Atoms, axes, kayaks & fossils: Things to do with kids in Tri-Cities, WA

Between Seattle, Portland, and Boise, a family friendly experience awaits in three just-right cities

Hills, history, rivers, and food—all in a not-too-big, not-too-small urban area that prides itself on being family friendly? Sign. Us. Up. The first time we parents visited Washington’s Tri-Cities area, we left certain of one thing: As soon as we could, we’d come back with our two kids. Our four days in Tri-Cities took us from the Yakima River to an ongoing mammoth dig, and from an extensive food cart pod to the site of a World War II nuclear reactor.

Yet when we left Tri-Cities, we knew we could not wait to come back.

We want to thank Visit Tri-Cities Washington for sponsoring our visit. However, this article reflects our own personal opinions and experiences.

Things to do with kids in Tri-Cities: Plan your visit today

For more info, free trip planning help, and more, go to Visit Tri-Cities.

Candy & history

Hike on Candy Mountain

Around 15,000 years ago, the world’s Ice Ages brought massive floods that scoured this region and would turn the area into a massive lake—over and over. The entire Tri-Cities area would have been under hundreds of feet of water. Today, markers along the trails at Badger Mountain and Candy Mountain note where the high-water line would have made these two hills into islands.

A little outside of West Richland, the natural trail of Candy Mountain gave us a chance to get some perspective. We love an approachable hike that we can do with kids. Along the way, we learned about flowers and geological history, and took in a panoramic view of the Tri-Cities area. As we made our way down, the kids looked at the waning spring flowers and reminded us all to “stop and smell the sagebrush.”

Go back in time at the REACH Museum

Our travels dovetail with opportunities for enriching, hands-on learning experiences. This region’s people and natural history are varied and fascinating, so we looked forward to immersing the kids in more context around the area’s natural history, Indigenous peoples, wildlife, and the role Tri-Cities played in the Manhattan Project.

Near the bank of the Columbia River, the REACH Center’s interactive exhibits showcased the area, from common birds to Ice Age floods. We especially enjoyed the overview of the area’s tribes, as well as the interesting section on what it was like to be one of the thousands living around the Hanford nuclear reactor.

Atoms and axes

Child sits at main desk in nuclear power generation control room.

Tour the Hanford Manhattan Project National Park B Reactor

And then we took our children to a nuclear reactor. Sure, when it comes things to do with kids in Tri-Cities, even for us this was a bit different.

Yes, it’s a former nuclear reactor. Yes, it’s also safe to visit

Before we continue, let’s have a little real talk about the Hanford, WA, component of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. During and after World War II, Hanford produced plutonium for nuclear weapons. That includes the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945, as well as the USA’s Cold War-era nuclear arsenal. However, the reactors have been offline since 1968. Cleanup at Hanford is ongoing, and it is challenging, but the B Reactor’s tour route is a no radiation zone. The area is tested regularly, and any areas where there is radiological activity aren’t open to the public.

Now for the fun part

At the visitor center in town, a video summarizes the site and its history. We picked up Junior Ranger booklets, which the kids worked on during the 45-minute bus rides to and from the Hanford B Reactor site. Inside the reactor building itself, an all-ages scavenger hunt engaged all four of us as we sought out everything from open valves that once managed the flow of Columbia River water for cooling the reactor, to a hacksaw mounted on a ten-foot handle.

Hanford combines complicated history, a beautiful natural area, real-world problems, and amazing physics. The tour begins in the main reactor room. Before us, a wall of 2,004 tubes and canisters once generated plutonium. Staff maintained the tubes from a long scaffolding-like platform. From medical offices to the reactor control room, we saw what it would have been like to work inside the reactor and monitor its many systems.

Encountering this part of the world, and this part of American history, is complicated. Cleanup continues at Hanford, but much of the area has rewilded. Where thousands of people once toiled in secret, herds of elk now roam.

Throw axes at AXE KPR

There is nothing like the satisfying THUNK when the hatchet you threw sinks deep into its wooden target.

The four of us had never gone axe throwing before, but the team at AXE KPR in Pasco was as patient as they were welcoming. From safety procedures to how to throw single-handed hatchets, double-bladed axes, tactical hatchets, and ninja stars, the team helped each of us find our way to a good throw.

Along with whirling sharp metal, lots of laughs filled the air. Sometimes a wild throw had us cracking up as we retrieved our axe and tried again. Connor especially got into throwing the thin, steely tactical axes. Jodie took to the ninja stars, and Anthony favored the two-handers. Aster was tentative at first. The staff took their time to give her space, show her the smaller axes, and walk her through the technique. By the end of the night, she started throwing—and grinning—too.

HINT: Ask about a chance to hit the swinging duck!

Kayaks in the river and fossils in the canyon

Sun sets over a bridge spanning the Columbia River in Tri-Cities, Washington.

Kayak tour of the Yakima River

Kayaking, canoeing, or SUPing on Washington State’s Yakima River is all about getting up close. With so much water in and around the area, getting on the water is a perfect choice for things to do with kids in Tri-Cities.

Flowing 214 miles, the Yakima (or the Tâpe têtt, as the  Chin-nâm pam people call it), meets the Columbia River in the Richland area of Tri-Cities. Its last miles make for a winding, peaceful paddle, all close to town. It’s often sunny too: East of the Cascades, the sun shines bright, and the Tri-Cities area averages over 300 days of sunshine a year.

The experienced guides at T‌apteal Greenway Group and Bateman Kayak & Canoe kept our two sit-on-top tandem kayaks gliding smoothly on an easy-going current. An occasional riffle spiced things up, but only like black pepper on mashed potatoes, not nachos with ghost pepper salsa. Throughout the tree-lined river’s narrow, island-strewn course, fish jumped, herons stalked, and brilliant white egrets sailed through the sky.

In a region where cities and cultures find their heart along the rivers, kayaking the Yakima got us up close with the nature that defines the Tri-Cities area. We came out of the water refreshed, connected, and ready for the rest of our day.

Ninja challenge course 

Just outside of Richland, we cruised through hilly neighborhoods to reach a fossil dig—but we found time to accept a challenge along the way.

Inside a fence on the northeastern corner of the Desert Hills Middle School grounds, the Ninja Course presents parkour-type challenge stations. There’s a clear nod to the competition show American Ninja Warrior, but kids can complete the simplified obstacle course in around 10 minutes.

Coyote Canyon Mammoth Dig Site “McBones”

Things to do with kids in Tri-Cities not only takes you through the present, but into the past. It’s not every day that you can see a fossil dig in progress—and without leaving town. The “McBones” Columbian mammoth dig is just a few minutes outside of Richland (and the Challenge Course above is a great stop on the way to or back from).

Five years into the gradual excavation, a small but dedicated team also staffs an educational center. A presentation on the region’s history gave us context on how this Columbian mammoth came to be under the earth here.

The center showcases fossils and has some of the lab-style working area for the dig, along with notable fossils from throughout the region. Seeing fossils in protective casts and learning about the cleaning and reconstruction processes, along with the chemicals and tools they use on the fossils, brought alive the detective aspects of working a large dig site down to individual pieces large and small.

Down a gravel road and behind a hill, the dig itself showcases tools and wet screens where diggers sort potential fossils. Inside roped-off sectors, volunteers tease out piece after piece of a Columbian mammoth that’s over 17,500 years old.

Where to eat with kids in Tri-Cities WA (or have an adults-only outing)

LULU Craft Bar + Kitchen

Breaded parmesan zucchini is the gateway zucchini. While our kids have not been overly fond of zucchini before, they tore into the browned slabs. From the jar of pig candy, or strips of marinated, slightly sweet bacon, the kids didn’t even mind the touch of peppery heat.

Just off the marina in Richland, LULU Craft Bar + Kitchen’s excellent menu included kid options and an array of flavored lemonades (especially the strawberry). The buttermilk chicken sandwich held a tender crunch.

From our covered outdoor table, we looked out over the Columbia River. After lunch, the kids dashed over to a nearby playground, ready to run off their fish and chips and grilled cheese. We adults lingered over drinks and conversation in the warm afternoon.

Ice Harbor Brewery at the Marina on Clover Island

In the heart of Kennewick’s small Clover Island, the welcoming, intimate feeling extends from the paved riverside walking trail, distinctive lighthouse, and marina, to the Ice Harbor Brewery. After we ordered, Aster and Anthony went across the street. A large propeller sculpture (or as Aster called it, Mount Windmill) was one of many intriguing bits of urban art around the island.

Accompanying the all-ages dining (such as the BBQ pork sandwich and the plank salmon) was an excellent selection of house beers, house-made nonalcoholic root beer, and curated sample flights.

A tip from our server: The local mix is the “RIPA,” or half IPA and half red ale, for a hoppy start and a malty finish.

And a tip from us: Try the mead, which is made by one of the servers. With a lush honey nose and a lime finish, the honey flavor remained front and center with every sip, and the mead finished with a refreshing bitter note.

After dinner, during a wander around the marina, we watched the sun go down on the wide, rolling Columbia River.

Atomic Ales Brewpub & Eatery

The iconic Richland pizzeria had Anthony at the Black and Blue pizza, a combo of pepperoni and other toppings, melded with a blue cheese sauce.

Atomic Ales leans hard into the nuclear theme, such as Half-Life Hefeweizen and Neutron Nachos. The kids checked out the industrial and space decor, not to mention the “high voltage” and “dangerous” signs above the tables.

The innovative pizzas and other dishes, such as the savory, cheesy veggie bake, brought the fun and the flavor. Atomic Ales served up delicious food without taking themselves seriously.

Dog Haus Biergarten Pasco

There are hot dogs. And then there is the Dog Haus. The extensive menu showcased not only the elevated forms the hot dog can take (such as the Old Town’s avocado, crispy onions, and basil aioli), but also sausages and burgers. On the outside patio, we tucked into crisp fries on a warm Pasco evening.

The Endive Eatery

This space may be better with older kids, as the layout can be funky if you are trying to guide a stroller through. However, we can say that this was one of the best breakfasts we’ve ever had, from the salmon benedict to the breakfast burrito.

The hearty fare packed in balance with vegetable, whole grain, and legume components. Subtle sauces and spreads added wonderful new flavors to each dish. The kids said the french toast was among the best they’ve ever had, as was Anthony’s breakfast burrito and Jodie’s salmon benedict.

The HUB of Kennewick

After lunch, Aster and Connor said they wanted to come back to Tri-Cities at least so we could eat at The HUB again.

There are food cart pods. And then there is the HUB. Over two dozen food carts, arranged in columns with a central covered restaurant and tables area, offered everything from Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches to fresh-made juices and sodas, burgers to BBQ, sandwiches to sushi. The pod had that rare quality of having enough variety to suit the needs or dietary conditions of pretty much any diner.

The ample outdoor seating was wonderful on a sunny afternoon, but it was nice to know that the ample indoor seating made The HUB an anytime dining spot.

Miss Tamale Mexican Restaurant

Bright colors, check. Excellent menu of burritos, bowls, tacos, and more (including ample quesadillas the kids couldn’t get enough of), check. Our freezer is full of foil-wrapped tamales for later… check!

When we saw the tortillas had perfect browned char marks, we knew we had the good stuff. Miss Tamale is right in downtown Richland, on a lovely street that’s welcoming for walking around and enjoying the urban space. Besides the well-crafted food, the salsa had no shortage of kick, and the burritos were large enough for splitting. The spacious layout felt airy and welcoming. We loved the bright colors that added to the fun feeling of a restaurant that showcases excellent food made with care.

Family friendly fun in history, the outdoors, and more

Two adults and one child pose with throwing axes. One child poses with a drawing she made.

We’ve now visited Washington’s Tri-Cities area twice. On each visit, we have found ourselves immersed and engaged not only with the community, but with each other, thanks in no small part to there being so many things to do with kids in Tri-Cities.

While the cities have lots to offer in spaces that feel safe and approachable, nature is close by. Natural and human history weaves through the high-water marks on the hills. Elk roam through the remnants of the town that once supported one of history’s most secretive wartime projects.

Whenever we visit Tri-Cities, we find diverse cultures, vibrant local businesses, and activities that engage adults and kids alike. We can explore mammoth fossils one moment, and the next, dine by the Columbia River. We can paddle on the Yakima, and gain insight into the region through engaging museums.

Washington’s Tri-Cities area brings us together, and it brings us delight. It’s exactly what we look for in places we can visit with our kids. We already know when we’ll be making our third visit.

Plan your visit today

For more info, free trip planning help, and more, go to Visit Tri-Cities.

About the author
Learners and Makers
We are the St. Clair Family: Anthony, Jodie, Connor, and Aster. As Learners and Makers, our family of four slows down, connects, and enjoys the world and each other's company. We have been traveling full time since 2022.

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