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The Best Things in Life Are Free: ​Free and Low-Cost Activities

Posted by | Sam Shaub, Financial Educator

Any parent of small children will tell you that the days are long, but the years are short. Now that my children are ten and thirteen, I can attest to this old adage. Where has the time gone? And, yet can I even remember my life before they entered it?

One of my favorite things about being a parent is the way it forces you to slow down and look at the world around you with child-like eyes. How many hours of my life did I spend watching garbage trucks, excavator equipment, firetrucks, and buses when they were still the most amazing things to my toddlers? How long were we rapt and breathless staring at a bumble bee in lavender? Or how many times did we experience the giddy excitement right before we enter a new park with a particularly good slide?

The beautiful thing: none of these experiences cost us any money; they were free and readily available. So, in honor of Financial Literacy Month, I am compiling a list of my family’s favorite free and low-cost activities in Portland and Vancouver. And, you bet you can still find us prowling around towns looking for particularly good slides! 😊

Free Favorites

  • Bike Riding: Portland is one of the most bike friendly cities in the United States. Find routes and plan your trips with the abundant resources for bikers.
  • Clark County Murals: Make a day of exploring the 26 beautiful murals in downtown Vancouver. https://www.cityofvancouver.us/ourcity/page/murals
  • Columbia Springs Environmental Education Center: Located in Vancouver, this environmental science center offers environmental education, access to trails, a trout hatchery, and a fish feeding pond for guests to enjoy. https://www.columbiasprings.org/
  • Hikes: The Pacific Northwest is blessed with natural beauty. We have a lot of parks for every taste. There are so many great trails to explore in the region, some you can even take a bus to! Forest Park is the crown jewel with over 80 miles of trails, Mt Tabor Park is another favorite and is accessible from several bus lines, Oaks Bottom Wildlife RefugeSmith and Bybee Lakesand Mt Talbert Nature Park in Happy Valley are all wonderful options in the region.




  • Libraries: I can say unequivocally that my family missed the libraries more than anything else that shut down during the pandemic. I have always appreciated libraries, but now I have an even deeper reverence and vow to never take them for granted. Plant the seeds for life-long reading and learning by taking your kids to the library. From book clubs to story time, they have programing for everyone in the family. https://multcolib.org/
  • Parks: Oh my, we have so many of them in the region, and don’t forget school playgrounds as well. They are open to the public after school and on weekends. Portland Parks and Recreation has a nice feature on their website where you can search for your nearest park:https://www.portland.gov/parks/search
  • Portland Audubon: Free and open to the public, Portland Audubon is a beautiful wildlife sanctuary, has well maintained trails, educational opportunities, and various animals they are rehabilitating at any given moment you are able to view. This was a favorite for my family. https://audubonportland.org/
  • Portland Winter Light Festival (PDXWLF):Chase away the dark February blues with this winter light, art, and technology showcase along the Willamette riverfront. https://www.pdxwlf.com/
  • The Vaux Swifts at Chapman Elementary School in NW Portland: It is truly a wonderous site to witness the Swifts. For four weeks in September these birds make their nightly roost in the chimney at Chapman school. Bring a picnic and make it a special evening in the party-like atmosphere!
  • Swimming Holes: On most hot summer evenings, you would find us jumping of the dock at Sellwood Waterfront Park (it’s accessible by bus and bike), but there are many good places to cool off in summer for free.

*Of special note is the regional gem that is the Vancouver Community Library. Voted one of the ten best libraries in the U.S. It is just where you need to go on one of the rainy days of winter! https://www.fvrl.org/




  • Sunday Parkways: Walk, bike, or roll around various Portland neighborhoods throughout the summer without cars. Various vendors, music, and food carts abound! https://www.portland.gov/sunday-parkways
  • Sunset over Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge: This is one of my favorite summer evening activities. This also makes a nice capper to a date night. Sellwood Park has a great playground and picnic tables as well.

Free Holiday Themed:

Low-Cost Favorites:

  • Fort Vancouver National Historic Site: Step back in time at this National Park site. Many areas are free to visit, and the connected waterfront walk is a nice option to extend your time there.
  • Oaks Park Skating: We spent many a Saturday morning at the Oaks Park Skating Rink. The 10-11:30 session is $10 per child and includes skate rental and a 15-minute lesson. Adults are free.
  • Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI): OMSI offers discount days and memberships. https://omsi.edu/admission-access
  • Parks and Recreation: Both Portland and Vancouver Parks and Recreation offer various free and low-cost activities, classes, swimming lessons, and open swim opportunities. Scholarships may also be available.





Get in touch and let us know your favorite free and low-cost activities around town!