Portland has an almost unfair abundance of natural beauty – perfect parks, leafy trees, vibrantly flowering shrubs lining pretty residential streets, the Willamette River meandering through town, and Mt. Hood on the horizon.
On a national scale, Portland is a pioneer in environmentally conscious public policy and progressive urban planning, and with some 30% of the city blanketed in tree canopy, the place literally feels like a breath of fresh air. The metro area boasts 37,000 acres of green space – which you'll catch Portlanders enjoying any time of the year, rain be damned.
Here are the best parks in Portland.
1. Lan Su Chinese Garden
Start your exploration of Portland’s best parks right in the midst of Old Town, where you’ll find the tranquil Lan Su Chinese Garden, a one-block oasis with reflecting ponds, winding paths and a traditional teahouse. Considered one of the most authentic Chinese gardens outside of China, Lan Su is the result of a collaboration between Portland and its sister city Suzhou, in China’s Jiangsu province. The Tao of Tea teahouse, in the Tower of Cosmic Reflections, focuses on fair-trade organic tea and traditional tea-making methods unique to various regions of China. Time it right and you might catch an educational program on feng shui, tai chi or Chinese brush painting while you’re here.
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2. Forest Park
To get away from it all – without having to really leave – take a walk in Forest Park. It's the country's largest urban park, with more than 70 miles of woodsy trails for hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders. Decked in moss, flowering shrubs, ferns and other flora, the paths wind through towering trees – you just may break your neck in wonder as you gaze up to their dizzying heights.
The canopy is home to an array of bird and mammal species, making it a delight for birders and wildlife lovers. The Portland Audubon Society maintains a bookstore, wildlife rehabilitation center and 4.5 miles of trails within its Forest Park sanctuary. The main sight in the park is Pittock Mansion, a grand mansion built in 1914 by Henry Pittock, who revitalized the Portland-based Oregonian newspaper. It's worth visiting the grounds (free) just to check out the spectacular views – bring a picnic.
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3. Tom McCall Waterfront Park
The popular Tom McCall Waterfront Park, which lines the west bank of the Willamette River, was finished in 1978 after four years of construction. It replaced an old freeway with 1.5 miles of paved sidewalks and grassy spaces, and now attracts joggers, in-line skaters, strollers and cyclists. During summer, the park is perfect for hosting large outdoor events such as the Oregon Brewers Festival. Walk over the Steel and Hawthorne bridges to the Eastbank Esplanade, making a 2.6-mile loop.
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4. Washington Park
Tame and well-tended Washington Park contains several key attractions within its 410 acres of greenery. The International Rose Test Garden is the centerpiece of Portland's famous rose blooms; there are more than 700 varieties on show here, plus great city views. Further uphill is the Japanese Garden, another oasis of tranquility. If you have kids, the Oregon Zoo and Portland Children's Museum should be on your to-do list.
Other attractions include the Hoyt Arboretum, which showcases more than 1000 species of native and exotic trees and has 12 miles of walking trails, and the World Forestry Center, an educational museum highlighting forests and their trees. Check the park's website for information on the free shuttle within the park.
5. Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden
The large, beautiful grounds at the 5-acre Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden near Reed College are covered with more than 2000 full-grown rhododendrons, azaleas and other plants, and there's a lagoon that's dotted with baby ducks in spring. Most of the garden is in bloom from late March or early April, peaking in May and continuing all summer.
6. Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge
Located in Sellwood, Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge, a large wetland of around 140 acres, has a hiking trail through it, which connects with the nearby Springwater Corridor paved bike path. There's also good wildlife- and bird-watching: you can spot river otters, herons, egrets, hawks, osprey, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, falcons, vultures and more.
7. Tryon Creek State Natural Area
If you’re traveling with kids, a good option for a hike is Tryon Creek State Natural Area. This verdant 670-acre forest offers a nature center, stream-side wildlife and 8 miles of trails, including a 3-mile paved bike path. Late March brings wondrous displays of trillium, a wild marsh lily. It's located south of Sellwood, in Portland's Southwest.
8. Mt. Tabor
Easy to reach from the city center is Mt. Tabor, a trail-laced dormant volcano in the midst of mostly residential Southeast Portland. It’s hilly enough to let you work up a sweat, although there are also plenty of gentle approaches to the top. Bring a picnic and plop down in the grass at sunset for a lofty view of Hawthorne Boulevard’s active street life. There’s also a playground, a series of outdoor concerts in summer, tree-identifying guided walks and the popular Portland Adult Soapbox Derby in August.
9. Sauvie Island
About a 20-minute drive from downtown Portland is Sauvie Island, an agricultural oasis providing an excellent break from Portland's bustle. Its flat, 12-mile country-road loop also makes it a popular place for weekend cyclists. The 12,000-acre Sauvie Island Wildlife Area includes a wetland sanctuary for thousands of migratory ducks, geese, tundra swans, bald eagles and Sandhill cranes. Permanent residents include peregrine falcons, great blue herons, foxes and beavers.
During summer, don't miss the opportunity to pick strawberries, peaches, corn and flowers – try Kruger's or Sauvie Island Farms, both on NW Sauvie Island Road. Beach-heads should visit Walton Beach, a decent stretch of sand on the island's eastern side, about 9 miles from the Sauvie Island bridge on Reeder Road. Leashed dogs are allowed, but fires and camping are not. Nudists can head toward Collins Beach at the northern end, past the pavement.
10. Columbia River Gorge
Cleanly dividing Oregon and Washington is the spectacular Columbia River Gorge, which was carved some 15,000 years ago by cataclysmic glaciers and floods. Less than 40 minutes east from Portland on I-84 (or on the scenic Historic Columbia River Highway) has you passing high waterfalls and nearly vertical mountain walls that parallel the mighty Columbia. Hikers are spoiled in the gorge, which features many trails that lead through fern-lined canyons and gushing rivers, and across wildflower fields to grand vistas.
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This article was originally published in August 2016. It was updated June 2021.
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