Everybody knows Pioneer Courthouse Square is Portland’s living room. But this city’s public space is a mansion, with dozens of rooms, extensive grounds and extravagant amenities. Here’s the blueprint for the vast manor that is Portland.
Portland’s Wet Bar: Colonel Summers Park
Southeast 17th Avenue and Taylor Street
Without dispute, this inner-Southeast park is where the city parties. If you’ve ever been to Monday Funday—a mess of dodgeball players, hula-hoopers, fire-twirlers and LARPers who gather weekly—you’re familiar with the no-strings-attached utopia that is Colonel Summers, that alternate reality where no one works an oppressive desk job and open-container laws don’t exist. This 4-acre park is pretty damn flat, meaning you can see the narcs coming with time to shove that homebrewed hooch back in your sustainably produced hemp backpack. Sit in the center of the park for maximum range of vision.
Portland’s Front Bushes: Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden
5801 SE 28th Ave.
Roses get all the attention in this city. What about all those blooming shrubs over by Reed College? You missed April and May—the most floral months of the year—but the bucolic park ($4 for entry) has ponds and all the attendant waterfowl. Afterwards, go make some regrettable antiques purchases in Sellwood.
Portland’s Basement Futon: Mocks Crest
2206 N Skidmore St.
Sure, westside teenyboppers take their parents’ minivans up to Council Crest and crawl into the backseat for awkward fumblings, but the rest of us—those of us who might lack access to motor vehicles, for example—pedal north to the Skidmore Bluffs to sit on a scrubby stretch of grass, gaze out at the industrial splendor and make out with our main squeeze underneath a scratchy picnic blanket.
Portland’s Breezeway: Pier Park-Chimney Park Bridge
Just south of North Columbia Boulevard, over the train tracks
Gone are the days when St. Johns dog owners had to tiptoe across the train tracks to travel from leafy Pier Park to the off-leash area at neighboring Chimney Park. As of March, they’ve got a snazzy new steel truss bridge. Sorry about chopping down that 120-foot sequoia—a home remodel requires sacrifices, y’know?
Portland’s Den: Laurelhurst Park
Southeast Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard and Stark Street
Like Pioneer Courthouse Square, but 34 times the size and with green shag carpeting to cushion your fall, Laurelhurst is where the clan gathers to play, where you spot your sister canoodling with the stoner kid next door and where the grown-ups tell you—with equal parts anger and sympathy—to take down your slackline and put away your fireworks. You know this place. You love this place.
Portland’s Forever-Unfinished Backyard Project: Westmoreland Park
Southeast McLoughlin and Bybee boulevards
Westmoreland Park’s famous duck pond—home not only to an overpopulation of ducks but to roving packs of angry Canada geese that are far too comfortable around people—is no more. Since 2004, the park has been undergoing an expansive restoration designed to bring back salmon runs, and part of this has meant the replacement of the concrete duck pond with a dirt-bedded creek meandering through the park. But as with all backyard projects, the full restoration is long delayed.
Portland’s Toilet: Mount Tabor Park
Southeast 60th Avenue and Salmon Street
Wave to the camera!
Portland’s Chipping Green: Eastmoreland Golf Course
2425 SE Bybee Blvd.
Dust off that argyle and work on your swing, because this is the closest any of our municipal golf courses comes to feeling like a private club, or a wealthy family’s backyard chipping green. Head to the driving range and keep your head on a swivel: Mayor Charlie Hales lives in the neighborhood—maybe you can spot him digging around for stray balls in the trees behind the sixth hole.
Portland’s Cul-de-sac: Delta Park
North Denver Avenue and Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard
The kid who lives on the cul-de-sac is always popular: His street is home base for every neighborhood game known to man. Delta Park is Portland’s cul-de-sac, in a northerly swamp zone between the Columbia Slough and River. The park features Monday- and Tuesday-night bike races at the Portland International Raceway, seven different softball fields and nine soccer fields in the Owens Sports Complex, a football field, a volleyball court and a playground.
Portland’s Game Room: Director Park
815 SW Park Ave.
Giant chess! And free Wi-Fi, if screens are more your speed.
Portland’s Greenhouse: Leach Botanical Garden
6704 SE 122nd Ave.
More than 16 acres and 20,000 species of plants make Leach Botanical Garden worth a trip to Lents, which is saying something. A lot of something.
Portland’s Sprinkler: McCoy Park
North Trenton Street and Newman Avenue
The west side hogs most of the city’s fountains, but tucked away in the Portsmouth neighborhood—essentially in the backyard of the University of Portland—you’ll find an oblong swath of pavement spouting 6-foot-high jets of water. They shoot unpredictably, which is the closest we get to Yellowstone. Except these geysers won’t burn you, and you’re allowed to run through them.
Portland’s Backyard Jungle Gym: Dickinson Park
Southwest 55th Avenue and Alfred Court
In a park otherwise notable mostly for its hilltop view and utter lack of restrooms, there is a massive jungle gym that looks like it was designed by aliens. (It was actually designed by a couple in Minnesota.) The “Evos” play structure is something like a gyroscope that’s been disassembled and made into a climbing gym—a mess of arcs filled in with climbing net, weird looping structures that can be climbed either right side up or upside down, bendy-straw poles that spin, and little elevated pads that might as well be platforms in a video game.
Portland’s Pet Cemetery: Peninsula Outdoor Pool
700 N Rosa Parks Way
You think Portland’s zoo has trouble keeping its animals alive today? Flash back to late 1957, when the zoo airlifted about 60 emperor and Adélie penguins from Antarctica to Portland…before their habitat was finished. In the meantime, the birds—which the Oregonian’s editorial page described as paragons of “dignity” and “jolly spirit”—were kept in the public pool in North Portland’s Peninsula Park. Thousands lined up to see George and Hector and Droopy, and Portland was trumpeted as the Penguin Capital of the World. But then came a fungal infection called aspergillosis. Then-zoo director Jack Marks rushed in drugs and medical authorities from the East Coast, shipped in seawater from the Pacific, and attempted to quarantine the sick birds in the east end of the pool. His efforts floundered: At least a dozen penguins died. The zoo’s penguinarium didn’t open till March 1959, more than a year after its inhabitants were penguin-napped from the South Pole.
Portland’s Bathtub: Sauvie Island
In the Columbia River, north of town
Portland’s Medicine Cabinet: O’Bryant Square
Southwest Park Avenue and Washington Street
We call it Paranoid Park for a reason.
Portland’s Attic: Council Crest Park
Southwest Council Crest Drive, off Greenway Avenue
At 1,703 feet, Council Crest is thought to be Portland’s highest point. Yes, thought to be: The city doesn’t have firm numbers on this (some allege a stretch of Northwest Skyline Boulevard is higher). Whatever. This former amusement park—the hill once played home to a carousel and Ferris wheel—is now the site of an oddball acoustic gem. If you stand at the center of the big brass compass and speak, your voice will echo back at you, amplified and sounding as if engineered by Phil Spector.
Expert Advice: Carye ByeCarye Bye is a printmaker and author of Hidden Portland: Museums & Collections and Circle Portland, a guide to circle-shaped parks and memorials in Portland.
WW: How’d you get into exploring and researching Portland parks?
Carye Bye: My first exploration in Portland centered around museums, and then the idea expanded to the concept of “the city as a museum.” There’s such a fun variety of Portland parks. We have our claims to fame: Mill Ends Park, the world’s smallest park, and Forest Park, the largest urban forested park in the U.S. There’s also a Printers Park (I’m a printmaker, so I took notice) where The Oregonian began. The Pittman Addition HydroPark in North Portland is a real gem, full of local art including a “tree lady,” a wicker sculpture of a woman in a large apple tree at the south end of the park. Pittman Addition is part of a growing group of mini parks on water bureau land that was previously off-limits or undeveloped. There’s also the Peace Memorial Park located near the Upper Steel Bridge—a great little green space just off Esplanade, where a 70-foot peace symbol created by native plants and wildflowers is taken care of by Veterans for Peace Chapter 72.
What’s the best thing about Portland parks?
In many big U.S. cities such as San Francisco and New York, the green spaces are concentrated in one area, so people end up at a super-sized park like Golden Gate or Central Park. Here, we have many choices, and most people live in walking distance to a great park or even a pocket park. No two parks are alike. Some have fountains or water features, others playgrounds (Harper’s Playground in Arbor Lodge is especially incredible), murals and public art, picnic areas, gazebos, rose gardens, local birds (like the blue heron who moved into Tanner Springs Park), dog off-leash areas and walking trails.
What is your favorite Portland park and why?
Laurelhurst is the closest park to my home and I bike through it everyday on my way to my studio. I’ve gotten to know the resident ducks, and I’ve even named a few. Look out for Conrad, the big brownish-black duck.