Forest Park is only eight miles long—it's about the same size in area as Nauru, the world's smallest island nation—but walking from one end to another will take you 12 hours. The Wildwood Trail, which winds along the slopes of the park's many basalt ridges, is so twisted that the path from Northwest Newberry Road to Washington Park runs for 30.2 miles. That's over 63,000 steps—four miles longer than a marathon and about equal to the distance from downtown Portland to Woodburn. I walked the whole thing in one day, and so can you.
You'll want to start early. My hiking companions and I arrived at the north entrance of the park, a barely marked trailhead on Northwest Newberry Road, at 7:30 am. If you start any later than 9 am, you'll be hiking the last few miles in the dark. We drove to the trailhead, but, if you're very ambitious, it's possible to take public transit—the line 17 bus stops 1.5 miles down the hill on weekdays. Wear good shoes. Although the path is mostly flat, walking 30 miles in sneakers will wreck your feet no matter how soft the ground. Bring moleskin. I wore sturdy boots and still got blisters that left me limping for days. Pack enough food to make up for the 5,000 or so calories you'll burn in the walk and enough water to last you through the first 25 miles. I brought two liters—it wasn't enough. Bring your favorite painkillers, too.
The trail settles into a gentle monotony within a few minutes from the trailhead, meandering gently up and down along fern-covered slopes, thick with Douglas fir and Western red cedar. Very little of the forest survived the saws of old Stumptown. The trees are nearly all second-growth, few of them more than 70 years old. The quiet is broken only by birdsong, the ever-present trickle of tiny streams and the occasional thudding footsteps and ragged breathing of a trail runner. There are other people on the path, but not many—we passed 78, mostly runners, along with 16 dogs. There are flying squirrels in the park, but we did not see them. Slugs, snails and creeping voles we saw, but no flying squirrels. It is cool and damp and blissfully boring. But for the three points where the trail crosses roads, the city seems far, far away.
We have a lousy economy to thank for the survival of these woods. The lands that would become Forest Park were added to Portland when the city merged with the town of Linnton in 1915, but they were privately owned and slated for development. Leif Erikson Drive, along which the first housing tracts were to be built, was completed that same year, but the beginning of World War I, combined with the closure of the Panama Canal for repairs and landslides in the West Hills, forced the housing market into a downward spiral. The landowners went bankrupt, unable to pay assessments, and hundreds of lots were forfeited to the city and county. Debate over what to do with the land continued through 1947, when a citizens' committee asked the city to make it a park. One year later, 4,000 acres were combined to create one of the world's largest urban forests.
The first 15 miles are easy. The trails are well-maintained, save for a single washed-out bridge and many low patches that have been turned to thick, sticky mud pits by mountain bikers, who continue to ride the trail despite park rules prohibiting them. We stopped for lunch at the 16-mile marker, where the trail crosses Saltzman Road and there is an informal picnic spot. (The trail is marked every quarter-mile.) By this point our feet were beginning to get sore. We stretched. Stretching is important.
The trail grows uneven between miles 9 and 15, twisting about in tight switchbacks. Then it begins to head uphill, and things start to get ugly. Our conversations grew stranger. There was singing. At 24 miles, we began to waver between elation and despair. We arrived at Pittock Mansion ragged and thirsty, refilled our water bottles at the bathroom and took in the view, then pressed on. Drenched with sweat and wobbling, we attracted stares from Washington Park joggers. Everything gained an air of the surreal. Hoyt Arboretum's labeled trees, an enormous water reservoir, kids at the archery range—all menacing and hilarious.
We actually did not finish. Just past the quarter-mile marker, the trail veers left, but we missed the sign. We walked for 10 minutes before we realized our mistake, then cut off the trail, down three flights of steps (a terrible idea) and into the parking lot, where we found the Mile 0 sign and posed. We had done it, more or less. We conquered the Wildwood. That evening's beers were the sweetest we had ever tasted.
The Wildwood Trail is by far the longest wilderness hike within Portland city limits, but it's far from the only one. Try these first:
Powell Butte Nature Park
Take the line 9 bus to Southeast 162nd Avenue and walk uphill for a pleasant, easy, 3-mile climb through a century-old orchard and breezy fields for extraordinary mountain views.
Sauvie Island Slough
Take Highway 30 to Sauvie Island and turn north on Sauvie Island Road, then turn right at Kruger's Farm Market and follow Reeder Road until it ends. Then walk along the Columbia shore through bird-filled slough and quiet woods up to the very northern point of the island, where you will be rewarded with views of an enormous paper mill. Seven miles round trip.
Tryon Creek State Natural Area
There are eight miles of trails in this beautiful park, and the line 39 bus will take you right to the entrance behind Lewis & Clark Law School. Go in March to see the trilliums blooming. It's a nice way to burn off breakfast at the Original Pancake House.
Drive or take the line 15 bus to the end of Northwest Upshur Street, just past Northwest 29th Avenue, and walk along Balch Creek—named for the first man convicted of murder in Portland—past the burned-out former visitors' center known to all local elementary-schoolers as the Witch House and on along the Wildwood Trail past the Audubon Society to Pittock Mansion. Take in the majestic view, then walk back—it's 4.5 miles each way—or press on another four miles to Washington Park to catch the MAX.