[Photo: Dog Mountain hiking. Credit: Nickie Bournias.]
If you could pluck Portland out of Oregon and move it elsewhere, much of what has earned the city its reputation as an epicenter of West Coast cool would remain intact. But what really sets this mini-metropolis apart is its instant access to the Beaver State’s jaw-dropping, seemingly untouched landscapes.
Instant isn’t an overstatement: sprawling urban forest reserves, wildlife refuges teeming with birds, trails winding up extinct volcanoes and pristine waterways for paddling all exist within Portland itself. And it only takes a quick car ride out of the city to encounter some of the most iconic natural sites in this upper left corner of the United States, what’s unofficially — and rightfully — dubbed Pacific Wonderland.
Here’s a quick guide to this rarest of cities where the boundaries between urban and nature pleasantly blur, where the pursuit of the next best trail is a lifestyle, and where you can either challenge yourself with a workout or ease into a lazier rhythm. This activity-by-activity rundown of spots within and near Portland shows you how easy it is to make the outdoors yours.
HIKING / WATERFALLS / SNOW SPORTS / CYCLING / PADDLING
[Photo: Pittock Mansion viewpoint. Credit: iStock.]
“Go on a hike” lands on almost every Portland traveler’s itinerary, and while it sounds simple enough, the difficulty comes in making decisions: City trek or day trip? Easy jaunt or pulse-raising climb? Panoramic lookout or low-key ramble? Guidebook writers have dedicated thousands of pages to cataloging hikes in and around Portland. We’re here to get you on the trails ASAP with this skimming-the-surface summary.
Within city limits:
You don’t need to leave Portland to escape the city. More than 70 miles of trails lace through some 5,000 acres of temperate rain forest in Forest Park, a hiker’s paradise with trails for all kinds of outdoorspeople, from runners to equestrians to dog-walkers to parents pushing strollers — the most popular of its trails climbs up to Pittock Mansion from Macleay Park in Northwest Portland. Find park information and trail maps here.
Mt. Tabor Park may get a larger share of foot action (try the Blue Trail loop for skyline views), but Powell Butte, the bigger volcano hike within the city, is the spot where in-the-know locals go for a quieter and wilder in-town trek complete with stunning views of Mount Hood on a clear day. Farther out in Southeast Portland, it is one of four extinct volcanic cinder cones in Portland (including Mount Tabor); Powell Butte’s 612-acre nature park rises to some 600 feet and offers miles of trails with plenty of scenic perks.
Complete all of Portland’s urban 4T Trail and you’ll have covered four different modes of transit — tram, train, trolley and trail. The hike shows off Portland at its best, from its pioneering urban planning to lush urban parks to stunning vistas.
More than 2,000 species of shrubs and trees as well as a nationally recognized magnolia collection thrive at the Hoyt Arboretum, 189-acre park within Portland’s sprawling Washington Park, also home to the Oregon Zoo, the Portland Japanese Garden and the International Rose Test Garden.
Within a short drive:
You’ll find a world of wonderful hikes within a short drive of the city center. The Columbia River Gorge to the east claims Tolkien-like landscapes that look like the set to an epic fantasy film. On the Washington side of the Gorge, Beacon Rock State Park has a short and moderate 848-foot climb up a basalt volcanic plug, which offers panoramic views. A strenuous 6.9-mile round-trip climb to Dog Mountain affords stunning views and a brunch-earning workout.
For more than a century, some of the most popular postcards printed in Oregon have been adorned with a view of Mount Hood reflecting in a lake — typically Trillium Lake as well as the nearby Mirror Lake. Hike the relatively easy loop trails at either lake to snap a photo worthy of a landscape calendar.
The Oregon Coast stretches some 363 miles along the Pacific, but most day-trippers make it only to its northern corner, which is a one-hour drive from Portland. There is no single essential coastal hike, though favorites include the Fort to Sea Trail in the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, Tillamook Head Trail in Ecola State Park and the Saddle Mountain hike in the Saddle Mountain State Recreation Area.
[Photo: Tamanawas Falls. Credit: Nickie Bournias.]
The Columbia River Gorge has one of the highest concentrations of waterfalls in the world, with dozens and dozens of cascades plunging from moss-covered basalt cliffs.
Many of these falls are within a short drive of Portland, though these trails can get crowded, so it’s best to visit early mornings or weekdays. While a tragic wildfire in 2017 has closed a number of the area’s trails (check here for current conditions), iconic and lesser-known cascades remain open, including Multnomah Falls, one of the most-visited natural sites on the West Coast. The closest of the major falls in the Gorge, Latourell Falls plunges more than 200 feet. Nearby, a paved, all-access trail (.6 miles round-trip) leads to Bridal Veil Falls. Farther east, skip the weekend crowds in the Western Gorge with a brief and scenic hike to Mosier Creek Falls.
[Photo: Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade. Credit: Jon Shadel.]
Two-wheeled culture runs deep in Portland, where it seems bikes whizz by every second. With more than 300 miles of on- and off-street bike paths, it’s one of the most accessible and cycling-friendly cities in North America, which hosts weird bike-themed events such as the infamous World Naked Bike Ride and the Filmed By Bike film fest.
You can’t miss the boxy, neon-orange BIKETOWN “smart bikes,” the city’s cutting-edge bicycle-share program, which makes pedal-powered exploring a cinch. It’s inexpensive and easy to use, and its expansive service network of 100 docking stations covers most everywhere you’ll want to go in town.
Once you’re on the saddle, popular spots to pedal include the paved trail in Tom McCall Waterfront Park that loops across the Steel Bridge and connects to the Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade, from where the transit-, pedestrian- and bike-only Tilikum Crossing can whisk you back to the west side. For a longer ride, the Eastbank Esplanade links with the Springwater Corridor, which takes you more than 20 miles south along the Willamette River through the Sellwood neighborhood all the way to the deceptively named town of Boring; along the way, the trail passes plenty of detour-worthy sites, including Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge and the Sellwood Riverfront Park.
Beyond city limits, Oregon’s pioneering Scenic Bikeway program maps out road-tested rides all around the state such as the nearby 51-mile Tualatin Valley Scenic Bikeway, which includes the 21-mile car-free Banks-Vernonia State Trail.
Mountain bikers will find a wonderland of trails in Oregon. One of the closest areas is L.L. Stub Stewart State Park, which has miles of trails to tackle. Another easily accessible spot, the Sandy Ridge Trail System near the town of Sandy has 17 miles of singletrack in the foothills of the Cascade Range. If you’re up for a drive, you’ll find miles upon miles of mountain biking trails lace through forests around Hood River in the Columbia River Gorge and some of the riding territory in the nation near the town of Oakridge.
Check the daily news website BikePortland.org to stay in the know about cycling in Portland.
[Photo: Willamette Falls. Credit: Courtesy of Mt. Hood Territory.]
Portland is the kind of city where you’ll see kayakers paddling through the city on weekday mornings — pristine waterways are easily accessible within and around the city.
You can explore the Willamette River on a guided tour with operators such as Portland Kayak Company, which takes you on an easy paddle around Ross Island where you might even spot great blue herons or osprey. Up the river in Oregon City, eNRG Kayaking guides paddling tours of Willamette Falls, one of the only ways to get an up-close view of the second-largest waterfall by volume in the United States. Beyond merely hooking you up with gear, local outfitter Next Adventure offers classes, clinics and no-experience-needed excursions in and around Portland. For kayaking, try Timothy or Trillium lakes, two of the most picturesque lakes in the Pacific Northwest; Mt. Hood Adventure will even deliver rentals to either lake, so you only need to show up and sink paddles in the water.
Popular spots near the city for DIY paddles include the many coves and inlets around Sauvie Island, the gentle Tualatin River Water Trail, the wildlife-rich Columbia Slough Watershed and 146-mile Lower Columbia River Water Trail.
[Photo: Courtesy of Timberline Lodge & Ski Area.]
Mount Hood, Oregon’s highest peak, towers over Portland in the distance, beckoning snow lovers for skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
The mountain is a mere 60 miles from the city and has five distinct ski areas, including the only lift-served year-round skiing in North America at Timberline Lodge, a National Historic Landmark erected as a New Deal-era Works Progress Administration project.
More than two million snow lovers flock to the lodge every year for snow sports — as well as the Cascade Dining Room, which arguably has one of the finest selections of Oregon wine anywhere. In addition to Timberline, Mt. Hood Meadows and Mt. Hood Skibowl are the top areas on the mountain for serious skiing and snowboarding; Meadows has the most night skiing terrain on the continent, according to Ski magazine. Meanwhile, beginners and families with young kids love Summit Ski Area and Cooper Spur Mountain Resort.
Beyond downhill snow sports, trails crisscross Mt. Hood National Forest for snowshoeing/cross-country skiing, and you’ll also find a handful of prime public spots ideal for sledding/tubing and snowmobiling.
[Photo: Sellwood Riverfront Park. Credit: Nickie Bournias.]
Oregon’s balmy summers see the once-overcast gray skies turn dazzling sapphire blue. So when the thermometer finally hits the dog-day highs, Portlanders head for their favorite swimming spots to beat the heat. Thankfully, the city’s envious proximity to rivers, lakes and the Pacific Ocean make keeping cool easy.
The quickest way to take a dip is by wading — or cannon-balling — into the Willamette River from one of three easy-access public swimming spots downtown. One of the largest river islands in the United States, Sauvie Island has half a dozen public beaches where you can bathe in the sun and wade into the cool currents.
A popular spot in the Gorge is a finger of shoreline along the Columbia River at Rooster Rock State Park. And just an hour and a half drive from downtown, the northern stretch of the Oregon Coast has miles and miles of cool beaches for wading, sunbathing and surfing.
Want to shed that final layer? You’ll find separate clothing-optional and queer-friendly beaches at both Sauvie Island and Rooster Rock.