There was a time in my life—an extended period of time, maybe a third of my life—when all I’d want out of a summer guide were tips on where to catch some tasty waves and get a cool buzz. But I’m a parent now, and when I was asked what I could contribute to the Mercury’s summer-themed issue, panic set in: My life this summer won’t be all breezy dresses and cans of domestic beer at yard parties or at a river! My primary focus will be keeping my small person cool (but not cold) and active (but not too over-exerted or she’ll get cranky) and wet (but not in a pool, because she’s like two feet tall and can’t swim) and playing with other kids (but not like in a way that’s too structured, you know?).
Yes, the magical invention that solves all of these concerns is the splash pad, and yes, this is my life, and I am writing an article I never would have read 10 years ago. But it’s been useful as hell for me to research! So, if you’re a parent, or a cool aunt, or a friend of parents who could really use another grown-up to hang out with while their child flails around, read on.
The splash pad is a gift from Portland Parks and Recreation to frazzled care providers. These fountain-adjacent water play zones are scattered throughout the city, providing a free, relatively safe place for little ones to get splashed in the face with water, which they just fucking love because they’re tiny maniacs. The water in splash pads typically runs from June until when school starts, although sometimes they get turned on if it gets hot earlier. (Thanks, climate change!) And while they vary greatly in quality, that honestly doesn’t matter very much.
My neighborhood splash pad is at Essex Park (SE 79th and Center). This park is small and it’s sketchy and you never know on any given day if it will be mostly neighborhood families or adult campers. The splash pad is similarly touch-and-go: The water pressure is always either a light dribble or a full fire hose, so if you like seeing kids get blasted in the face, this is the park for you! There’s a perfect mix of sun and shade for guardians to enjoy. Unfortunately (or fortunately, I guess, if you’re naughty) several of the parents are smokers and will smoke right there next to all the kids, even though this is rude and against the rules. Also, about 40 percent of the time the drain at this splash pad seems to be clogged with something (I don’t know, maybe CIGARETTE BUTTS?), compelling the children to splash around in dirty park water.
Elsewhere in Southeast, you can find splash pads at Raymond, Earl Boyles, and Colonel Summers parks. I feel like the one at Colonel Summers (SE 17th and Taylor) would be weird because I’ve only ever seen young people in cut-offs at that park, but maybe the neighborhood has changed? I bet you can find tons of spare change and lost iPhones in the grass! This is a plus.
In North Portland, you’ve got a lot of options: Columbia, Kenton, Dawson, Farragut, Northgate, Pier, and Peninsula Parks all have splash pads. I’ve only played at the Kenton one (8417 N Brandon), and it was small and crowded, but the park itself is real nice. And Columbia Park (7701 N Chautauqua) is shady. Not like, sketchy shady, but like, limited sunlight shady. This can be a pro or a con depending on how much you fear the sun, but it definitely means kids are gonna get really cold. In other words, this is the ideal spot to hit on those rare, 100-plus-degree days.
Meanwhile, my sources on the street tell me that Northeast has got themselves some pretty nice splash pads—ones that’re clean and well-run, with a solid amount of shade for grown-ups to enjoy. (Or, according to one friend, perhaps too much shade? “Parents would like to fry,” said my friend, a health-care professional.) Grant, Woodlawn, Irving, and Khunamokwst all have free water features, too, proving that for better or worse, Northeast Portland is an increasingly fancy place to live. At least we can all use their parks!
Then we’ve got our downtown options, which Portland Parks has gloriously titled “interactive fountains.” OooooOOOooOH! I’m thinking these are our top-shelf kid soakers? I’ve never been to any and never will go to any, because I hate parking downtown and mass transit with a little one is a pain in the ass. But I hear that Jamison Square (810 NW 11th) is the jam, especially for the really small kids, with good shade for grown-ups. Teachers Fountain in Director Park (815 SW Park) has zero shade, so pack some hats, and good luck convincing your child to let you put on sunblock. There’s also the giant waterfront fountain on Southwest Salmon, but the mega water pressure makes this a better spot for big kids only.
So there you have them: A billion different places in Portland to hose down your child! For free! Maybe one of these days I’ll pack a bag to venture out of Southeast to explore them all! Or, if I’m too lazy, which is likely, I’ll just keep hanging out at Essex Park, happily enjoying some shade and second-hand smoke.