Portland’s landscape is a visible manifestation of various geological forces: volcanic eruptions, grand shifts and collisions of the earth’s crustal plates, tremendous ice age floods, enormous landslides, and the ceaseless flow of two major rivers and dozens of tributary streams. Add to this mix a permanently snow-capped peak on the skyline and a lush forest canopy, and it’s easy to get distracted by the grandeur of the city’s surroundings and to think of the region as one enormous park.
Hundreds of city, regional, state, and national parks and forests and other greenspaces provide abundant opportunities for enjoying the area’s natural beauty. Some of these parks are little more than expanses of grass, maybe with a swing set or a softball diamond thrown in; others, like Mount Hood National Forest, include vast tracts of roadless wilderness. For suggested guidebooks to parks and hiking trails in the region, see A Portland Reading List.
Portland is richly endowed with parks of all sizes and descriptions. The city maintains more than 250 park and recreation facilities that cover in total about 10,000 acres. The city’s original park plan, drawn up by John Olmsted in 1904, called for a series of parkways, city squares, and many types of parks. While the plan was never fully realized—Southwest Terwilliger Boulevard is the only parkway in Olmsted’s plan that was actually built, for example—the city did take his advice and buy up large chunks of land for use as parkland. Today, nearly every neighborhood has at least one neighborhood park, and hardly any point in the city is more than a few blocks from a park or open space of some kind (although some neighborhoods, particularly those in outer East Portland and the inner Eastside, are considered park-deficient). For a complete list of city parks, visit the Portland Parks and Recreation website at portlandparks.org, or call the bureau at 503-823-PLAY (503-823-7529).
Downtown Portland is laid out with greater attention to commerce than to outdoor recreation, but it has a few locally important parks. Tom McCall Waterfront Park occupies the west bank of the Willamette River from RiverPlace north to the Steel Bridge. Until the 1970s, a highway ran along the riverfront; today, lunch hour joggers do. On sunny days the park is crowded with runners, walkers, rollerbladers, idlers, and, in some areas, unabashed drug dealers. The park hosts frequent music and food festivals during the summer months. Although the park borders the river, the downtown seawall makes direct access to the water difficult. A few blocks inland, the shady South Park Blocks, chock-a-block with heroic statues and other public art pieces, extend through the southern half of downtown from Portland State University to Salmon Street; after a few blocks’ interruption by buildings and a somewhat austere public square capping an underground parking garage, the arrangement continues in the North Park Blocks, which run from Ankeny Street to Glisan Street in the Pearl District. A few other small parks, such as Keller Fountain Park at 3rd and Clay and Lownsdale and Chapman squares near the county and federal courthouses—not to mention Pioneer Courthouse Square, the city’s “living room”—make convenient lunch spots for downtown office workers. To the north, in the Pearl District, Tanner Springs Park and Jamison Square give the neighborhood’s condo dwellers some breathing space.
In the forested hills just west of downtown, Washington Park encompasses a variety of attractions: hiking trails, the International Rose Test Garden, the Oregon Zoo (503-226-1561, oregonzoo.org), two museums, a Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Oregon Holocaust Memorial, tennis courts, soccer fields, one of the city’s best playgrounds, and the Japanese Garden (see “Gardens” below). To the north, a series of smaller parks—Hoyt Arboretum (see “Gardens”), the grounds of city-owned Pittock Mansion, and Macleay Park, which includes the popular Balch Creek Trail—connect Washington Park with Forest Park, the city’s largest and wildest park. This 5,000-acre gem extends along the spine and eastern slopes of the low Tualatin Mountains, which run northwest from downtown Portland. The park is a favorite haunt of hikers, joggers, mountain bikers, and the occasional elk or cougar. The 30-mile Wildwood Trail runs from Washington Park into the northern reaches of Forest Park; it’s part of the 40-mile loop (see “Regional Trails” below).
Besides the green gem of Tryon Creek State Natural Area (see below), Southwest Portland has several parks that contain wooded areas in the West Hills, including Marquam Nature Park, Marshall Park, George Himes Park, and Keller Woodland, adjacent to an especially scenic portion of Terwilliger Boulevard. Council Crest Park perches atop the highest hill in Portland, and offers expansive views in almost every direction; in the early 20th century, Council Crest was the site of a popular amusement park, complete with roller coasters, and was linked to downtown Portland by trolley. Willamette Park, in the Johns Landing neighborhood, is one of the few parks in Portland with direct access to the Willamette River; it’s a popular location for launching boats. In the more suburban precincts of Vermont Hills, 90-acre Gabriel Park has a host of recreational facilities, including a large skate park and the popular Southwest Community Center.
The eastside grid features dozens of parks of various sizes. Almost every neighborhood has its own park; indeed, several neighborhoods are known by the name of the local park. Such is the case with one of the loveliest parks in Portland, Laurelhurst Park. Designed in 1912, the park is planted with now-mature specimen trees, such as giant sequoias, coast redwoods, and native Douglas firs, which border broad “meadows” and recreation areas; the grounds center on a shallow lake that is popular with ducks. Further east, nearly 200-acre Mount Tabor Park includes an extinct volcano—look for evidence of the old crater near the carved-out basketball courts—as well as acres of second-growth forest; miles of jogging paths, hiking trails, and winding roads cut into the side of the hill; a playground; tennis courts; an amphitheater; and three controversial open-air reservoirs. Mount Tabor offers excellent views, and the lawn just west of the summit is a popular place to watch the sunset over downtown and the West Hills, with the bright lights of Hawthorne Boulevard stretching away below. Other major parks in Southeast Portland include Sellwood Park, Clinton Park, Westmoreland Park, Woodstock Park, Lents Park, and the extensive Powell Butte Natural Area.
North and Northeast Portland lack the wooded hill parks of other parts of the city, but they have an abundance of popular neighborhood parks. Grant Park, Irving Park, Wilshire Park, Alberta Park, Fernhill Park, and Normandale Park are major parks in Northeast Portland; Peninsula Park, Overlook Park, Columbia Park, and Pier Park are some of the prime parks in North Portland. Cathedral Park, under the east end of the St. Johns Bridge, hosts a popular jazz festival each July; the park also has boat launching facilities. Kelley Point Park occupies the tip of the North Portland peninsula at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers. Delta Park, which is chock-full of sports fields, sits on the former site of Vanport, a large community that was washed away in a 1948 flood. Several miles to the east, just off Interstate 205 in Northeast Portland, Rocky Butte has some of the best rock climbing in Portland and offers a panoramic view from the summit.
The Portland area has a reasonably extensive trail network that links various parts of the metropolis. The primary component of the regional trail system is the 40-Mile Loop (40mileloop.org) of walking and biking trails, which, although incomplete, is now substantially longer than 40 miles. The largest links in this chain are the Eastbank Esplanade and other trails along both sides of the Willamette from downtown Portland south to the Sellwood Bridge; the Springwater Corridor from Southeast Portland east to Gresham and Boring; the Wildwood Trail through Washington Park and Forest Park (hikers only); and a path along the Columbia River, off Marine Drive in Northeast Portland. Other major regional trails include the bikeway that parallels Interstate 205, the Fanno Creek Trail in Washington County, and the trails along the north side of the Columbia River in Vancouver and Washougal. The 4T Trail (4t-trail.org)—the four Ts are trail, tram, trolley, and train—combines hiking trails in the Council Crest area of the West Hills with rides on MAX, the Portland Streetcar, and the Portland Aerial Tram.
City, County, and Regional Parks—Surrounding Communities
Most incorporated communities in the Portland area have a parks department that deals with city parks and natural areas; these suburban parks are primarily of interest to the residents of nearby neighborhoods. In addition to the municipal departments, there are several multi-community park districts and county park departments in the region. The Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District (503-645-6433, thprd.org) manages more than 200 parks and 35 miles of trails in Beaverton and the surrounding areas. The crown jewel of this network is Tualatin Hills Nature Park (503-629-6350), a natural area of more than 220 acres, with five miles of trails, that is located essentially in the middle of Beaverton. Washington County Parks (503-846-8881) operates three facilities, of which the only one of any size is the expansive Scoggins Valley Park/Henry Hagg Lake in the foothills of the Coast Range; the lake is a popular destination for swimming and boating in summer.
North Clackamas Parks & Recreation District (503-742-4348, ncprd.com) covers a large swath of northern Clackamas County from Milwaukie to Happy Valley and south to Gladstone. The Clackamas County Parks Department (503-742-4414, clackamas.us/parks/) operates several county parks, including popular Barton Park on the Clackamas River.
Across the Columbia, Clark County Parks (360-397-2285, clark.wa.gov/publicworks/parks/index.html) administers dozens of neighborhood, community, and regional parks and trails in Clark County. Major regional parks include Lacamas Park and the adjacent Lacamas Lake Greenway and Lacamas Heritage Trail, near Camas; Moulton Falls Park and Lucia Falls Park, together with the 7.5-mile Bells Mountain Trail, on the East Fork of the Lewis River outside Battle Ground; and Vancouver Lake, a large lake on the west side of Vancouver that is popular for swimming, windsurfing, rowing, and kayaking.
Metro manages many greenspaces and natural areas, including undeveloped sites, in the Portland area; for a fairly complete list, visit oregonmetro.gov and click the link for “Parks and Venues.” In North Portland, Smith and Bybee Wetlands Natural Area (503-797-1850) is a major surprise; this 2,000-acre expanse of lakes, sloughs, and surrounding wetlands is just a few minutes from downtown Portland, and is essentially surrounded by commercial and industrial facilities, but is rich in wildlife, including bald eagles. You can explore the park on a paved trail or by non-motorized boat. One of the most popular developed sites is Blue Lake Regional Park (503-665-4995) in Fairview, which encompasses a large, swimmable lake near the Columbia River. Oxbow Regional Park (503-663-4708), on the lower Sandy River about 20 miles east of downtown Portland, includes a stand of old-growth forest; you can watch Chinook salmon spawn here in the fall. Metro also manages the historic Lone Fir Cemetery at the intersection of Stark and Morrison in close-in Southeast Portland; this pleasant enclosed burial ground contains not only the graves of notable early settlers but also abundant grass and some 500 trees, and serves as a de-facto park for many residents in the immediate area.
There are no Multnomah County–run parks; Metro took over management and ownership of the county’s parks in the 1990s.
Portland’s temperate, maritime climate is ideal for gardening. Both visitors and locals alike delight in the region’s public gardens, botanical gardens, and arboreta.
- Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden, SE 28th Ave at Woodstock Blvd, 503-771-8386, portlandonline.com; this picturesque, nearly 10-acre garden of rhododendrons, azaleas, and related woody plants surrounds a small lake in Southeast Portland. You’ll have plenty of company here in May.
- Elk Rock Garden of the Bishop’s Close, 11800 SW Military Ln, 503-636-5613, elkrockgarden.org; this beautiful 13-acre garden, originally a private estate and now the office grounds of the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon, overlooks the Willamette River in Dunthorpe.
- The Grotto, NE 85th Ave at Sandy Blvd, 503-254-7371, thegrotto.org; a combination garden and religious shrine, the National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother is a peaceful 62-acre retreat in Northeast Portland.
- Hoyt Arboretum, Washington Park, 4000 SW Fairview Blvd, 503-865-8733, hoytarboretum.org; laced by 12 miles of trails, Hoyt Arboretum displays more than 1,200 different species of trees and shrubs from around the temperate world. Visit the grove of coast redwoods, admire the magnolia blossoms in spring, or hunt for unusual specimens, like the collection of southern beech (Nothofagus) trees from South America and Tasmania.
- Hulda Klager Lilac Gardens, 115 Pekin Rd, Woodland, WA, 360-225-8996, lilacgardens.com, is filled with lilac blooms, and those who admire lilac blooms, in late April and early May.
- International Rose Test Garden, Washington Park, 400 SW Kingston Ave, 503-227-7033, rosegardenstore.org; many photographers take their iconic picture-postcard image of Portland, showing Mount Hood looming behind downtown skyscrapers, from the International Rose Test Garden in Washington Park. But the garden offers more than just a pretty panorama; it displays nearly 10,000 rose plants, representing more than 550 varieties of roses, in several sub-gardens, including a Shakespeare Garden and a garden of miniature roses.
- Lan Su Chinese Garden, NW 3rd Ave at Everett St, 503-228-8131, lansugarden.org, occupies a city block in Chinatown. Based on traditional Chinese garden design, this garden features a series of courtyards and pavilions, linked by bridges and winding pathways, set around an artificial lake.
- Leach Botanical Garden, 6704 SE 122nd Ave, 503-823-9503, leachgarden.org; located a bit off the beaten path in outer Southeast Portland, Leach Botanical Garden is nonetheless one of the finest public gardens in the state with more than 2,000 species of North American, and particularly Northwestern, native plants on display in an informal, naturalized setting.
- Portland Japanese Garden, Washington Park, 611 SW Kingston Ave, 503-223-1321, japanesegarden.com; one of the finest and most authentic Japanese gardens in North America occupies the hillside just above the International Rose Test Garden. This is an especially appealing spot to wander in spring, when the cherries are in bloom, or in autumn, when the leaves of Japanese maples turn orange and crimson.
National and State Forests
The mountain ranges of the Pacific Northwest are blanketed in forests, and ten national forests contain much of the timberland (or clear-cut former timberland, as the case may be) in western Oregon and Washington. Four of these national forests are reasonably close to the Portland area.
- Mount Hood National Forest (503-668-1700, fs.usda.gov/mthood/) covers more than a million acres of the northern Oregon Cascades east of Portland, including Mount Hood and most of the surrounding mountain region. Hikers, bikers, climbers, campers, loggers, anglers, mushroom hunters, and participants in winter sports of all kinds are all heavy users of the Mount Hood National Forest, but nearly a fifth of the forest is designated wilderness area where crowds are greatly diminished.
- To the south, Willamette National Forest (541-225-6300, fs.usda.gov/willamette/) encompasses the central Oregon Cascades west of the Cascade Crest, including the Mount Jefferson Wilderness, Detroit Lake, and other popular recreational areas within a two-hour drive of Portland.
- Siuslaw National Forest (541-750-7000, fs.usda.gov/siuslaw/) occupies a discontinuous stretch of the northern and central Coast Range, including some sites along the coast itself.
- Gifford Pinchot National Forest (360-891-5000, fs.usda.gov/gpnf/), in the southern Washington Cascades, includes some remote, little-visited regions, as well as the blockbuster attraction of Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument (360-449-7800, fs.usda.gov/mountsthelens). The monument includes the volcanic crater itself, the blast zone that was devastated by the 1980 eruption, and much of the relatively untouched south side of the mountain. Two visitor centers provide interpretive context for this still-active volcano.
Most recreational activities in the national forests now require users to purchase a daily or annual Northwest Forest Pass. You must display this pass in your car when you park at a trailhead or other area where the pass is required. Passes are available from Forest Service offices and some retail stores; you can also order the pass online or by telephone from Nature of the Northwest (971-673-2331, naturennw.org). Daily passes are $5 and annual passes cost $30. Alternatively, the interagency America the Beautiful pass, which covers national forest fee areas (including trailheads for which the Northwest Forest Pass would otherwise be required), national parks, and other federal lands nationwide, costs $80 for one year (store.usgs.gov/pass/).
The Oregon Department of Forestry manages nearly 800,000 acres of forestland around the state. The closest state forest to Portland is Tillamook State Forest (503-357-2191, oregon.gov/ODF/tillamookstateforest/) in the Coast Range about an hour west of the city. Beginning in 1933, this area was the site of a series of massive forest fires that ultimately devastated 355,000 acres of timberland. The forest today is almost entirely hand-planted second-growth; recreational opportunities include hiking, mountain biking, fishing, camping, and horseback riding. The Tillamook Forest Center (866-930-4646, 503-815-6800, tillamookforestcenter.org) provides interpretation of the forest and its history, and has a popular replica of a fire lookout tower. To the north, less-developed Clatsop State Forest (503-325-5451, oregon.gov/odf/field/astoria/state_forest_management/recreation_main.aspx) has a few hiking trails and campgrounds.
In Washington, the State Department of Natural Resources manages several state forests. The only state forest in Southwest Washington is Yacolt Burn State Forest (360-577-2025, dnr.wa.gov/AboutDNR/ManagedLands/Pages/amp_rec_yacolt_burn_state_forest.aspx), which, like Oregon’s Tillamook State Forest, was once consumed by a massive, devastating fire. Yacolt Burn State Forest has trails for hiking and mountain biking, but it is especially popular with off-road vehicle enthusiasts.
Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area
The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (541-308-1700, fs.usda.gov/crgnsa) is one of Portland’s favorite playgrounds, featuring outstanding scenery and unique geology. Recreational opportunities abound; as the National Scenic Area’s website declares in dry, bureaucratic prose: “Hiking, mountain biking, windsurfing, camping, fishing, boating, wildlife watching, birding, wildflower viewing, photography, picnicking, rock climbing. You can do all this and more in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.” While the description is accurate, please do not try to do all these activities simultaneously.
The National Scenic Area is a patchwork of federal, state, municipal, and private land; some 20 Oregon and Washington state parks within the NSA protect some of the Gorge’s most scenic and popular destinations. (See “State Parks” below for contact information.) A Northwest Forest Pass is required at many trailheads and parking areas in the Gorge.
State and National Parks
Oregon has 234 state parks and recreation areas, including several in the Portland area. A full list and map is available online from the Oregon State Parks website, oregonstateparks.org, or call the State Parks Information Center at 800-551-6949. The following are the most popular state parks near Portland:
- Banks-Vernonia State Trail, in the Coast Range west of Portland, is a 21-mile “linear park” based on a former railroad line that has since been turned into a multi-use trail.
- Government Island State Recreation Area, in the Columbia River near the Interstate 205 bridge, is accessible by boat only; the island’s small sandy beaches make tempting destinations on a hot summer day.
- L.L. Stub Stewart State Park is Oregon’s newest full-service state park. Opened in 2007, the 1,800-acre park in the Coast Range foothills includes hiking and equestrian trails and two disc golf courses.
- Mary S. Young State Recreation Area, on the west bank of the Willamette River in West Linn, is a pleasant park full of forests, fields, and riverside, linked by eight miles of trails.
- Milo McIver State Park, on the Clackamas River near Estacada, offers excellent boating, hiking, fishing, and camping opportunities.
- Molalla River State Park near Canby protects 566 acres of riparian wetlands where the Molalla River flows into the Willamette. The park is a popular site for boating, birdwatching, and other wildlife viewing, and hiking.
- Tryon Creek State Natural Area (503-636-9886, SW Terwilliger Blvd, tryonfriends.org); this 650-acre, hilly, wooded park in Southwest Portland protects the watershed of Tryon Creek. Several miles of shady trail lace the park, and a nature center provides interpretive materials and trail maps.
Washington maintains nearly 140 state parks and recreation areas; visit parks.wa.gov or call 360-902-8844 for details. Apart from the parks in the Columbia River Gorge (see above), only three state parks are close to the Portland area:
- Battle Ground Lake State Park, just east of Battle Ground, centers on a small lake of volcanic origin (a sort of miniature Crater Lake) that is a popular spot for swimming and camping.
- Paradise Point State Park is a water-centered park on the Lewis River; the proximity of Interstate 5 makes the park less inviting than it might otherwise be.
- Reed Island State Park, in the Columbia River east of Camas, is a 510-acre island that is accessible only by boat.
Several national parks and monuments lie within a day’s drive of Portland, including Crater Lake National Park in the southern Oregon Cascades, Oregon Caves National Monument, and Cascade Siskiyou National Monument in southwestern Oregon, Mount Rainier National Park southeast of Seattle, Olympic National Park on the Olympic Peninsula west of Seattle, and North Cascades National Park on the Canadian border. (See Quick Getaways for more information.)
Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge, on the east shore of the Willamette River near Sellwood and Westmoreland, is a 141-acre urban wildlife refuge managed by the city of Portland. It is an excellent site for birdwatching—look for great blue herons, the official city bird. Less than a mile from downtown Hillsboro, Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve (503-681-6206, jacksonbottom.org) encompasses some 635 acres of wildlife-rich wetlands with more than four miles of hiking trails.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge in Sherwood (503-625-5944, fws.gov/tualatinriver), which hosts almost 200 bird species, although it protects less than 1% of the river’s watershed. In Washington, the 5,300-acre Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge Complex (360-887-4106, fws.gov/ridgefieldrefuges/) includes four refuges along the Columbia River in Southwest Washington. Significant portions of the refuge are closed to the public, and other areas are open only at certain times of year.
- The Audubon Society of Portland (503-292-6855, audubonportland.org) owns a 150-acre preserve along Balch Creek, below Cornell Road in Northwest Portland. Trails are free to use and are open daily from dawn to dusk. Audubon also manages the Ten Mile Creek Sanctuary on the Oregon Coast.
- The federal Bureau of Land Management (Oregon state office: 503-808-6001, blm.gov/or/) manages about two million acres of land in Western Oregon. West of the Cascade crest, most BLM land is timberland, and in many areas it is interspersed with Forest Service parcels in a checkerboard pattern. The most popular BLM facility near Portland is Wildwood Recreation Site (503-622-3696) on the Salmon River near Welches on the western slopes of Mount Hood.
- The Nature Conservancy owns or manages 46 sites in Oregon, including three in the Portland area; visit nature.org/Oregon/ for a complete list of preserves open to the public, including directions and access restrictions. Several schools and colleges maintain public open space; scholastic natural areas include Reed College’s small but surprisingly wild canyon and the wetlands on the Oregon Episcopal School campus.
- Sauvie Island, while it is not a park but rather a working agricultural/residential landscape, is nonetheless a popular destination for biking, beachgoing, and wildlife viewing and has several small parks and wildlife reserves.
- The region’s navigable rivers—the Willamette, the Columbia, the Tualatin, the Sandy, the Molalla, and the Clackamas—provide exciting water-based recreational opportunities, including canoeing and kayaking, powerboating and jetskiing, whitewater rafting, and sailing.