Long before Portland, Oregon, was known for its craft breweries, artisanal cold-brewed coffee and urban lumberjacks, this was a city steeped in nature and the rugged wonder of the Pacific Northwest.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the city’s Forest Park, an interconnected group of parks that make up one of the largest urban forest reserves in the U.S.
Forest Park’s origins date back to 1903 when the city hired the Olmstead Brothers’ landscape architecture firm to create a plan for a linked park system within Portland that would highlight the natural beauty of the area, while conserving greenspace for generations to come. With this vision in mind, the city acquired land and smaller parks over the next four decades, gradually adding to what would officially become known as Forest Park in 1948.
Today, Forest Park is a strip of second- and first-growth forest that lies to the northwest of downtown Portland in the Tualatin Mountains, overlooking the Willamette River. The park covers more than 2,000 hectares and features around 110 km of recreational trails, which are well-used by hikers, trail runners, horseback riders and mountain bikers. Being a city park, there is no camping or fires allowed, but thanks to its proximity to Portland’s neighbourhoods and downtown core the recreational area has entwined itself into the daily lives of Portland residents.
Forest Park is a friendly place, where a hearty hello between hikers and joggers is the norm. Many local businesses offer lunchtime recreational outings for their staff and the park serves as a popular venue for group runs and teambuilding. It’s easy for those working downtown to slip on their runners, go for a quick 30-minute noon-hour jog and make it to the food carts before heading back to work. In fact, several companies, such as Animal Athletics PDX, are now offering lunchtime Forest Park boot camps to local businesses.
Forest Park is also a popular venue for events and races. The Portland Trail Series takes place throughout the year, the Forest Park Marathon occurs annually in August and the Forest Park Conservancy’s All Trails Challenge, where participants commit to traversing all 110 km of Forest Park’s trails in six months, raises money to help support the restoration and preservation of the park. The conservancy also offers Forest Park discovery hikes to users looking for a guided introduction to the park and offers community members volunteer opportunities to get involved in preserving the park’s future.
The most well used trail in the park is the 28-km Wildwood Trail, which begins in nearby Washington Park near the Oregon Zoo. In its first eight kilometres, the Wildwood Trail passes the world-class Portland Japanese Garden, the Pittock Mansion, the Audubon Society of Portland’s Wildlife Sanctuary and the Stone House in Balch Creek Canyon, before continuing west through 20 km of uninterrupted forest. There are dozens of other trails and fire roads that crisscross the park, most with easy access from the city by foot or transit.
Originally a dense, old-growth Douglas fir, hemlock and cedar forest, like much of the Pacific Northwest the Forest Park area was logged extensively in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with logging coming to an end in 1940. Since then the forest has completely recovered and while most trees are in the 50- to 80-year-old range, there are patches of older trees and even first growth fir scattered throughout the park.
The park serves as a bridge between Portland’s urban areas and the nearby natural areas of the Tualatin River valley, Willamette River and the Oregon Coast Range, so the wildlife population is both diverse and thriving, with more than 60 mammal species within the park boundaries. Because of this, cycling and horseback riding are on designated trails only, park users are required to stay on trail at all times and pets are strictly on-leash.
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