Portland's Urban Sanctuaries
Exploring Four Natural Treasures in Portland
Shouldering the Willamette River where it joins the Columbia, gazing east to the Cascades and west to the Coast Range, Oregon’s biggest metropolis feels at the doorstep of primal Mother Nature as few other cities in the country do. The easy-to-reach sublimities of the Columbia River Gorge, Mount Hood, the Pacific Coast are a defining part of Portland’s appeal. But so are its city wilds: soul-nourishing havens and recreational playgrounds. Forest Park, Mount Tabor, Sauvie Island and Oak Bottom are but a few of the everyday reminders of the natural fabric into which the City of Roses is woven.
Forest Park is the pinnacle of Portland’s park network: an urban wilderness like none other in the U.S., and a haven for thousands of Portlanders for whom it’s downright sacred ground. Its deeply wooded West Hills ridgelines and ravines form a glorious emerald wedge against Northwest Portland, giving you the ability to step—remarkably quickly and lightly—from the realm of restaurants, bars, boutiques, and industrial sprawl into a rugged, fragrant, and enveloping Northwest forest.
The park protects close to 5,200 acres of the West Hills, more formally known as the Tualatin Mountains. Separating the Tualatin Valley from the Portland Basin as a topographical offshoot of the North Oregon Coast Range, they’re cored by Columbia River Basalt (issued millions of years ago from faraway vents in northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington) that’s been uplifted by faulting and coated in silt.
The old Atfalati hunting ground of the West Hills was parceled out to Euro-American homesteaders as Portland was settled, but the rough and landslide-prone terrain proved challenging to harness, and the mountain front remained a rustic and wild hinterland as the city grew along the Willamette-Columbia confluence. In their 1903 assessment of Portland’s potential parklands, the Olmsted Brothers architectural firm sang the praises of the mostly feral West Hills and urged they be protected as a public space for future generations:
It took some time for the Olmsteds’ urgings to bear fruit, but by the 1940s the city had acquired many of the partly logged- and burned-over private lots that once peppered the West Hills. The City Club of Portland conducted a study on the feasibility of forming a public park in 1945, the result being a hearty thumbs-up. Three years later, the city established Forest Park, thus at long last fulfilling the Olmsted vision.
The park now stretches from Pittock Mansion Acres northwestward to Newberry Road, and better than 80 miles of footpaths, fire lanes, and roads weave through it. About 27 miles of the Wildwood Trail, the southern trailhead of which lies in Washington Park, backbone that trail network; the northern length of the Wildwood makes the main access to Forest Park’s secluded, less trammeled north.
Hiking Forest Park’s lovely tracks, you’ll get a real sense of how this part of the West Hills is evolving from pre-park logging and wildfires—and grab a few precious glimpses of remnant old-growth forest, too. Most accessibly in that department, Balch Creek Canyon in Macleay Park shows off ancient western hemlocks and Douglas-firs—including a 242-foot giant that ranks as Portland’s loftiest tree. Awesome as the Doug-firs, hemlocks, western red cedars, grand firs, and other conifers are, hardwoods—notably bigleaf maples and red alders—make up much of the Forest Park canopy.
The northern heights of Forest Park overlook Sauvie Island, as low and flat as the West Hills are high and rumpled. Indeed, the island—at 26,000 acres, the biggest in the Columbia River—is a nice counterpoint to Forest Park: It’s about as immersive of an escape for the Portland urbanite, but instead of upland forest it envelops you in idyllic pastoral countryside and fertile wetlands. And just as Forest Park is sort of like an accessible slice of Coast or Cascade Range wilderness, Sauvie Island evokes more farflung bottomlands of the Lower Columbia on toward Astoria.
The southern portion of the island is mostly farmland, beloved by Portlanders for its u-pick berries and pumpkin patches. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife administers most of the northern half, in large part because of the enormous flocks of waterfowl, waders, and other birds that rely on the island’s marshes and backwaters for migration waysides and wintering grounds.
The Multnomah people of the Chinook tribe still inhabited the fecund landmass back in 1805 when Lewis and Clark passed by and named it Wapato Island after the locally abundant aquatic plant whose tuber the Indians relished. The current name derives from the dairy farmer Lauvent Sauvé, and you can probably start an argument in more than a few Portland pubs as to whether the island’s proper label is “Sauvie” or “Sauvie’s.” (The former evolved out of the latter, for the record, though really Wapato Island trumps both of them in terms of cultural, historical, and ecological significance.)
Whether you’re bicycling its flat, quiet roads, paddling on the Multnomah Channel or Sturgeon Lake, or birding your way through the Garry-oak savanna of Oak Island, Sauvie Island is pretty much guaranteed to slow your heart rate and soothe your soul. The tranquil and subdued landscape can turn up astonishments to those who take the time to explore: a massive rattling flock of sandhill cranes coming in for a landing, a trio of bald eagles enthroned in a massive black cottonwood, or the unexpected surfacing of a sea lion in the Columbia current. Views of the Tualatin Mountains to the southwest and the snowy stack of Mount St. Helens to the northeast help center you in your bottomland ramblings.
The hike out to the Warrior Rock Lighthouse is another Sauvie Island highlight. The 1889-vintage beacon, which occupies a namesake low ledge of basalt, is one of only two in Oregon not on the Pacific coast. Depending on water levels, you can beach-walk it along the Columbia River or follow a just-inland trail through airy cottonwood forests and ash-willow swamps.
Gain a clear eastward vantage from Forest Park or anywhere else in the West Hills—the Pittock Mansion, say, or Council Crest—and your eye is drawn to the scattered wooded buttes studding the flats of East Portland. (That’s especially true when, as is so often the case between fall and spring, the Cascade Range skyline beyond is masked by cloud.) These handsome hillocks belong to a geological grouping that suffers from a rather ignoble label: the Boring Volcanic Field. That term stems from the town of Boring just southeast of Portland, which, in turn, isn’t named for tediousness but rather after the homesteader William Harrison Boring. (That said, the village has good-humoredly allied itself with the communities of Dull, Scotland and Bland Shire, Australia in a “League of Extraordinary Communities.”)
The Boring Volcanoes actually extend from the Columbia Gorge to the West Hills and from the Battle Ground, Washington area down to the Oregon City area; Larch Mountain, one of the Portland hinterland’s defining landmarks, is an oversized Boring volcano.
But they’re most prominent in East Portland and adjoining Milwaukie, given the level and developed ground from which they rise. One of the central summits of this province of mini-volcanoes is 640-foot Mount Tabor, essentially the green heart of Southeast Portland. Its cindery throat’s exposed on the edge of the “Volcano” parking lot. The park also includes three historic open reservoirs and a goodly share of the towering Douglas-firs so iconic of Portland’s greenspace network.
In the same 1903 report that set the groundwork for Forest Park, the Olmsted Brothers also singled out Mount Tabor as a valuable site for a public park. At the time, it rose out of a rural patchwork, but the Olmsteds rightly foresaw sprawl eventually swamping it. Thankfully, the City of Portland acquired it in 1909, and now it’s one of the most beloved greenspaces in the city—an impressive vantage and a woodsy island in Portland’s most heavily populated sector.
As the authors of Wild in the City (the premier guide to Portland’s natural network) observe, “Mount Tabor Park not only provides an oasis of urban green, it also knits country and city together better than almost any place in Portland.” Partly that’s because of the views it affords. As compared to the edge-of-town prospects of Forest Park, Mount Tabor gives parkgoers the chance to survey Portland’s “Emerald Compass” (as Wild in the City’s Joe Poracsky calls the city’s green surrounds) from the heart of urbanity: eastward to those Cascade snow peaks, westward to the Willamette corridor and the Tualatin Mountains. It’s easily one of Portland’s most popular sunset vantages, that’s for sure.
Birdwatchers covet Mount Tabor Park for the migrating spring songbirds its puddle of upland habitat, surrounded by a residential sea, intercepts. Join one of the Audubon Society of Portland’s “bird song walks,” and you’ll come away amazed by the vibrancy of far-ranging feathered spirit sweeping through Portland every year.
A springtime sunup: cottonwood seeds and the scent of mock-orange blossoms on a light breeze, songbird twittering in the dogwood thickets and the electronic buzz of a midair hummingbird. A dozen great blue herons hunched in the shallows of Wapato Marsh. An osprey lifts from its transmission-tower nest and wings on high toward the Willamette. A chocolate-brown flash across a swamp-edge mudflat: a mink on its furtive hunting rounds.
This is Oaks Bottom, where the steep wooded bluffs of the Willamette Escarpment cradle beneath a floodplain sanctuary of marsh, swamp, backwater, riparian woods, and grasslands in the heart of Portland metro. It’s one of the most precious of the Rose City’s parks, being among the only places where you can get some sense of what the Willamette River bottomlands looked like pre-modern development.
This spectacularly sodden haven was very nearly lost to development. When calls for its protection intensified in the early 1970s, the Bottom was far from pristine: Its wetlands were amputated from the Willamette River by the Portland Traction railroad, its southern end below Sellwood Park was a landfill, and its northern section across from Hardtack Island had been the dumping ground for detritus removed in the construction of the Stadium Freeway (I-405). City fathers were kicking around a variety of intensive ideas for Oaks Bottom, from sports fields to museums to motorcycle courses.
Thanks to the advocacy of residents, conservation groups, the Sellwood-Moreland Improvement League (S.M.I.L.E.), and the emergence of a more preservation-attuned Park Bureau, the pendulum eventually tilted in favor of turning Oaks Bottom into a wildlife refuge, which finally happened in 1988. When you think about it, it’s really a remarkable victory: Marsh and swamp don’t have quite the intrinsic appeal, say, as the sylvan ridgetops of Forest Park, and waterfront acreage in a river city tends to be hot real estate. You need only look north up the east banks of the Willamette at totally industrialized Mocks Bottom fronting Swan Island to see how Oaks Bottom might have ended up.
Today cyclists on the Springwater Trail’s Sellwood-Moreland stretch get to commute past a bird-filled oasis, and walkers and joggers in Sellwood Park can drop down to the meadow of the South Fill and follow a narrow woodsy path northward along the bluff bottom. The trail passes beneath the huge and famous wildlife murals on the walls of Wilhelm’s Portland Memorial Funeral Home, which celebrate in multistory grandeur the biodiversity of the refuge they overlook.
Besides the wetlands themselves, which are home to an impressive lineup of both resident and migratory waterfowl and waders (including those omnipresent great blues), the Willamette Escarpment’s mixed woods are another Oaks Bottom treasure. Particularly in about the northern half of the refuge, they include Garry oaks (aka Oregon white oaks) and a few eccentric Pacific madrones, a reminder of the oak-madrone woodlands that once occupied much of the dry bluffs fronting the east side of the Willamette River. The ash-willow swamps fringing Wapato Marsh, meanwhile, make a wonderful pocket wilderness here in the depths of Portland. The swamps’ huge, often half-hollow Oregon ashes really set the Halloween mood on an October hike. The occasional skyscraping cottonwoods, meanwhile, are favored perches for Oaks Bottom's plentiful bald eagles, which, in spring and summer, you can sometimes see harassing the riverway's hardworking ospreys.
Urban Digest features the influencers and institutions who shape our communities. We craft visually immersive stories that capture the very best in residential architecture and design. Our essays on urban development, arts and culture offer intelligent perspectives you won't find anywhere else. And our guides highlight the enduring landmarks that form the foundation of our cities.