One of the great pleasures of living in a city is its unpredictability — you never know what you’ll encounter just around the corner. In Portland, it could be the Unipiper, in full regalia, or a band of urban goats, or a rose in full bloom.
And then there are the hidden treasures. Portland has an active and sprawling community of geocachers — puzzle fiends who have posted coordinates and clues online that lead to points around the city, and eventually — if you’re lucky — to a fun reward, plus a notch in your geocaching logbook. (For context: Geocaching.com turns up over 5,000 current “caches” around Portland).
My 9-year-old twins and I are big fans of puzzle-solving books like The Westing Game and Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, so when the chance to go on a real-life puzzle hunt surfaced, we couldn’t resist.
First step: Download the geocaching app on your mobile device of choice. Once you’ve logged in, a searchable map will pop up with all of the caches near your starting point, and you’re ready to choose your mission, should you choose to accept it.
Pro tips: Each cache that’s logged on the map includes a “difficulty rating” that tells you how hard it will be to crack the clues. One star means easy, five stars means, well, maybe don’t try this one if it’s just you and the kids.
Also, check for the size of the cache. A “micro” cache could be simply a tiny magnet, like the one my daughter is holding in this picture. But little kids will likely have more fun with larger caches, generally boxes that open to to reveal small trinkets and prizes (think key chains and fun erasers).
There’s also information about the terrain (Flat or hilly? Accessible to all or down a narrow trail?) and comments from other treasure seekers, so you can make sure there’s evidence that the cache has been recently found and is being actively maintained.
Figuring out the just-right cache for your family can take some time, so you may want to do your research ahead of time, especially if you’ve got wiggly kids. But once you’ve chosen your adventure, all you need is a notebook and some paper, to figure out clues along the way (and maybe a trinket or two to leave in the treasure box for the next seekers to find).
Ben and Elly and I headed to the iconic rose gardens in Ladd’s Addition for our first geocache, which was rated as a medium level of difficulty. We had to circle each of the four diamond shaped gardens to answer multiple choice questions about each one (“Which destination spot is not the name of a rose in the North Garden?” “What color are the love roses?”). Each correct answer was assigned a number — put together, the numbers spelled out the coordinates of the location of the final cache.
Figuring out the exact coordinators took some math, and a few wrong turns, but we were elated when we finally found the cache — and hooked! The kids wanted to do another one right away, so we tried a more straightforward one at nearby Laurelhurst Park. We had the coordinates, and headed straight there — but once we arrived at the designated spot, it was nowhere to be found. A little searching, some army-crawling, and some bush-whacking later, we discovered the cache, pried it open and triumphantly signed our names in the logbook. (Pro tip: This is pretty typical for many geocaches, which are almost always hidden within 25 feet or so of the coordinates. Seek and ye shall find!).
Still, though, our day of geocaching hadn’t turned up any of the promised small trinkets that are hidden in the larger stashes, and so we stopped off on our way home to try our luck at one more location. This time, at the Belmont Firehouse, we hit paydirt, deciphering a code, figuring out coordinates to a lock and opening up a treasure box full of kid-friendly loot that had been hiding in plain sight all along.