When you go for that tax-free holiday shopping binge, get some fresh air and scenery, too.
PORTLAND — At this often dark and dreary time of year, we need the outdoors more than ever. But it can be hard to motivate ourselves to get out of bed, much less slog up a hill in the rain.
As I found on a recent trip to Portland, something about being in a different city makes it easier to get out and about. The vistas and small surprises are unfamiliar and thus more intriguing. It’s more about exploration than exercise.
Portland’s parks hold everything from sculpture to memorials to specialty gardens, most open year-round. While Seattle parks often seem aligned around water, Portland’s are usually centered on elevation, which means trails that make for fantastic muscle-warming calorie burners as well as at least limited views from the top on all but the worst weather days.
Thanks partly to lots of volunteer hours, the parks are generally in great working order, with clean bathrooms, working water fountains and well-maintained pathways, many of which are suitable for people with disabilities. They’re easily accessible via the city’s easy-to-use public transportation system, where $5 gets you a one-day pass good on buses, trains and trolleys (buy the pass at any train-stop ticket machine or onboard any bus).
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It all adds up to a great way to spend half a day when you’re in town. Then you can reward yourself with tax-free holiday shopping, beer, or some of the comfort food that seems to be everywhere in this town.
Washington Park / Forest Park
These are two parks, but they connect with each other to form a sprawling green belt across the city’s hilly western flank. The 30-mile-long Wildwood Trail meanders from the south end of Washington Park all the way to the north end of Forest Park, and dozens of connector trails make it easy to hop onto sections of it.
I took the MAX light rail to the Washington Park station, then hiked over a hill to the International Rose Test Garden. It would have been a 1.6-mile jaunt without my many detours.
One was the Vietnam Veterans of Oregon Memorial, where a trail spirals in concentric circles within a bowl-shaped amphitheater. Markers along the way display names of the dead along with vignettes about what was happening in Oregon and the world during the war years. Winter was the perfect time to visit; I was the only person there, surrounded by the memorial itself, a light drizzle, and complete silence.
The trail jogged through Hoyt Arboretum, where species are displayed in sections by type. An overlook offered a bit of a view of downtown to the east (on a clear day, you can see all the way to the Cascades). The trail dropped past the Japanese Garden — closed for renovations until March 2016 — and into the International Rose Test Garden, where I rejoiced at the clean bathroom complete with warm hand dryer. Beyond a bevy of volunteers trimming rosebushes, downtown buildings were visible far below.
Downhill and to the east, I passed the Holocaust Memorial, the Sacajawea Memorial and the Chiming Fountain, named for the sound water makes as it drips from one pan to another.
Marked throughout with diamond-shaped blue blazes painted on trailside trees, the Wildwood Trail heads north from Washington Park, through the gardens around historic Pittock Mansion (worth a quick tour) and into the wilder realms of Forest Park.
At more than 5,000 acres, Forest Park is the nation’s largest urban forest. While it features none of the playgrounds, memorials or sculptures of Washington Park, it’s crisscrossed with miles and miles of wooded trails, evoking true wilderness. This is where you go if you want to truly get away from everything and yet return to the city in time for happy hour.
With wind and rain threatening, I took my chances the next day and hopped on a bus to another of my favorite Portland parks. Mount Tabor, on the east side of town, is a volcanic remnant whose caldera is now an amphitheater, a site of concerts and weddings during the summer. Trails swirl around it all the way to the top, and level areas contain playgrounds, fitness equipment and tennis courts.
I was surprised to see that the park’s small visitor center, staffed by Friends of Mount Tabor Park, was open despite the pelting rain. Marsha McGrath welcomed me and chatted about the park and its volunteers.
“They have foot-patrol groups that are just sort of a presence, and that’s helped keep vandalism down,” she said. “Weed warriors” have been pulling out invasive species and replanting with natives.
Here and in Portland’s other parks, you can gain elevation via a road, a gradual trail or a steep set of stairs. I watched hardy locals walking their dogs, riding bikes and jogging up and down all of them.
I happily boarded the warm, dry bus back to downtown. Having braved the weather and walked an extra five or six miles, I was ready for Portland’s other highlights. Time for beer and shopping.
If you go
• Portland Parks website: portlandoregon.gov/parks
• The Travel Portland website includes information about parks and suggested itineraries: travelportland.com
• Oregon Metro’s “Walk there” page gives suggested walking tours via both streets and trails, including maps: oregonmetro.gov/tools-living/getting-around/walk-there
• The Intertwine Alliance also has information about biking and hiking routes throughout the area: theintertwine.org
It’s a good idea to bring a map to hike in some of the larger parks, where, despite good signage along the way, it can be easy to get lost. Either print a map before you go or use your phone to take a picture of maps on signs at park entrances.