Here’s the thing about putting together a “Best of” list when you’re a parent in Portland: It is really, really tough — impossible, basically — to narrow things down. There are blue- ribbon candidates everywhere you look, from the best place to change a diaper downtown (the restrooms inside Nordstrom at Pioneer Square, of course) to the most kid-friendly amusement park around (Oaks Park, anyone?). In this, our second annual Best of Portland feature, we asked in-the-know local writers, parents all, to share their secrets, plus threw in a few of the editorial team’s picks for the places, spaces and faces that made us smile this year. Is it comprehensive? Nope. Not even close. (Even with our bonus picks online!) And that’s the joy of it — in this city, the next best thing is always out there, waiting for you and your kids to discover together.
— Julia Silverman.
Best Use of Photography
For kids with life-threatening illness or life-shattering circumstances, getting lost in the worlds of superheroes or princesses can help them through the dark periods. The nonprofit Capes & Crowns Foundation takes it one step further by giving kids battling tough times a chance to transform into their idols at a costume photo shoot. And it’s free for families. “I love that this is so much more than just a photo shoot,” says founder Kylie Cole. “During these shoots, everyone involved is invested and present. It really brings the family together. And it’s very rewarding to know that we can provide that opportunity.” Visit capesandcrowns.org to nominate a kid or make a donation. — Denise Castanon
Business is a family affair for PDX parents Darcy and Dustin Kochis. The couple decided on baby-led weaning when it came time to introduce solids to their son Jude, but they couldn’t find easy, on-the-go, whole-foods options. So they started Little Handfuls Organic Bites and work out of a kitchen space at Warehouse Caf on Southeast Milwaukie Boulevard. The nutrition-packed little rounds consist of whole grains, fruits or veggies, and plant-based proteins. They’re the perfect size for tiny hands and our kid tester declared the blackberry, date and oat flavor to be “delicious.” Darcy does the marketing, Dustin handles sales and Jude is the Chief Tasting Officer. And they recently welcomed a brand-new Tasting Officer, Scarlet Jane, into the family business. Find Little Handfuls at the Hollywood, Woodstock and Moreland farmers markets, or at Warehouse Cafe. — D.C.
Asha Dornfest has accomplished the impossible: Writing a parenting book that makes you feel like you’re already doing a good job. Her playful, new book Parent Hacks: 134 Genius Shortcuts for Life with Kids is based on her Parent Hacks blog, where she’s been championing the genius moments of parents since 2005. Dornfest, who lives in Northeast Portland, believes that community support rather than “expertise” is the strongest bond in parenting. Her own kids are in middle school and high school now, so she can talk to us from the future: “It’s great over here!” she says. “We realize that there’s time and opportunity to make a different choice.”
— Evelyn Shoop
Best Librarian who tells it like it is
One of the parents in the audience at Cathy Camper’s children’s book workshop at Portland’s Wordstock Festival last year raised her hand and wanted to know what she should do about her son, who only wanted to read graphic novels, instead of “real books.” Camper — a Multnomah County librarian, self-described anarchist and author of Lowriders in Space, a graphic novel published by Chronicle Books — looked levelly at the woman and answered: “Nothing.” For our money, she’s bang on: Who cares what they are reading, so long as they’re reading? And given that the graphic novel craze is in full swing, may we suggest starting with Camper’s books? Her latest, Lowriders to the Center of the Earth, came out this spring, and you can watch for her upcoming picture book, Ten Ways to Hear Snow. What’s great about Camper is that she’s writing about kids who don’t usually see themselves in literature, drawing on her own background as an Arab American. As she puts it in a recent interview with the Book Doctor bloggers: “Way too many (books about kids of color) were dire historical stories about slavery or hard times — where are the books about kids of color building forts, playing make believe, just doing things that kids do?”
The very word “tennis” conjures up the poshness of Wimbledon, strawberries and cream, and the royals applauding politely from the stands. Enter the great folks at Kids N’ Tennis, the program that’s been teaching tennis to underserved kids in Northeast Portland for nearly 30 years. More than 2,000 kids have attended free summer camps programs at Irving Park and learned how to serve, volley, rally and smash a backhand. Coach Don Johnson has been at the program’s helm from the beginning, and has watched it expand to locations around the city. Graduates of the program have gone on to earn tennis scholarships from great schools, including Brown University, MIT and the University of Oregon. — J.S.
Unless you’ve been living under a very non-musical rock, you’ve likely heard about or experienced a Music Together class. Music Together teacher Bridgit Jacobsen, who holds classes in Southeast and Northeast Portland, is gentle, kind and encouraging, ensuring that both kiddos and parents feel welcome and excited to be there. And for the musically challenged parents out there, Jacobsen makes the act of dancing in a circle while singing children’s songs with initial strangers actually enjoyable. Bless her heart. — Shawnna Thompson
Best Party Attraction
“I heard there will be a … pony?” asked a young birthday-party guest. This exchange was not taking place at a farm, but at a 1940s-era bungalow in a close-in Portland neighborhood. Sure enough, moments later, to the guests’ (and neighbors’) surprise, a saddled shetland pony came ambling down the sidewalk, up the driveway, and into the small backyard, ready to give rides in exchange for carrots and maybe a brush or two. The cost? Just $150. Katie Locke of Aurora-based Wish Upon a Pony keeps a fleet of 25 ponies ready to deploy for just about any occasion you can imagine. Apartment dweller? Wish Upon a Pony still has you covered with a soon-to-be-open location in Keizer for on-site visits by appointment. Check wishuponapony.com for updates and fun information about the ponies themselves. — Kat Merck
Longtime Portland Farmers’ Market devotees might remember the first iteration of Lisa Herlinger’s Ruby Jewel Ice Cream — a small cart, topped by a hula-skirt-fringed pink umbrella, selling dangerously tasty, locally made ice cream sandwiches for $3 a pop. Fast forward 10 years, and Herlinger’s sitting on top of an ice-cream empire. Ruby Jewel’s sandwiches are available in grocery stores up and down the West Coast. Herlinger’s new goals include conquering the freezer aisles in the rest of the country, sourcing cool flavors (double chocolate cookie with peanut butter, anyone?) and spending as much time as possible with her 3-year-old, Reiter. (Psst: For where to find Ruby Jewel, and other summer-ready scoop shops, check out our handy map. — J.S.
Bring the magic of Salt & Straw home with their ideas for some sweet toppings: pdxparent.com/salt straw ice cream toppings.
Best Elevation, Kid-edition
It’s only 1.5 miles to the summit, we told ourselves. Just over 1,000 feet. We could hack it! So we started up Chinidere Mountain, in the Mount Hood Wilderness area, with our almost-but-not-quite-yet-5-year-old twins in tow. I’m here to tell you that we earned those 1,000 feet, every step of the way. To distract our kids from the elevation gain, we kept up a steady stream of jokes, songs, and regular snack breaks. We had to carry them the last tenth of a mile or so, up some rocky scree, but oh, the view from the top — 360 degrees, from Mount Rainier in the north to Mount Jefferson in the south, with inviting Wahtum Lake down below. Pro tip: The trailhead descends a steep, 250-steep staircase before hitting Wahtum Lake and the turnoff to the mountain. Don’t forget to save some energy to go up again on your way out. — J.S.
Best Close-in Rural Fishing Experience
It’s 9 am, and the fish are biting. We know this, because we’re pulling them up by the handful — finger-sized rainbow trout, their suckerlike mouths attached to the end of a worm we cast out with my son’s Kid Casters pole. Geese honking and the rustling of dry grass are the only other sounds in this idyll so tranquil and remote-seeming it’s hard to believe we’re still within driving distance of a large city. It’s Haldeman Pond on northern Sauvie Island, a 2-acre fishing destination stocked with trout, crappie, bass and catfish, oftentimes so numerous they can be seen leaping out of the water. Haldeman is open April 16 through Sept. 30 and the route can get muddy when it rains, so don’t attempt it unless you’re sure your vehicle has proper ground clearance. (Parking permit required; $10 per day or $30 per year.) — K.M.
Rising above the headwaters of Johnson Creek and built on an extinct cinder cone volcano, Powell Butte offers breathtaking views of several area peaks. The Mountain View trail is a 1.2-mile in-and-out paved switchback with 200 feet of elevation gain that includes a picnic area and orchard at the summit, plus a circular mountain finder. The wildlife that populates the park — including rabbits, pheasants, chipmunks and deer — make for an entertaining be-on-the-lookout biology lesson. Pro tip: There are clean restrooms and water fountains at the parking lot, but you’ll have to pack your own soap. And don’t skimp on hats or sun block even if it’s cloudy; there isn’t much in the way of shade on the trail, and it’s often wonderfully sunny at the summit. — Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
We all love the Eastbank Esplanade but it’s not really the place to take your kids on a sunny Sunday afternoon, unless you enjoy getting barked at by a crew of hardcore cyclists. Instead, hit up the Banks-Vernonia rails-to-trail, starting from the Manning trailhead about half-an-hour west of Portland on highway 26 and heading into the leafy confines of L.L. Stub Stewart State Park. The grade is ever-so-gently uphill on the way there and a breezy downhill on the way back (or plan a car shuttle) and there are plenty of good places to stop along the way, including at the piece-de-resistance, the old train trestle at Buxton, where kids will be thrilled to bike at the treeline. — J.S.
Best First Backpacking spot
So, you’re ready to venture into the backcountry with your backpack, your tent and your kids. May we suggest the Lewis River trail, in the underrated Gifford Pinchot National Forest, on the Washington side of the Columbia River? An easy hour-and-a -half drive from Portland will get you to the trailhead off Curly Creek Road. From there, hike along the river (with plenty of spots to let the kids get their feet wet and skip stones) until you get to the campsite options, at a little over 2 miles in. There you’ll find a sweet swimming hole complete with a makeshift rope swing — perfect for setting up camp and cooling off. Pro tip: For more great family backpack trips, try the Portland edition of our favorite guidebook, One Night Wilderness, by Douglas Lorain. — J.S.
Best for Chutes and Ladders AND Cards Against Humanity
I couldn’t wait for my kids to be old enough to play board games. (I’m all thumbs at craft projects, and pretend play has its limits — how many times can you say “Yum!” when your child hands you a wooden-toy pork chop?) And now that they are of age, our favorite haunt is the tucked-to-one-side game room at Cloud Cap Games in Sellwood. My son and I have holed up there for happy hours for marathon games of Stratego and Catan Jr.; for the preschool set, there’s Chutes and Ladders, Candyland and plenty of cooperative games on hand. Pro tip: The first Saturday of every month is “Dames and Games” ladies night for just $3 a person, with beer and wine available for purchase. 1226 SE Lexington St., cloudcapgames.com. — J.S.
On-the-go snacking with little ones can often result in empty pouch packets in the back pocket of your jeans and Cheerio dust at the bottom of the car seat. But if you’re lucky and find yourself near one of Moberi’s three Portland locations (on NW 23rd, N. Mississippi Ave., and down at Portland State University), you can instead treat yourself and your little one to a healthy acai bowl or smoothie. Each menu option is made with local produce and superfoods to please both your picky little eater and your parenting conscience. If a smoothie is your snack of choice, you have the option of pedaling the bike-powered blender yourself — built-in entertainment for your (perhaps) impatient little one. And best of all? You can jam-pack your kiddo’s smoothie with an undetected serving of greens and they won’t suspect a thing. — S.T.
Best place to be a BOMBSHELL
Let’s face it: Short of the lady-testants on The Bachelor, no one really likes shopping for a swimsuit. That said, the folks at Popina make it as pleasant an experience as possible. Popina’s two locations have a breezy, tropical vibe even on a gloomy January day, and they stock an amazing assortment of suits, from workhorse Speedos to dynamite, retro halters that recall the pin-up girls of the 1940s, created by Portland-based owner Pamela Levenson. (Plus cover-ups, flip-flops, sunscreen and various floaty toys perfect for a river trip.) Best of all, they’ve got a smartly selected kids section and a play area where the kids can hang out while you figure out what suits you. 318 NW 11th and 2030 NE 42nd Ave., popinaswimwear.com. — J.S.
Best place to get vertical
If you’ve driven past the tall building on East Burnside with large-window views of climbers and thought about giving it a try, the nearly 30-year-old Portland Rock Gym is definitely worth a visit — especially after a multi-million dollar expansion into its old parking lot in 2015. It’s home to 40-foot route-packed walls, sure, but there’s also a 24-foot beginner climbing room. There’s even the deliciously healthy Prasad East upstairs, which includes a kids’ menu (think ants on a log) and adult beverages (wines, beers and ciders). Gym owner Gary Rall is a huge proponent of teaching kids to climb, with an official team for kids 9 and up and camps, after-school programs and parties. 21 NE 12th Ave. — E.A.M.
Best New Family-Friendly Restaurant
For a restaurant that doesn’t induce out-to-eat-with-kids dining anxiety, try Arbor Lodge’s newest gem, The Coop. This family-owned and family-friendly eatery, which opened its doors in October 2015, offers seriously delicious rotisserie meats and all-star sandwiches, alongside local beer, wine and specialty cocktails. The staff is super friendly, the atmosphere is casual, and the outdoor space is killer. You can kick back with a beer on the patio while your little ones play backyard games in the grass … a perfect setting while you wait (im)patiently for your fried chicken, and mac and cheese. 6214 N Interstate Ave. — S.T.