Portland's 5,170-acre Forest Park, one of the largest urban forests in the nation, is an outdoor-recreation wonderland and wildlife sanctuary.
PORTLAND — It was a misty, wintry Sunday morning at one of this town’s special meet-up places for misty, wintry Sunday mornings — after, of course, a stop at a cozy neighborhood coffeehouse for caffeine and a scone.
At the Lower Macleay Park trailhead, one of the busiest portals to the city’s beloved Forest Park, runners in Crayola-colored softshells and skull-hugging fleece hats stretched at the curbside as they greeted running partners or nodded hellos to familiar faces they knew from the trails.
From here, they could trot along babbling Balch Creek, with its resident population of cutthroat trout, up a ravine where moss adds velveteen upholstery to maple branches and countless sword ferns bristle as if ready to do battle for the forest primeval.
Go far enough and you can link up to more than 70 miles of trails in this 5,170-acre park, reputed to be the largest forested natural area within city limits in the United States.
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Mostly second-growth woods, the park stretches along more than 8 miles of Tualatin Mountain hillsides overlooking the Willamette River northwest of downtown. In its boundaries, you can find old-growth Douglas firs, 112 species of birds and 62 species of mammals, including blacktail deer, bobcats, coyotes and more.
For any city in the world, this would be an urban treasure.
“Even at its soggiest, you can still come out here, and we like to get out even in the winter, with the baby,” Portlander Anne Gustafik said, hoisting a custom-carved walking stick as she and husband Dan Gustafik hiked up the creek. Dan nestled 10-month-old son Finley in a knit pouch against his chest.
Various trails and gravel fire roads cater to runners, hikers, equestrians and mountain bikers. The granddaddy, the 30.2-mile long Wildwood Trail, is a National Recreation Trail, and part of the region’s 40-Mile Loop system that links Forest Park to routes along the Columbia River, the Willamette Greenway and points all over the metro area.
Portland shows its love for its park. The citizen-run Forest Park Conservancy has helped expand the park over the years, including raising over $1 million in the 1990s to acquire 78 acres of privately owned lands inside the park that were slated for development, and rallying donors to purchase a 38-acre stand of low-elevation old growth that was going to be logged.
Today, says the Conservancy’s interim director, Terry Milner, “You look out above the industrial expanse along the river and see this amazing spread of evergreen and deciduous forest.
“On a regular basis, we have people tell us their company moved here because their CEO had … visited and went for a run in Forest Park.”
Big trees for Clark
William Clark of the 1805-06 Lewis and Clark expedition traveled this far up the Willamette and recorded sightings in this area of Douglas firs with trunks up to 8 feet in diameter.
Portland hired the famed Olmsted Brothers landscape architects to create a park plan for the site in 1903, but the project met various setbacks (including rumors of oil that prompted unsuccessful drilling) until the city finally established Forest Park in 1948. Today it’s grouped with surrounding small parks such as Lower Macleay to create one giant, wooded reserve.
The trail system isn’t small, or simple. Proof is in the Forest Park Conservancy’s set of 10 (count ‘em, 10!) rain- and wear-resistant maps highlighting loop hikes or runs. “The Hiking and Running Guide to Forest Park” ($22.50, at Powell’s books or REI) includes detailed driving directions to trailheads and highlights of each loop. Distances range from 3 to 9 miles.
Elevations in the park go from 75 feet at river’s edge to 1,100 feet at the ridgecrest. From downtown hotels, visitors can drive 25 minutes to a remote trailhead, or reach the Lower Macleay trailhead in 10 minutes (five minutes from a Northwest Portland hostel).
First-timers can also easily access the south end of the Wildwood Trail from the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Hoyt Arboretum (near the Oregon Zoo). For more adventure, go to the more remote north end, via Skyline Boulevard.
“Some of the most extraordinary and beautiful places are in the north end,” Milner says. “Some places, you can get up on ridges where on a clear day you get a three-mountain view — Hood, Adams and St. Helens.”
Want help finding your way? The Conservancy sponsors guided Discovery Hikes ($10 per person for nonmembers). A Portland hiking club, the Mazamas, offers occasional free group hikes in Forest Park, open to all (www.mazamas.org).
Or just pick up a map, or print one from online, choose one of the many trailheads and go.
“That’s what Portlanders do,” Milner says. “You pull on a pair of Keens and you go out to Forest Park and get muddy — with your dog.”
Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or firstname.lastname@example.org