland’s Children’s Museum is the outdoor area – it includes the trail, a scenic overlook and a toddler sand play area.
One final note, while in town, don’t forget to sample the delicious food – whether it be the famous Voodoo Doughnuts, ethnic cuisine Portland is so well known for, or the seafood along the amazing water views.