I like beautiful scenery and a bit of adventure. So here are my top 5 outdoor experiences from my trip to Portland, Oregon this summer:
5. Portland Spirit Cruise (best sunbathing)
I'm a sucker for anything outdoors that involves some sort of body of water. So when I saw a LivingSocial deal for a 2-hour cruise along the Willamette River—Portland's main waterway—I grabbed it.
When my friend and I arrived, staff directed us to a stairway that took us to the ship's top deck where the majority of the passengers remained for the journey. The boat wasn't super crowded and had chairs dispersed about which allowed for easy conversation with the other passengers on board.
We glided down the river at a generous pace sipping on some wine while the Captain described historical and present-day facts about Portland and its waterways. The sky was a vibrant blue painted by wisps of white clouds—the perfect backdrop for admiring the shoreline. With the natural breeze from the ride, this could not have been a better location (or better weather) for sunbathing and light chatter as we tuned in and out of the Captain's narration.
4. The International Rose Test Garden (best smell)
With the nickname City of Roses, a visit to Portland would be lacking without a trip to the Rose Garden. Up on a large hill in Washington Park, the rose garden may be a tourist trap, but I went there three times during my stay in Portland. I went with different people each time, and I was always happy to wake up and smell the roses.
With over 7,000 rose plants of over 500 different varieties, the garden grounds are truly epic. Rows and rows of endless rose-s! (See what I did there?) Some were so fragrant I felt like a honey bee drawn to their nectar. I tried to get a sniff of every one of them—I couldn't get enough!
The first time I went to the Rose Garden I happened to stumble upon the Portland Pride celebration. Hundreds of people sat on a tiered grass hill "stadium" focused on a stage below with music and performances. What a wonderful idea to have a celebration of love in the place dedicated to the one flower that is most symbolic of love!
As the name suggests, the International Rose Test Garden is where cultivars from all over the world come to examine the different roses' characteristics in order to pick the perfect variety. In the same location is the Shakespeare Garden which includes various plants and flowers named in Shakespearean plays. In honor of his 382nd birthday in 1946, a plaque was placed on a brick wall displaying one of Shakespeare's quotes, "Of all flowers methinks a rose is best."
3. Council Crest Park (best views)
On a clear day at Council Crest Park, you can look toward the city of Portland below to see a spectacular view of five different mountains in the distance: Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, Mt. Jefferson, and Mt. Rainier. My photos really don't do this place justice, but there's something about snow-capped mountains that captivates me. Perhaps it's because I spent most of my life staring at the rolling Catskills which only ever get snow-covered in winter.
At council crest, there is a large stone circle with a compass engraved in the center. A group of us took turns standing on the brass marker at its center to hear a surprising echo of our own voices.
Although we went to council crest by Zipcar, there are other ways to get there. Many different hiking trails will take you to Council Crest. Just get ready to climb what is considered the highest point above sea level in Portland at 1,073 feet!
2. Forest Park (best trails)
Over 5,000 acres of forest stretches the coast of the Willamette River just west of downtown Portland. The forests' innards include pedestrian-only trails and bike trails winding all around the park like an intestinal track. My friend and I had a great time navigating this park. We walked along St. John's bridge from North Portland (NoPo) to begin our journey on Ridge trail. The trailhead was marked by a bunch of stairs off the avenue that led up and up, into the lush, shaded forest.
We ran into older folks walking their dogs, joggers, and even children with their families. But these were clearly locals who knew the park well. Forest Park is not the kind of place for an inexperienced hiker. We came prepared with water and snacks because if you don't know where you're going you can easily get lost there. Forest Park is big. Really big. And even though we saw stray locals wandering through, there were long stretches of time when we were completely alone. You can feel totally disconnected from the city and avenues below in there and not know which trail will take you out or turn you deeper into the woods. At times, our hike felt a bit like the hobbit and the dwarves' trek through Mirkwood, shaded from the sun and unable to be sure how far in you had gone or how much farther you had to go. The difference was—we had GPS. Oh, and there were no giant spiders, just an adorable banana slug and a curious bird or two.
Once we were about halfway into the forest, we started navigating our way out toward the Skyline Tavern. Of course I totally geeked out over this destination plan because every adventure/fantasy-fiction book has a "Tavern" as a rest stop (I know, I'm pushing my glasses up my nose).
Despite our GPS tracking, we had several surprises on the way there—"Oh! How did we get to Firelane 7 already?" After we got back to our AirBnB, I mapped out where we went online and I'm still not exactly sure how we ended up where we did (note the perfect straight line I drew in the map above). The important thing is that we did reach the Skyline Tavern. At first we sat outside the front, only entering to fill our water bottle. But, eventually, the Tavern wench...okay, I'm sorry, I'm sorry...the amazingly hospitable woman working inside invited us in. Even though we had brought our own food and drink, she directed us through the bar and outside the back where we sat down among lots of empty tables with a gorgeous view. Ahhh, we sighed. A much needed rest.
We followed a clockwise path through the forest that day, making our way back in along the Waterline Trail and out just north of where we had originally entered the park.
There are so many different paths one may take through this place. If you find yourself in Portland, I encourage you to pick a trailhead and start an adventure of your own. But be smarter than us - follow the park's printable map here.
1. Mt. Tabor Park (best place of serenity)
I have to admit my bias on this one—I might like this outdoor spot the most because I discovered it organically while wandering by myself.
At the mid-way point of my trip, on the hottest day in Portland, I spent the morning and afternoon in the air conditioning at Fat Straw, a cafe in southeast. Using their free wi-fi, I researched fun things to do for the rest of my trip before cabin fever got the best of me. The sky was clear and I could no longer let the temperature keep me cooped up inside. I found a big patch of green with water nearby on my GPS and decided to gather my things and walk toward it. Maybe I could cool off there in the late afternoon heat?
I was relieved to be outside again, but the sun beat down so violently an egg could have been fried on the pavement. I trudged along the sidewalk for about twenty minutes until I came upon the giant "lake" on the map. But, like a mirage, this was not a place for swimming. I had found my way to Portland's primary source of drinking water: The Reservoirs at Mt. Tabor Park.
I picked a spot on the hill next to the first Reservoir and ate the other half of my morning sandwich from the cafe. Then I continued on up the stairs, walked along the second Reservoir, and up a path shaded by looming evergreens.
I was not the only one with the same idea that day. Despite the incredible heat, I passed a sweaty couple on a run together, an older woman reading a book at a picnic table, a teenage skateboarder or two, and stray others during my stroll deeper into the park. Apparently, going to Mt. Tabor park is "a very Portland thing to do," or so my host informed me that evening.
Soon, I came upon a single wooden bench bathed in light in a clearing off the path. The bench looked so inviting I decided to have a seat for a while to take in my surroundings.
A warm breeze brushed against the perspiration on my neck. There was the murmuring of birds and pitter-pattering of small creatures. Light fell through the parting branches like golden droplets of honey. The monstrous trees above dropped pinecones onto the soft bed of needles surrounding me. I took all of this in and reminded myself to take moments like this frequently over the year ahead during my travels. I must remember to be in the present, to look within, to travel my own way, on my own time, and to where my own path leads me—always.
A few days later, I went back to Mt. Tabor to share my discovery, this place of serenity, with a friend. We watched the sun set over the Reservoirs. Even with her by my side and several others sharing the lawn with us, there was a peacefulness to that park that I will think back to during my travels: a reminder that serenity comes from within as much as without.