Before it was Gresham, eastern Multnomah County was covered in lava.
Until about 300,000 years ago, the area east of downtown Portland was the Boring Lava Field, where ancient blasts and magma flows shaped the landscape between Mount Tabor and Sandy. Today, the neighborhoods are dotted with buttes, and islands of forest and field in a sea of urban development. That means you're never very far from a hike on the fringes of town.
For this year's Summer Guide, we found the best hikes that don't require either leaving Multnomah County or braving westside traffic. Each offers a scenic journey that makes you feel like you're hours away from the city's core.
Difficulty: Dirty Boots
Distance: About 4.5 miles
Mount Tabor hogs the spotlight with its raucous soapbox derby and long history of peed-in open reservoirs, but if you're simply looking to log a few miles in your boots amid superior views, Powell Butte should be your destination. A network of trails circles and crisscrosses the 600 acres of meadowland and woods covering the giant mound. Each intersection is well marked with a yellow post that provides trail names, a small map and the distance to neighboring junctions. Since all of that clarity means it's virtually impossible to get lost, feel free to play "Choose Your Own Adventure" with the route. But for an experience that provides scenic variety, loop the butte's perimeter.
Begin to the left on the Anderegg Trail, named after a dairy farmer whose cows once roamed this land. You'll make a gentle climb through tall grass and lupine that were just beginning to bloom on a recent visit. This leads to the Wildhorse Trail on the right, where you'll continue an upward push among drooping pine boughs passing by the last stand of trees before spilling out into a wide-open field. You'll hardly work up a sweat to reach the Summit Trail, which is again to your right. At 612 feet, there's a century-old stately orchard of walnut and fruit trees. Near that lies a stone circle with plaques directing your gaze to the region's other peaks and buttes.
Once you've soaked up the view, return several hundred yards to the junction and continue the other direction on Summit Lane. With a sprawling meadow at your feet and rolling hills in the distance, you can almost trick yourself into believing the hike is threading through the Mount Hood National Forest rather than your own backyard. The trail skirts a wildlife habitat restoration area before open skies give way to a thick canopy created by Doug firs and big-leaf maples on the South Trail.
After going downhill and crossing a stream, you'll reach the foot of the butte. Begin the loop north at an incline on the Cedar Grove Trail, which connects to the Elderberry Trail leading out of the forest and onto Meadowland Lane. If you're done for the day, use this path to return to the summit and then the Visitor Center. For a little extra work, continue to Pipeline Lane and some visual reminders that under these trails sit two 50-million gallon reservoirs handling more than 85 percent of the water supplied by the Portland Water Bureau. Follow an open drainage culvert to a gently curving staircase dropping down to Holgate Lane. A water duct snakes along the path before twisting into the vegetation and out of sight.
Reconnect with Pipeline Trail and pass a gated entrance to the reservoirs on the side of the hill. From there, you're less than a half mile from where you started.
Follow I-205 to exit 19 for Powell Boulevard/Division Street. Take Powell Boulevard for a little more than 3 miles and turn right on Southeast 162nd Avenue. Park just up the hill in front of the Visitor Center.
Gresham Butte Saddle to Creepy Old Bus
Difficulty: Dirty Boots
Distance: About 2.5 miles
Unlike the well-marked entrance to Powell Butte, it's easy to miss the starting point for a hike around another one of Portland's long-inactive volcanoes. The trail to Gresham Butte lies behind a metal gate tucked along a tidy residential street, bending along a series of backyards with manicured lawns before bringing you to an area surrounded on both sides by skinny alders and the broad leaves of the Oregon vine maple. This route doesn't stay flat for long, as a gradual climb soon becomes a butt-punishing grind.
Use your one opportunity to take a break on level ground at the saddle, which features a four-way crossroad. You'll hang a left, but you could first try to hunt down a unique tree that's native only to Gresham. A nearby sign will educate you on the history of the battle over the Mount Hood Freeway that would've mowed down a significant section of Hogan cedars. The project died and the cedars still thrive, which is why you find yourself walking this stretch rather than sitting in traffic.
To reach another artifact of the failed freeway and the top of Gabbert Hill, continue up the increasingly steep path for an elevation gain of approximately 550 feet. The painful push ends once you reach a mint-green water tower. Take a left to discover the skeleton of a vehicle that looks like a psychedelic bus was driven into the forest and trashed by a rogue Merry Prankster. Now it's a shelter for people to drink beer and scrawl poetry on what's left of the vehicle as indicated by the empty bottles and graffiti. Circle to the left of the miniature junkyard to reconnect with the trail for a quick descent.
Take I-84 east to exit 13 for 181st Avenue toward Gresham and turn right on 181st Avenue. In a little more than a mile, turn left onto East Burnside Street and continue for about 2 miles. At Northwest Eastman Parkway, turn right and drive for nearly 1 mile. Take a left on Powell Boulevard and in a half mile, turn right on Southeast Roberts Avenue and then another right on Regner Road. A right on Southeast 19th Drive will bring you to the gate in front of the trailhead on the right.
Difficulty: Dirty Boots
Distance: 3.6 miles
If the beach crosses your mind anytime the temperature begins to creep above 75 degrees, but the coast just feels too far, you'll find stretches of sand-covered land as close as one exit out of Portland. Oxbow Park is defined by the Sandy River, which twists and winds its way from Mount Hood to the Gorge's gateway at the edge of Gresham. Crowds tend to spread out along the shore on the south side, but there's an expanse of beach that's a little more secluded along a hike north of the river.
The trail begins just beyond a small gate in a parking area that can fit only a handful of cars on a dead-end road. Amble down a hill through one of the closest old-growth forests to Portland. Eventually, views to the river reveal you're high above on a bluff. On a recent visit, voices reverberate across the water like hollers at a tent revival.
Not long after scooting around a second gate prohibiting people on wheels, you'll reach river level. Pass under a series of trees with stubby moss-coated branches that look like gnarled elderly fingers grasping at the air. Brush through chest-high ferns and you'll reach a second spur leading to the bank where you can stretch out on the gray sand and watch the river gushing with snowmelt and glacial sediment. When the water is low, you can walk along the beach that becomes spotted with stones to connect with another trail leading inland. Otherwise, return the way you came to rejoin the main path.
During the last half of the hike, the trail is overgrown with long grass that will tickle and nettles that will sting. And unless there's been some significant drying, the narrowing trail is slick with inches of mud. That means scrambling up hills in a straddle—like those kids on the old Nickelodeon game show Double Dare, who clambered up slides coated in chocolate syrup. You're nearly out of the muck once you reach a vintage car carpeted in moss and flipped upside-down. The road is several hundred feet away and offers enough room on the shoulder to return about a quarter of a mile to the trailhead, giving you enough time to imagine all the different ways that cruiser could have ended up on its top so far from the road.
Follow I-84 east to exit 18 for Lewis and Clark State Park and Oxbow Regional Park, turning left at the stop sign for the parks. Take another left at a stop sign for the Historic Columbia River Highway. After a little more than 4 miles, veer right onto Hurlburt Road. In 2 miles, Gordon Creek Road is on the right. Drive less than half a mile, and where arrow markers indicate a sharp turn on the right side of the road, look for a gravel road with a "Dead End" sign and turn there; where the road stops you'll find parking.
Difficulty: Parks Scare Me
Distance: About 2.5 miles
It's easy to get stuck in a waterfall rut. Despite the city's proximity to an entire alley of cascading water at the western mouth of the Gorge, out of habit we return to Multnomah, Horsetail or Bridal Veil.
But before you hit the road for one of these popular sites to battle it out for parking in lots seething with as much frustration as drivers stuck outside of Fred Meyer for half-price socks on Black Friday, visit a lesser-known waterfall nestled a bit farther off the beaten path. Of all the water attractions in the Columbia River Gorge, Latourell Falls is actually the closest—geographically—to Portland.
The route that loops up and around the basin offers a little bit of something for hikers at all levels: It's relatively short, but the trail provides some uphill climbs that'll boost your heart rate without knocking the wind out of you. You hardly need to get out of the driver's seat to see Lower Latourell, but the upper water drop is a scenic reward near the halfway point.
The first stunning view is just off to the left of the parking area. A landing surrounded by a short stone wall faces the falls, which plunge 249 feet over a hulking rock covered with patches of neon yellow lichen. Continue upward on the fern-layered hillside where you'll eventually cross over the cliff Latourell tumbles over—like someone left a kitchen faucet turned on at full pressure. While it may be tempting to explore an outcropping above the falls, it's best to stay in the bounds of a cable doing its best to corral wayward hikers. Protruding roots and slick conditions from the mist could mean an unintentional shortcut to the bottom of Latourell.
Round a corner and the creek comes into view—though it's still far below some steep dropoffs. You'll reach water level at a bridge crossing in front of Upper Latrourell. These falls have a kink in the middle before they spill into a small pool like an oversized, natural water slide. A shallow cavern that stretches behind it provides just enough room for several people to take a seat and bask in the spray. Once you've cooled down, hit the trail on the west side of the creek until the loop veers away from the water. Not long after ducking under a tree that resembles a pointed elbow hovering above the path, the trail drops down onto the Historic Columbia River Highway. On the left side, near the bridge back to the parking area, there's a small monument to the man who donated Latourell Falls—Guy Talbot, namesake of the surrounding park.
Head east on I-84 and take exit 28 for Bridal Veil/Historic Columbia River Highway. Turn right on Historic Columbia River Highway. The parking area at Guy W. Talbot State Park will be on the left in about 3 miles.
Difficulty: Parks Scare Me
Distance: 3 miles
Admit it—you've always wanted to take the exit off of I-84 for Rooster Rock to see just how many fleshy, naked bodies were swimming at one of the state's two clothing-optional outdoor beaches.
Begin at the east end of the parking lot and head toward the beach where, yes, there may be eager nudists, but also a path that follows the wide and mighty Columbia as it carves its route east through imposing bluffs. However, if the river is swollen from a season of heavy rain, you'll find geese swimming where sand should be, and a submerged sign warning about the location's lax dress code.
If the beach is flooded, head a hundred yards or so inland just past the restrooms to find the way: A marker points toward the Rooster Rock Nature Trail. You'll duck into a forest that doubles as a disc golf course, where low-hanging branches and eroded bluffs undoubtedly claim many putters. Tall branches provide protection from the sun or rain along much of the twig-strewn trail, but slits between the tree trunks offer glimpses across to the Washington side of the Gorge. Some smart squirrels call these woods home—they know the two-legged creatures are packing food and won't hesitate to beg like a dog or take a morsel from your fingers.
As you near the turn in the loop, the hillside is dominated by white flowers that could double as tiny, ornate feather dusters. The plants crowd around a skinny wooden bench that's positioned at the top of a hill toward the biggest break in shrubbery on the route. The Columbia River bends toward Oregon from this vantage point before arching back the other way. Layers of mountains jut into the sky and if you look closely you can see as far as Beacon Rock. The return trail runs closer to the freeway, with a small canyon separating the two.
Take I-84 east to exit 25 Rooster Rock State Park. Continue to the parking area. There is a $5 day-use fee. Drive to the east end of the lot.