Editor’s note: Call destinations before you visit to make sure they’re open. Follow all COVID-19 guidelines, get vaccinated before you travel and remember to bring your face covering.
When you think of the Portland Region, what comes to mind?
Perhaps it’s the famed food-and-drink scene, filled with food trucks, coffee shops and award-winning restaurants. Or maybe you imagine the quirky neighborhood districts boasting eclectic arts and culture on every block.
But behind all the urban appeal are the places where local makers draw much of their inspiration, regional landmarks that have stood the test of time. They spread across the region, far beyond just one city, from forested trails for hiking and biking, to scenic historic vineyards, to wildlife-rich refuges, plus a giant waterfall — all ripe for exploring. The Portland Region just may surprise you.
Here’s how to get out there and discover the Portland Region’s most iconic sites.
The Bridges of Portland
From the St. Johns Bridge in the north to the Sellwood Bridge in the south, Portland’s iconic structures spanning the Willamette River are some of the city’s most defining features — earning it the moniker of Bridgetown. In all there are 12 bridges crossing the Willamette River. But they’re not just eye candy, and they’re not just for transportation, either. They’re for connections — of people and places. Many of them are pedestrian- and bike-friendly, most notably the youngest, Tilikum Crossing, which was built in 2015 as the “bridge of the people.” You can comfortably walk, pedal, scoot or roll between Portland’s west side and central east side across this cable-stayed marvel of a bridge, without vehicle traffic except streetcars and buses in separated lanes. Grab your camera for the best angles: St. Johns Bridge from Cathedral Park; a streetcar traversing the red Broadway Bridge from the Rose Quarter; a look up at cars on the Steel Bridge from the pedestrian lane below; the illuminated White Stag “Portland Oregon” sign heading westward on Burnside Bridge; and the Morrison or Hawthorne bridges from the Eastbank Esplanade. For a pedal-powered tour, check out the BIKETOWN bike-share system.
County: Multnomah County
At 5,200 acres, Forest Park could fit six Central Parks inside of it. It’s one of the largest urban forests in the United States, beloved by locals who find bliss by heading to the trail for a day hike, a trail run or a casual nature stroll. With more than 80 miles of trails, fire lanes and forest roads, finding just the right trail for you could be daunting. The impressive Wildwood Trail, a National Recreation Trail, spans 30.2 miles from Washington Park to Newberry Road; you can trek a segment from Pittock Mansion to the beautifully designed Barbara Walker Crossing. First-timers often flock to the Lower Macleay Trail to the photo-worthy Stone House, also called the Witch’s Castle, then continue to the Portland Audubon wildlife sanctuary while listening for songbirds along the way. Take heed of trails that are shared with mountain bikers and equestrians and follow other tips on how to Take Care Out There. Pack a face covering to wear on the trail and in other outdoor spaces when it’s not possible to stay 6 feet apart. For a half-day adventure, check out the Portland 4T trail for a fantastic way to explore the city by trail (running through Forest Park), tram (temporarily closed to the public), trolley and train.
County: Multnomah County
You might know about the cherry blossoms that put on a showy display for two weeks each spring along Portland’s downtown waterfront, but if you’re looking for just a bit more solace, head east to Gresham to visit Tsuru Island Gresham Japanese Garden. Part of Gresham Main City Park, the tiny garden was built in the 1970s after Johnson Creek was rerouted and this parcel of land was an island. Members of the Japanese American Citizens League took on the project to build a bridge to the island and create the garden as a living memorial for the Nisei, or second-generation Japanese Americans. It included 5,000 rocks from the Columbia River and boulders from Johnson Creek. The garden is free and open to the public year-round, with colors that change with the seasons — from the deep-red dogwoods in January to the lush greens of summer and golden maples in October. Centrally located in Gresham, it’s just steps from the Springwater Corridor trail, one of many easy getaways from Portland.
County: Multnomah County
Pop quiz: How do you pronounce Willamette? It’s how locals can tell if you’re new to town. (Correct pronunciation: wil-AM-it, which is a Clackamas Chinook word for water or river.) The Willamette River is the 13th largest by volume in the U.S., flowing 187 miles from the Cascade Mountains to the Columbia River north of Portland. In Multnomah County, the river bisects Portland’s east and west sides and is a part of everyday life for residents and visitors alike. Thanks in part to restoration work by groups like Willamette Riverkeeper, you can swim, fish and paddle via a growing number of access points along the river in the Portland Region. Consider Mary S. Young State Park in West Linn, where the Willamette meets the Clackamas at Clackamette Park in Oregon City, or the dog-friendly Sellwood Riverfront Park in southeast Portland. The Human Access Project lists more swimming areas (and safety tips). Check out these popular spots for stand-up paddleboarding, and be sure to wear your PFD and leash. Download a map of the upper or lower Willamette Water Trail for river access points, campsite info, safety tips and more. All non-motorized boaters (with craft 10 feet or longer) must carry a Waterway Access Permit or risk receiving a fine.
Counties: Multnomah County, Clackamas County
The power, history and cultural significance of the Willamette River converge at the marvel that is Willamette Falls, an urban waterfall of epic proportions just 13 miles southeast of Portland. It’s unusual because it’s horseshoe-shaped — 42 feet high and 1,500 feet wide, caused by a basalt shelf in the river floor. It’s also the largest waterfall by volume in the Northwest, a spectacular sight you can see by vantage points along the bluffs in Oregon City like McLoughlin Promenade or by water, on a guided Willamette Jetboat Excursions tour or a guided paddle tour with Clackamas River Outfitters or eNRG Kayaking, which also hosts a series of live music concerts on the river each summer. The falls are a special place for Tribal fishers, who return to this site each year to harvest salmon and Pacific lamprey using fishing platforms, just as they’ve done for thousands of years. For more local history, visit the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center (temporarily closed) or take the municipal elevator downtown, known as a “vertical street.”
County: Clackamas County
A former channel of the Tualatin River, Oswego Lake is a picturesque reservoir dotted by boats and surrounded by charming storefronts. It anchors the posh suburb of Lake Oswego, known for its natural beauty and sprawling lakeshore homes, just 10 minutes south of Portland. Note that access to Oswego Lake is limited to Lake Oswego residents, but you’re free to admire its beauty from the happy waterfront. The city invites visitors to its revitalized downtown area for delectable culinary delights — from New Orleans-style doughnuts to barbecue, ice cream and cupcakes. Visitors can browse the independent boutiques, sip a beverage on the patio at the urban winery and brewery, stroll the farmers market, play a round at the public golf course, tour the Gallery Without Walls‘ 90-plus public art sculptures throughout town, and hop on a bike share to ride along the nature trails at Millennium Plaza Park. At the east end of the city, George Rogers Park is one of the best places to access the Willamette River. It also hosts 26 acres of walking trails and historic structures like the “Iron Furnace,” built in 1866 during the city’s manufacturing boom. Just north of town is Tryon Creek State Natural Area, one of the area’s most popular spots for urban hikes, along 8 miles of family-friendly forested trails sprinkled with bridges and boardwalks. In West Linn, there’s always something in bloom at the Rogerson Clematis Garden — a delightful place for a picnic and early-morning photo shoot among the flowers.
County: Clackamas County
This mellow tributary of the Willamette River runs for 83 miles through the farmland and communities southwest of Portland. Paddlers flock to the newly designated Tualatin River National Water Trail — 40 miles with 12 access points between the Willamette Park in West Linn and Rood Bridge Park in Hillsboro — for easy nature escapes on the water. See geese, ducks, heron, river otters and other wildlife as you set out with a kayak, canoe, stand-up paddleboard or even a tube for an easy paddle or lazy float through the countryside. You’ll pass below train bridges and overpasses, see small waterfalls trickling from the rocks and maybe even spy a few rope swings left by enthusiastic swimmers. Download a free water-trail map to find the best trail section for you, or consider strolling the Tualatin River Greenway Trail along the river’s south bank to parks. On a floodplain of the basin, the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge is a sanctuary near the cities, home to nearly 20 species of birds and a key stopping point on the Pacific Flyway; observe wildlife year round on a nature trail along the wetlands with interpretive stops — just remember to bring your camera.
County: Washington County
There’s more than one wine-growing region in Oregon — in fact, there are 21, and one of the very newest is right in Portland’s backyard. The Tualatin Hills AVA — the northernmost AVA in the Willamette Valley — may be one of the most recent, but there’s nothing new about the family vineyards here, many of which were founded by second- or third-generation winegrowers focused on their sustainable connection to the land. Visitors can dive into the history of the region while sipping a fine pinot at a Victorian-farmhouse tasting room, a historic barn or a converted dairy. There are no crowds here; winemakers are typically the ones who’ll greet you and serve you with a pour and a story. Make sure to stop by the area’s many farm stands for cherries, cheese, hazelnuts and other homegrown products to pair with your favorite bottle. Here are several vineyard tasting rooms to explore; consider the innovative biodynamic winemaking happening in the valley and don’t miss Abbey Creek Vineyard in North Plains, founded by Oregon’s first Black winemaker.
County: Washington County
Banks-Vernonia State Trail
Looking to pedal along miles of easy-grade tree-lined paths, across streams and wooden bridges, free from car traffic? The Banks-Vernonia State Trail is that dreamy destination, 26 miles west of Portland amidst surrounding farmland. This was Oregon’s first “rail-to-trail” project, a former 1920s railway route built to transport lumber from local mills to Portland. The railroad stopped running in the 1960s, but you can still marvel at the charming vestiges of the past, including the 80-foot-tall Buxton Trestle, which you can stand on for a sweeping forest view. You can access the trail at any of six trailhead points. L.L. “Stub” Stewart State Park is adjacent to the Banks-Vernonia State Trail and offers camping, while Hillsboro, Forest Grove, Banks and Vernonia all offer lodging, dining and other services. Know that the trail is shared by cyclists, pedestrians and horse riders, so say hello and follow Take Care Out There practices. It’s also part of the largest Tualatin Valley Scenic Bikeway, winding through roads that skirts farms, vineyards and a historic college town.
County: Washington County, Columbia County
Immerse yourself in the tranquil wetlands and eco-diversity at Scappoose Bay, 25 miles north of Portland, just outside of the town of St. Helens, on the Columbia River. While it’s a popular beginner-friendly spot for kayakers and other paddlers, it’s not exactly a space that gets crowded, with 85,000 acres of small islands, streams and side channels ripe for discovery. Put in at Scappoose Bay Marine Park and pass floating homes, marshy grasses and salmon. This stretch of the Lower Columbia River Water Trail is is perfect for beginner or intermediate paddlers, with rentals and tours launching from Scappoose Bay Paddling Center. More experienced adventurers may consider kayak camping at Sand Island Marine Park, which hosts a free campground and a private ferry that will shuttle you by boat to the island and back to town (and delivers pizza, too). Land lubbers can explore the nature trails at Scappoose Bay Marine Park, which are paved and great for all mobilities. Cyclists can hop onto the 55-mile Crown-Zellerbach Trail, a rails-to-trails route that starts at the northern end of Scappoose Bay on the Multnomah Channel.
County: Columbia County