Portland is well known for its inventive food and drink, but – happily for the traveler’s waistline – the city also has a great collection of easily accessible trails, parks and gardens that are ideal for working off those extra calories. So go ahead and order that pork-belly cheeseburger and grab another IPA: what better excuse to seek out some of Portland’s best trails and gardens?
Portland feng shui
Start your exploration of Portland’s best gardens 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 (lansugarden.org/about-the-garden/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.
A hike through Forest Park’s history
When Portlanders talk about hiking or trail running, they’re usually talking about Forest Park, a 5100- acre green space on the northwest side of town that contains about 70 miles of woodsy trails. One of the city’s defining features, Forest Park has been around in some form since 1903, when outdoors-minded civic leaders hired John Charles Olmsted, a park designer from Massachusetts, to dream up a string of green spaces. Olmsted wanted to keep the linked spaces wild and un-manicured, and so his creation became a hiker’s playground.
The most convenient entry point is via Lower Macleay Trail, at NW 29th Avenue and Upshur Street. At the trailhead, there’s a small parking lot and restroom, and the popular trail starts out relatively flat, easy and kid-friendly. In just under a mile, you’ll reach the Stone House, built in 1929 as a rest area, but now a spooky, moss-covered ruin. From here, you can hang a hard right uphill to join the Wildwood Trail for just about as long as you like (you’ll want to carry a map), or continue straight (also along the Wildwood) to wind your way up to Pittock Mansion. The Pittock Mansion route is a solid 2.5-mile climb that will surely earn you dessert, with epic views across the city as a bonus.
The area here was originally settled by Danford Balch, who became the first man in Oregon ever condemned to death by hanging. In 1858, Balch’s 16-year-old daughter ran off with the ranch hand, Mortimer Stump (yes, really), and when Balch went to collect her he ‘accidentally’ shot Stump to death. The creek running alongside the trail bears Balch's name.
Flower gardens and Japanese Zen
You haven’t really visited Portland until you’ve gazed upon the city from the heights of the International Rose Test Garden, inside Washington Park, where more than 10,000 rose bushes bloom from May to September. You can do this the hard way or the easy way. The easy way is to drive up Burnside St to Kingston Ave and park in the lot near the tennis courts. (Another option: take the MAX Light Rail to the Washington Park stop and follow wooded trails for 1.7 miles to the rose garden.) You can also bicycle up from downtown or Northwest Portland. But perhaps the prettiest way in is on foot: start at the end of SW Park Place (at SW Sacajawea Blvd; bus 63 stops here) and climb the impressive stairs. Then make your way along the MAC Trail up to the rose garden for awesome views and access to many more trails.
While you’re in Washington Park, don’t miss the lovely Japanese Garden, a calm and quiet retreat full of lush greenery, water features and a Zen garden. A multimillion-dollar expansion is currently in the works and will double the size of the garden by April 2017.
If you haven’t had your fill of Portland’s overabundance of gorgeous flower gardens, head to the Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden in the residential southeast part of town. From late March or early April through the end of summer, its huge rhododendron bushes practically explode with vivid splashes of color, and there’s a lagoon full of baby ducks in spring. A nice shady path through the garden makes for an easy, kid-friendly stroll with picture-perfect scenes around every bend.
Hikes for tykes
If you’re traveling with kids, another good option for a hike is Tryon Creek State Natural Area. It has about eight miles of trails, three of which are paved and bicycle-friendly, winding through a 658-acre forested area in Southwest Portland. There’s a nature center on site and an active ‘Junior Ranger’ educational program for kids, plus guided hikes of varying difficulty levels, and lots of opportunities to learn about the region’s flora and fauna.
Even easier 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, in August, the popular Portland Adult Soapbox Derby.
Grand finales – Columbia River Gorge and Multnomah Falls
How about when you’ve covered all the above and are ready for more? Portland is surprisingly close to the outdoor wonderland that is the Columbia River Gorge. In less than 40 minutes you can be on a trail through the Gorge that passes by (or behind) half a dozen spectacular waterfalls. It’s hard to go wrong here, but a good place to start is the hike to Latourell Falls. It’s an easy but rewarding 2-mile trail to the upper Latourell Falls; the lower falls can be seen from the parking lot at the trailhead. (Take exit 22 or 28 off I-84 and follow signs to the trailhead.) Though it’s much busier, it’s almost mandatory to stop at the iconic Multnomah Falls as well. A nice 4.8-mile loop trail takes you up and over Multnomah Falls and back down to Wahkeena Falls, passing Fairy Falls and several other highlights along the way.