Visitor Center/Museum

Columbia River Maritime Museum

A Good Gray Columbia River Maritime Museum

What: Columbia River Maritime Museum
Where: 1792 Marine Drive, Astoria

When: Daily 9:30 am to 5:00 pm
Why: It offers hours of history and activities for your whole family
Cost: Kids 5 and under FREE, Kids ages 6 and over $5, Adults $14, Seniors $12

This summer my in-laws treated us all to a visit to the Columbia River Maritime Museum right on the riverfront of charming Astoria, Oregon. I knew it’d have boats and history, but it seriously exceeded my expectations! We easily spent over 2 hours here, discovering and learning.

The main focus of the museum is the history of the Columbia River as well as general maritime information. I was also fascinated by the information on the Coast Guard, weather systems, and the many, many shipwrecks on the Columbia sandbar. The displays are large and creative–and usually to scale–and they’ve created exhibits with every age in mind. Adults can find plenty of information while kids crawl through certain displays, captain their own ship, and even give a weather report with a green screen.

Museum admission includes a tour of the lightship Columbia. It was decommissioned in 1979, and now sits docked behind the building. Walking (and stumbling!) through it gives you a real taste of ship life.

For an extra $5 each we also watched their 3-D movie “Hurricane 3D,” which I found interesting but not earth-shattering (although I did have a wiggly 2-year-old on my lap).

While you’re in Astoria, you can also check out the Astoria Column (and throw a toy plane from the top!), drive by the Goonie’s House, or ride the Astoria Riverfront Trolley. Sometimes I get snooty because Astoria isn’t on the ocean, but really, it’s a delightful place to visit.

Mount St. Helens Visitor Centers

Mount St. Helens Visitor Centers A Good Gray

On a clear, cloudless day, we can see Mount St. Helens from the Portland area. The 1980 eruption greatly diminished the peak, but it’s still a mighty member of the Cascade Range. And oh man, does it have stories to tell.

If you want to give your kids a healthy respect for Mother Nature, take them to one of three operating visitor centers for this volcanic neighbor:

  1. Johnston Ridge Observatory: This center is at the end of highway 504, with an incredible view of St. Helens. There are several interactive exhibits (many kid-friendly) and a large theater with shows impactful enough to leave my sensitive 4-year-old in horrified tears. True story. There are also outdoor trails and an amphitheater used for a cool Music on the Mountain series in the summer. (Open mid-May to October, admission is FREE for kids under 15, $8 for adults).
  2. Forest Learning Center: This location is within the 1980 blast zone, and is provided by Weyerhaeuser Company. It includes extensive information on the eruption and the recovery of the forests and animal life, and includes kids exhibits. There’s also a FREE eruption movie and an exterior playground. (Open end of May to October, FREE admission)
  3. Mt. St. Helens Visitor Center at Silver Lake: Located at mile 5 on Highway 504, it’s the original Visitor Center built in 1993 and the gateway to the mountain. It’s farthest from St. Helens and a bit dated, but it’s closest to I-5 and includes a movie and a scenic walking trail along the lake. (Open year-round, admission is FREE for kids under 6, $2.50 for kids 7-17, $5 for adults, or $15 per family).

Sadly the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center, just 8 miles from the crater and a powerful memory for me as a kid, closed in 2007 due to budget restrictions. Boo!


Portland’s Best Passes and Memberships for Families

We use Christmas money every year to buy a family membership somewhere around town. It’s exciting to pick where we’ll spend our free time in the new year.

Want to know why we love passes? (Of course you do!):
– It saves us money after just a few uses. (Case in point: one visit to the Oregon Zoo for an average family of 5=$48.50, membership for a household=$114.00. Go more than 2.5 times on the pass and it’s worth it. Boom.)
– The investment helps motivate us to get out and enjoy an outing with our family regularly. I hate to waste dinero, so we make that pass count and have fun doing it.
– Membership takes off the pressure to “see the whole place.” We can go for a short visit without the guilt.
– Passes usually include discounts to on-site shops, special extended hours, or other perks.
A Good Gray: Portland's Best Passes and Memberships for Families
We’ve stuck to the Oregon Zoo membership so far, but we’re ready to try something new. I’ve been researching some of the best annual passes around, and here’s what I’ve found:

EVERGREEN AVIATION AND SPACE MUSEUM* (McMinnville, $125-150/family): This museum ain’t close but apparently it’s amazing. It has tons of information on air history, from airplanes (including the real Spruce Goose!) to space travel, and also a kid zone, playground, and carousel. Pass offers discounts for water park and IMAX theater. **A smart friend just told me that this pass is part of a reciprocal passport program that can get you into dozens of other museums across the country.

OREGON MUSEUM OF SCIENCE AND INDUSTRY (OMSI) (Portland, $105-$135/family): This big ol’ museum is hands on and full of scientific fun for all ages (there is even a baby/toddler area for little ones). Around May there’s an OMSI Groupon for a highly-discounted membership deal (in 2015 it was 46% off!). **A smart friend just told me that this pass is part of a reciprocal passport program that can get you into dozens of other museums across the country.

OREGON PACIFIC COAST PASSPORT ($35/vehicle): This annual vehicle passport will get you free day passes into various popular coastal parks, including Fort Stevens, Cape Lookout, and Sand Lake.

OREGON ZOO* (Portland, $114/family): With a wide variety of animals in a variety of settings, it’s hard not to find something to love here. There is also a train, summer concerts, Zoo Lights, and new renovations (we were fascinated by the new Elephant Lands). This pass can also get you into 120 other zoos across the country.

PORTLAND ART MUSEUM (Portland, $95/couple, children always FREE): If you’re a family of art lovers—or you’re trying to become one—head to the art museum for extensive exhibits in a variety of art forms.

PORTLAND CHILDREN’S MUSEUM (Portland, $80/2 people, $25/each additional person): If you have small children, this museum offers hours of entertainment and discovery. They provide hands-on play both indoors and out, and our kids love this place.

RICE NORTHWEST MUSEUM OF ROCKS AND MINERALS* (Hillsboro, $90/family): This small museum is full of a world-class collection of fine rocks and minerals, as well as fossils, meteorites, and gemstones.

WASHINGTON COUNTY MUSEUM* (Hillsboro, $100/person+3 guests): This is a small and simple museum featuring local history and is best for older children.

WORLD FORESTRY CENTER* (Portland, $50/person+5 guests): We found this discovery museum to be interesting but also best for older children. They have rotating art exhibits throughout the year as part of the museum.

*One cool advantage of these starred venues? If you buy a pass to one of 8 participating attractions, you can get into the other 7 for FREE during different months throughout the year. Here’s the schedule for 2016:
January – Oregon Zoo
February – World Forestry Center
March – Oregon Historical Society
April – Lan Su Chinese Garden
June – Rice Northwest Museum of Rocks and Minerals
September – Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum
October – Washington County Museum
December – Historic Deepwood Estate