Please help us have a great family vacation!
September 24, 2016 11:53 AM   Subscribe

We're planning to visit far-flung family with our young toddler: where should we go, and what do we need to know? Phoenix, AZ and Portland, OR areas.

In November, we're going leave the Midwest for a couple of rather different climates! I feel like we have a very solid grip on how to prepare/dress for adventures in our homeland, and no clue about how to take care of the little one abroad (and the young adult sibs we're visiting won't either). She's a very agreeable baby though and has thus far traveled well; I just don't want her to get dehydrated or something else silly and preventable because it didn't occur to us that there was any risk. So, main questions: what don't I know about the desert and/or PNW that could harm my active, inquisitive baby? What should we bring (or send ahead -- Amazon Prime is wonderful) to stay safe and reasonably comfortable?

Related secondary question: what should we do with ourselves!? We like nature and being active outdoors (though not so much heights), really want to see dark-sky desert stars (with or without telescope), enjoy tasty food, can't drink much alcohol, don't like shopping or socializing, will have access to a car in both places, are happy to navigate decent public transportation but don't want to deal with the crappy variety (we don't use a stroller so that's not a concern, just please no hours of waiting for a bus that might not ever arrive), and enjoy unique museums/zoos. In both cases, we'll be staying outside the city proper anyway (specially, El Mirage, AZ and Bend, OR), so don't hesitate to suggest daytrip-type options. The baby will be seventeen months old and likes books, balls, climbing, water, most animals, being outside, and exploring. She doesn't get any screentime normally but we'd make an exception for something neat we'd all enjoy. She, like the rest of us, generally tolerates other humans as long as they don't get too close.
posted by teremala to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
That's going to be a really fun trip! For Portland I'd suggest definitely going to Powell's Books. It's a giant three or four-story bookstore with everything you can possibly imagine. And take a day trip to Cannon Beach. It has those beautiful giant PNW rocks sticking up out of the water, as seen in movies like The Goonies. Speaking of The Goonies, there's also a cool (from what I've heard, it was closed on the day we tried to go) Oregon Film Museum in Astoria which isn't too far from Cannon Beach.

As far as dark sky parks, I couldn't recommend Natural Bridges in UT enough. My partner and I went camping there during a road trip through the SW last August, and there also happened to be a meteor shower the same night. Honestly one of the most magical nights of my life. It might be quite the drive from where you're staying in AZ, but if you camp there it'd totally be worth it. Best of luck!
posted by LonelyOnes at 12:28 PM on September 24, 2016

Some suggestions for your secondary question: in the Phoenix area, definitely hit the Desert Botanical Garden. It's a lovely place, and it's a really good way to see a lot of plants that are quite different from the usual Midwestern varieties. If you're willing to drive for a bit, head to Tucson and check out the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

In Oregon, the Willamette National Forest is lovely to drive through (and hike, I suppose, though we didn't do much of that when we visited). We took our toddler to the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport and he enjoyed it. I think he actually enjoyed just being down near the ocean more; I don't remember for sure but I think it was near Winchester Bay. Possibly around the Umpqua Lighthouse State Park?
posted by Janta at 12:33 PM on September 24, 2016

Bend is a fair bit from Portland (or Cannon Beach for that matter). In November, you have a good chance of snow in Bend (Mt Bachelor ski area is right outside of Bend) -- you might want to google average temps for the area in November. There is a lot of good hiking in and around Bend -- check out the Oregon Hiker's Field Guide. If you go a little east of Bend, you will be in the Oregon High Desert where you should find some good dark skies. Apparently there is an Oregon Observatory in Sunriver, OR which is very close to Bend. The Lava River Cave is a very interesting place -- I did it over Memorial Day weekend and it was pretty chilly. Finally, I would recommend the High Desert Museum. Have a great trip!
posted by elmay at 12:58 PM on September 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

We'll be flying into and out of PDX and staying at least one night in Portland, so it's not quite as out of the way as it may seem!
posted by teremala at 1:07 PM on September 24, 2016

Phoenix has a Children's Museum and the Phoenix Zoo. I LOVED the science center when I was a kid, too. You'll be close to Litchfield Park, which also has a zoo/aquarium.

November weather in the valley is pretty awesome- it'll feel like late spring/early summer to you Midwesterners, so no need to dress too warmly.

Phoenix isn't exactly known for its night skies due to all the light pollution, but apparently Gilbert has an observatory open to the public.
posted by mollywas at 1:34 PM on September 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Can not speak highly enough about the Desert Botanical Garden. If you guys are at all musically inclined, the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix really is worth the price of admission. Also the public library is nice and fun and there are kid-friendly spots there.
posted by jessamyn at 4:04 PM on September 24, 2016

Phoenix has two of my favorite vegan restaurants next door to one another: Green (great vegan big mac, among other things) and Nami (OMG, BEST SOFT SERVE).
posted by Gymnopedist at 4:08 PM on September 24, 2016

Midwesterner married to an Arizonian here.

Phoenix is great. It's not that dangerous. Don't let her grab any cactus. There's a reason they call jumping cactus "jumping cactus." (If you have one of those keychain penknives that have tweezers, you might appreciate it.) Never let the kid walk barefoot - there are goatheads and shed cactus spines everywhere, even if you don't think you see them. Don't let her eat oleander.

You didn't say - are you going to do any hiking? If so, watch out for scorpions and rattle snakes, even in the city. Don't stick any fingers where you can't see them - that means both holes in the ground, and if climbing over rocks, make sure you can see where you're putting your hand. The big thing I keep forgetting, being midwestern, is that ALL bees are a sign to get out of the area, immediately. You can't tell killer bees from not killer bees and killer bees are common.

The easiest hike in Phoenix with a little kid is Hole in the Rock, in Papago, by the zoo. It's not very high and it doesn't involve very much scrambling unless you want to, although you can feel like you're sort of dangling over the edge once you get to the hole - I'd watch the baby really well around there. We saw a ton of friendly wildlife there, including one bee. There are picnic tables, bathrooms, easy parking, and the option to do longer trails if you like. I haven't taken my kid on the other trails yet because of a combination of short legs + big scrambles + edges.

My Arizona grandmother said never go hiking without a gun and a dog, but you can interpret that to be "don't be stupid, there are weird people on trails." My in-laws think it's perfectly good advice. I take water and never go alone. I have had more scary interactions on trails around Phoenix than I have anywhere else, but nothing really bad ever happened.

In my experience, the most dangerous thing in Phoenix are all the unfenced backyard swimming pools.

I'd recommend good sunscreen, maybe a sun shirt, a sun hat, and sunglasses, but we might be more pale / toadbelly from lack of sun than you. Sunburn sneaks up on me in Arizona.

Constantly carry water. The tricky thing about Phoenix is how slowly you dry out without noticing how thirsty you get. Also, Phoenix water tastes horrible (and I have tolerance for bad tasting water) so this is the one time I'd recommend bottled water over bringing a metal bottle.

if you have any tendency to dry skin, bring a really thick skin lotion. Aveeno baby isn't going to cut it.

It gets cold at night, even if it were hot during the day. Definitely pack long pants and jacket for any after-dark activities.

Jet lag is going to kick. your. butt. Just roll with it and be patient.
posted by arabelladragon at 6:23 AM on September 25, 2016

Bend is on the dry side of the Cascade mountains at about 5,000 feet elevation, so it's nowhere near as waterlogged as Portland. Dress for Winter!

Stop for lunch at Timberline Lodge on the drive from Portland to Bend.

Check out the High Desert Museum just outside Bend. They have otters and other cute animals for the kid.
posted by monotreme at 11:06 AM on September 25, 2016

As far as Arizona, what arabelladragon said. Steer very clear of cactus, especially the jumping cholla variety, and be on the lookout for scorpions/snakes/spiders. I forgot about bees, but that's a good call too.

If you end up heading down to Tucson (definitely doable for a day trip), I'd suggest:
* The Desert Museum (as suggested by Janta above)
* The Reid Park Zoo
* Sabino Canyon for a family-friendly hike/stroll (here for info, here for more impressive images)
* Cafe Poca Cosa for delicious food (make reservations)
* Maybe Kitt Peak for stargazing?

Two recommendations for if you go back when your kid is older:
* Old Tucson (kitschy but fun for probably K-8ish)
* Saguaro National Park (probably not a great option with an inquisitive toddler)

Have fun!
posted by bananacabana at 7:36 PM on September 25, 2016

Jumping cactus spines, undrinkable water, and killer bees, yikes! That's exactly the sort of thing I needed to be told about, thank you. I'm generally one of those barefoot minimalist types and the little one doesn't even have actual shoes, just soft booties, so clearly that's something we'll need to correct, as well as paying attention to her water intake since right now at least she only asks for it when she sees us having some, rather than spontaneously because of her own thirst. However, she is still partially breastfed, so hopefully that helps (and doesn't mean that I just die instead).

In addition to your excellent suggestions, it looks like the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association is having a star party with telescopes during our time in AZ, so I'll plan to check that out too as long nobody tells me the nighttime drive back will be super-hazardous for some reason.

I'd totally been failing to account for the mountain range in thinking about Bend. All I really know is that the sibling who moved out there posts gorgeous nature photos. Winter gear we can definitely do. Surely still early winter though and not full-on Arctic Blast, or? (I grew up in northern WI and MI's Upper Peninsula, so my winter settings are skewed toward drastic.)

Thank you all for your answers so far. We've had a really rough year+ and are very much looking forward to some new adventures.
posted by teremala at 8:21 PM on September 25, 2016

We've been in Phoenix for a couple of days now and we really really can't take any more of the endless driving. Certainly not 2+ hours both ways to Tucson after so many equivalents. Is there anything actually close (in normal-people terms! like, legitimately less than half an hour each way, not just if you could fly there in a straight line without any traffic?) to El Mirage that would be worth doing tomorrow? We seriously can't strap the kid (or ourselves, honestly) in for yet another massive car ride.
posted by teremala at 10:04 PM on November 11, 2016

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