We Portlanders are spoiled by our local museums — there are so many great ones within city limits.
Perhaps that explains why it has taken our family so long to make the short jaunt to Hillsboro to check out the Rice Northwest Museum of Rocks and Minerals. My 8, 6 and 4-year-olds wish we hadn’t waited so long, and are already clamoring for a return trip. (Seriously. It’s daily. We’ll go back. I promise.)
When you first arrive at the museum, you may feel like you accidentally stumbled upon the set for The Brady Bunch. Don’t worry: The totally retro ranch house in front of you really is the museum. What began as the Rice family’s private home and collection eventually expanded into the museum it is today. (You’ll even notice a pink bathtub in one of the bathrooms.)
But the vintage exterior belies the truly jaw-dropping collection of rocks, minerals and fossils inside. First, of course, the fossils. We saw actual fossilized dinosaurs, prehistoric marine life, and, yes kids, dinosaur poop. The highlight was a perfectly preserved nest full of fossilized dinosaur eggs. Ah, who am I kidding. The highlight was the poop.
Second, the kids really loved the glow-in-the-dark room, aka the Rainbow Gallery. These rocks have phosphorescent or fluorescent elements making them glow like a deep-sea bioluminescent aquarium when lit by black light. Think neon greens, pinks and oranges that would give your ’80s wardrobe a run for its money.
My favorite part of the museum was the petrified wood. Walk down to the lower level, and you are greeted with slabs and slabs of gorgeous, shiny, jewel-like petrified tree trunks.
If you’ve never experienced petrified wood, it’s like something out of a fairytale. Tree trunks actually turn to rock, and are then smoothed to a fine polish by experts. The result is intricate and unmistakable — the rings clearly showing that you are really are looking a tree. Some of the specimens dated back 250 million years. (“That’s even older than you, Mommy! Right?”)
As we left the museum and made a quick detour into a former workshop, we found yet more petrified tree trunks and helpful explanatory plaques about how they are made. (Didn’t think petrified wood could be any cooler? It’s often formed by volcanic eruptions.)
Other noteworthy areas included the interactive “Is it a meteorite or isn’t it?” quiz at the beginning of the museum; the collection of opals and carved stones; and, of course, the aforementioned pink bathtub.
Okay, back to the kids. Their unmistakable highlight was the rock pit outside the museum. Every kid under 12 is allowed to dig in a pit of rocks about 12 feet by 12 feet and take home the rock of their choosing. Most of the rocks are unremarkable, but some kind folks donate special rocks to the pit, so you can find things like geodes, thunder eggs, colorful crystals, and, yes, even petrified wood. If your kids can’t decide on a single rock, you can buy a pound of rocks for $1. Definitely worth the hit to the allowance in my oldest’s case.
If you need a break from the museum, or have younger kids, there is a large grassy area out back. You’ll find a cool low-hanging tree to climb around in and lots of space to run, tumble and explore, as well as — what else? — look for more rocks.