Portland's urban adventures

While Oregon has long been known for its outdoor endeavours, Portland has grown into an explorer’s playground, with a number of al fresco activities inside the city limits.

With majestic Mount Hood to the east and dramatic sea cliffs to the west, Oregon is well known for its hiking, biking and rugged outdoor endeavours. But unknown to some, the state’s largest city has grown into something of an urban adventurer’s playground, too, with a multitude of high-octane activities on offer inside the city limits.

Portland sits near the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers atop an extinct volcanic field, with the Willamette River running through the middle. There are more than 10,000 acres of public parks and natural areas packed with walking and hiking paths, more than 300 miles of greenways and bike boulevards, and people here have a genuine appreciation for getting out and enjoying the surroundings.

Shawn Granton, who runs the Portland Urban Adventure League, said the city is uniquely suited to exploration because its variety of landscapes are all within easy reach, thanks to the light rail, aerial tram and trails that connect them. “We have lots of traditional urban things, but the wildness [that sits] around the fringes and sometimes runs through the heart of the city is something that is rarely found in a city our size,” Granton said.

Whether you are most comfortable on foot, on a bike or in the water, adventure lovers will find something to smile about in Portland – and you won’t have to leave town to find it.

On foot
Overlooking the Willamette River west of downtown Portland, Forest Park is one of the largest protected wilderness areas inside a US city. The park comprises more than 5,000 acres and 70 miles of trails nestled under towering old-growth trees. The 30-mile Wildwood Trail is a good place to see some of the park’s hundreds of wildlife species; keep an eye out for flying squirrels, beavers and chickadees.

For a unique geological experience, Mount Tabor – technically an extinct volcanic cinder cone – sits in the middle of Mount Tabor Park, located in the eponymous south Portland neighbourhood. There are meandering trails, reservoir views and wide grassy picnic areas along the moderately steep incline to the top of the extinct caldera.  The views of Mount Hood and the Portland from the apex are worth the 400ft climb.

Part of Portland’s charm is how easy it is to get around without a car. The 4T trail – named for the tram, trolley, train and four-mile walking trail that make up the self-guided tour of the city, creates a loop so you can choose where to begin and end. A central starting point is at the downtown Washington Park Light Rail station, which, at 260ft below ground, is the deepest underground station in North America. In the world, only Moscow’s Park Pobedy is deeper.

From there, trek through the West Hills area to Council Crest Park (one of the few places in town where bikes are not allowed), where a wooded path leads up to the city’s highest elevation point, the 1,073ft-high summit.

After taking in the panoramic views of the Cascade Mountain range and downtown Portland, head back down via the Marquam Trail, following the 4T signs to the Portland Aerial tram, where futuristic pods offer a birds-eye view of the city while transporting you 3,300ft in three minutes, depositing you at Southwest Waterfront Street directly across from the Portland Streetcar, which will take you back downtown.

By bike
If you are looking to bike, every quadrant of the city is crawling with bicycle shops, many of which offer rentals. Water Front Bikes in downtown Portland has the largest collection, including tandems if you want to ride with a partner. Veloce Bikes in the Hawthorne neighbourhood has high-end and specialty bikes for visitors with an appreciation for the finer things, and with two locations in Northwest, Kalkholk Electric Bikes has motorised bikes for those who want a little extra power.

The city calendar is packed with bike-related events. Pedalpalooza, a three-week biking extravaganza held each June, offers “bike in” movies, food cart tours and the famous World Naked Bike Ride, held on 8 June this year. During the Portland Bridge Pedal, which takes place on 11 August 2013, the city’s 10 bridges are partially closed to car traffic, welcoming cyclists to traverse the waterways. Or for something more adrenaline-filled, the long-standing weekly Zoobombing meet up, held every Sunday evening, is where die-hard speed demons take part in high-speed, downhill bike races. Bring your bike, your helmet, and most importantly, your courage.

For a more relaxed ride, head to Springwater Corridor in the Hosford-Abernethy neighbourhood (enter the trail at Southeast 4th Avenue and Southeast Ivon Street). A former rail line built in the early 1900s, the 40-mile path winds along the banks of the Willamette River through wetlands and industrial areas, and crosses Johnson’s Creek – one of the few free-flowing streams in the city. Parts of the trail are fairly secluded – look for robins, starlings and the occasional heron or deer.

For adventure mixed with local insights, Granton’s Urban Adventure League offers biking tours based on historical and geographical themes. Granton said his most popular expedition is the three-hour Dead Freeways Ride, which retraces the routes of freeways that were torn down or planned but never built. One stop along the tour is the Mount Hood Freeway, the construction of which was halted in 1974 to preserve the neighbourhoods that would have been demolished. Left behind were “ghost ramps” –dead end freeway ramps suspended in air –and parks that sit where eight–lane-highways would have been.

Near the water
There are kayak rentals along the west and east banks of the Willamette, where you can explore on your own or with a group, gliding under bridges and taking in the cityscapes. For the romantic adventurer, Portland Kayak Company offers guided sunset and moonlight tours of Ross Island, the biggest of the four forested Willamette River islands. The tour takes about three hours, with sweeping skyline views along the way. Paddlers pass sandy beaches, protected wilderness areas where ospreys and eagles roam and a blue heron rookery with upwards of 50 nests.

Slightly north of city limits – but only by 10 miles, and easily reachable by car – Sauvie Island is one of North America’s largest river islands. Larger than Manhattan, the Columbia River island is a lush agricultural site and nature preserve with countless miles of flat hiking and biking trails. In the summer and autumn, bring a basket to collect the fresh berries, flowers and vegetables available at the “U-pick” stations across the island. The Pumpkin Patch is a local favourite, with beautiful peach and nectarine orchards laden with juicy softball-sized fruit in late summer.

There are also a few public beaches on the island. Reeder Road has access points to popular Walton Beach on the island’s northeast coast and the one-mile-long Collins Beach, which has been open to nude bathers since the 1970s. Sturgeon Lake at the north end of the island has a sandy beach for swimming and it joins with the waterways of Steelman and Mud Lakes, making it an ideal spot for more experienced kayakers who are looking for a challenge.

Most travellers come to Portland for the beer, coffee and the laid back, artistic feel of the city. But once you get under the trees and in the water, you might end up staying for the adventure.