High Desert Museum

desert

The High Desert Museum is in Bend, Oregon. Most of the museums we visit are either children’s museums or science museums. High Desert doesn’t quite fit in those categories, but it’s well worth a visit and has plenty to entertain children and plenty of STEM learning about historic tools. The museum contains several zoo style exhibits, a living history style homestead and sawmill section with lots of hands-on activities for kids, an interpretive trail through the woods with wildlife viewing and 100,000 square feet of exhibit space displaying historic artifacts from the pioneer days and cultural artifacts from various Native American groups of the region. (The museum has a short video with highlights of what you’ll see there.)

Animal Exhibits

In the main building, they have the Desertarium, which includes turtles, lizards, snakes, tarantulas, frogs, and burrowing owls.

In the Birds of Prey exhibit, they have owls, a bald eagle, and a golden eagle. (All animals at the museum were either injured in their past, or were imprinted on humans, and none could live in the wild on their own.) In the inside of this exhibit, there is more information on birds of prey. One caution – this includes a static display of vultures eating a deer carcass. It is fairly graphic, and didn’t trouble me, but I did hear a couple of people (one adult and one child) who were quite startled to walk in the door, and see that without warning. (Placing it in an alcove with the gory side to the wall could easily soften this for viewers.)

They have a raptors show, but unfortunately, we arrived too late in the day for that. (It was at 11:30 am on the day we visited, but you had to get a ticket by 11.) There are porcupines in the main building.

They had a fabulous otter exhibit, with three playful otters. You could view them from above as seen in the video below, or watch them from the underwater viewing area. (There’s a video of them wrestling here.)

Living History Display

The 1904 Miller Family Ranch and Sawmill recreates a homestead of that area. The sawmill area has a really nice display of a sawmill where you can see the furnace that powered the motor. Later on, I mentioned to my husband that I wished the area had interpretive signs that explained it all, and he said there were pages from the Sears Roebuck catalog of that era about all the equipment and that it was fascinating to read. They actually run the sawmill once each month in the summer. (Learn more.)

There were other buildings: a woodshop, a blacksmith stall, a barn, and a cabin. There was a living history interpreter (a person in period clothing playing the role of a person of that era) to explain what life in the cabin would be like. Our son moved through too quickly for us to have a chance to speak with her much. There was a chicken coop (with chickens!) and a corral woven from willow branches.

This area also had lots of hands-on kids’ activities to allow them to experience aspects of life in that period. They could pump water and water the garden, weave on a standing loom or sweep, try out stilt walking and hoop rolling activities, play with period toys (jacob’s ladder, tops, ring toss, ball catch), or play period games (like card games or shut-the-box dice game) with an adult and a child living history interpreter. Or they could beat the dust out of a rug – this was my son’s favorite activity – he said “that’s one of the most satisfying things I have done in my whole life.” There was also a sandbox to dig in.

Trail and Wildlife Viewing

There was an interpretive trail called “Fire in the Forest” trail that wound through the woods and had signage illustrating fire damage, unhealthy undergrowth, healthy undergrowth, and addressing how natural fire cycles regulate the growth of a healthy forest. The Changing Forest building offered more information on this. There was a pond viewing area where you could watch fish and water bugs and a wildlife viewing area to see birds, ground squirrels and chipmunks.

Exhibits

This is a large museum with lots of exhibits: One on Oregon and the Space Race, one on riparian zones and why they are such an important habitat, one on how the geology of the region was shaped by water, some on the early European settlers, and one on Native people in the region. Learn more about all the exhibitions here, including an exhibit I really loved called Blanket Stories which collected blankets from donors and the family stories that go with those blankets.

We spent time in “By Hand Through Memory” which was an exhibit about the Plateau Indian Nations through their history, confinement to the reservation and journey into the 21st century. There was a huge collection of materials, well displayed, with informative and engaging interpretive signs.

One thing I appreciated was described on a sign at the entrance: “Plateau people have maintained and adapted Native cultural practices, and they continue to do so today. Here you can see the blending of a traditional tule tipi and modern consumer goods. As you explore… you’ll see more examples of Native people preserving and adapting their cultural practices as new technologies and materials become available.” The living culture of Plateau Indians is thus represented. [A side note on why this is important: In American school standards, 87% of references to American Indians are pre-1900. In teaching about native cultures, it’s important to not only teach about history in the past tense – this can imply that “all Indians are dead.” Check out those two links to learn more, and read this guide for allies about Changing the Narrative about Native Americans.

Kid Activities

Inside the museum, there’s a room called “Whose Home” which was a playground for kids with things to climb up, slide down, and hide inside of that looked like animal habitat. The area was limited to kids under 48 inches, which means my very short 8 year old was too big, so it’s primarily limited to kids under age 6 or so. It’s actually too challenging for kids under 3, which means an effective range of 3 – 6 years. I think it would be helpful if they allowed in slightly taller kids in order to make it more accessible to more museum visitors.

Outdoors, there was the “dig, crawl, climb” area. They could crawl into tunnels (like ground squirrel tunnels?) or climb a giant spider web. There was gravel to dig, but no tools to dig with.

Summary

With the blend of zoo, art gallery, hands-on activities, outdoor experiences, and static museum exhibits, there’s plenty to interest people of a variety of ages and interests.

We spent probably three hours there and could have spent more. My son would have happily spent more time with the otters and at the living history area. I would have liked to look at more exhibits, but that would have required fetching a book from the car so our son could plop down in a corner and read while we looked (his patience for historical exhibits is low.) There are also shows like the raptor show to attend.

This is an easy side trip from Sunriver resort, or from a visit to Crater Lake – as one reviewer said “interesting and amusing break from the whitewater and kayaking and horse riding of the area.”

Logistics

In August 2019, admission was $17 for adults, and $10 for kids. For the most current info on hours and admission fees, check their website.

There was a cafe there and we had a lovely lunch of a nice fresh salad, a panini sandwich (if I remember right), Italian sodas, and a hard cider. You can also bring your own food and eat outside.

We were there on a Wednesday in August, and it was not crowded.

They had a sign at the front desk saying that they had sensory bags available, with noise cancelling headphones, puzzles, tactile tools, coloring pages and crayons.  As a parent of an autistic child, I appreciate that. I also think the puzzles and coloring pages could be useful for many kids who didn’t want to spend as much time looking at exhibits as their parents did – they could hang out nearby and color while their parent looked. Additional accessibility information is available here.

If you’re traveling with a dog, they have a kennel area so you don’t need to leave them in the car.

More STEM Destinations

We visited the High Desert Museum as part of our “Road Trip of Science.” You can learn more about other science and engineering related museums we’ve visited in the Destinations section of this blog.

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