Unlike many major cities, the question of where to recreate is seldom an issue for the residents of Portland. In fact, the biggest problem confronting local outdoor enthusiasts isn't figuring out a worthwhile place to spend free time, but narrowing down the seemingly limitless choices. Whether it's whiling away an afternoon in the downtown area or embarking on a week-long trek into the backcountry there are plenty of alternatives for every experience-level and appetite. What follows is a rundown of region's highlights? from the Oregon Coast to the Cascade Mountains and everywhere in between.
In the City
By nature and by design, Portland is one of the"greenest" cities in the States. This distinction comes from the climate (vegetation tends to appreciate rain), and a civic pride in protecting the environment. One obvious display of city's stewardship is the number of parks it contains? including the nation's smallest dedicated park (just 24 inches in size) and largest forested urban park.
Forest Park encompasses about 5,000 acres abutting Portland's affluent "West Hills." It includes over 75 miles of trails, and is a popular retreat for runners, hikers, mountain bikers, and birders. Just to the south is Washington Park, home to the International Rose Test Garden Known (which explains Portland's nickname as the "City of Roses"), a Japanese Garden, Hoyt Arboretum and the city zoo. Further south along the West Hills is Council Crest Park, which affords the best view of the city from above, and on the opposite (east) side of the city is Mount Tabor, another vantage with paths winding through old-growth forest.
For water enthusiasts, there is a riverside park that stretches along the Willamette near downtown, and the river itself a haven for boaters of all every stripe. One of the best kept secrets for flatwater paddlers is Bybee and Smith Lakes, in north Portland, which offer one of the most isolated settings within the city. Just across the Willamette from these lakes is Sauvie Island, a large farming community with rustic roads and sandy beaches.
The Cascade Range stretches from northern California to southern British Columbia? a string of active, snow-capped volcanoes with smaller peaks running between them. Mount Hood (elevation 11,235 feet) is about an hour drive from Portland, and on clear days it dominates the view to the east. This stunning peak is the epicenter for some of the more popular attractions in the region: numerous rivers on its flanks, the Mt. Hood National Forest surrounds it, and the Mt. Hood and Salmon - Huckleberry Wilderness are on the north and south sides respectively.
Northwest across the Columbia is Mount Saint Helens (alt. 8,366) which blew its top almost 20 years ago, and is now a spectacular Monument to the awesome potential of hydo-thermal energy. Just 90 minutes from downtown Portland, it is a popular recreation area both on and around the crater. Due east, in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, is Mount Adams (12,307 feet). The peak is about a two hours drive from the city and is considered, by those who climb (and ski) regional volcanoes, to be one of the finest backcountry experiences in the Pacific Northwest.
The Columbia River Gorge is an excellent example of an irresistible force meeting and immovable object? it delineates where the Columbia River punched through the Cascade Mountains, creating one of the more breathtaking natural wonders in the United States. Steep cliffs and spectacular waterfalls plunge for hundreds of feet to the river, and deep ravines carve through lush vegetation, all just a 30-minute drive from Portland.
The Oregon Coast marks the jagged western lip of the continent in all its Pacific-swept glory. Between the secluded coves, sprawling beaches, and towering sea stacks jutting from the waves there is little missing from this stretch of shoreline in the way of visual drama. The best way to get a sense of what the Coast has to offer is to drive it? it takes just over an hour to reach from Portland, and you can continue along coastal roads as long and far as your schedule permits. For those seeking an overnight trip, one of the nicest places to camp along the Coast is at Oswald West State Park.
The forests are what originally attracted settlers to the Pacific Northwest, and despite a celebrated logging history there are still vast stretches that continue to flourish. In fact, an outdoor enthusiast would be hard pressed to exhaust all the recreational possibilities in the three National Forests closest to the city, not to mention the extensive reaches in between. Due east is the Mount Hood Forest, which features several wilderness areas, and towering Mt. Hood as its centerpiece. To the north, in Washington, is Gifford Pinchot National Forest?over a million acres that includes Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams, and Goat Rocks Wilderness, (one of the most pristine alpine settings in the Northwest). To the south of Hood is Willamette National Forest, stretching for 110 miles along the western slopes of the Cascades.
Despite the urban feel to Portland, it offers access, within hours, to some of the more remote Wilderness Areas in America's Lower 48. The wilderness areas near the city are a good reflection of the different terrain featured in the region? from high alpine environments at Goat Rocks Wilderness to wild coastal islands of Three Arch Rocks or the old-growth forests of Middle Santiam.
While there are no National Parks within short striking distance of the city, three are close enough to offer reasonable weekend outings. Crater Lake, about four hours south of Portland, will take visitors breath away with the deep blue waters of the namesake caldera, and about 70 miles of trails for summer hiking or winter skiing (the park gets over 500 inches of annual snowfall). Mount Rainier, about two hours to the north, offers one of the most challenging summit treks in the lower 48. And Olympic National Park, three hours northwest of Portland, has formidable trails through old-growth forests and along secluded coastal beaches.
Closer to home are a number of Oregon State Parks which cater to a variety of outdoor enthusiasts. Oswald West Park, on the Oregon Coast south of Cannon Beach, is a popular surfing site (with the added bonus of excellent camping amid old-growth forests). Saddle Mountain had a challenging hike winding to stellar views of the coast. Beacon Rock State Park has wonderful hiking along the Columbia River. Lewis and Clark State Park, on the opposite shore of the Columbia (about 15 miles east of the city) has excellent rock climbing , while fanatics seeking world-class thrills on thousands of excellent routes should head to Smith Rock Park (about two hours east, near Madras).
One of the more infamous attributes of the Pacific Northwest is its abundant rainfall, and though the gray skies can get a bit oppressive a few months into the winter season, all the precipitation, and the precipitous elevation drop from the Cascades to the Coast, make for a wealth of wonderful rivers. The Columbia is the most celebrated waterway in the region, but there is a wide sampling of smaller rivers to accommodate all types of boaters and anglers.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication