Forest Park

Forest Park

My mother moved to N.W. Portland in 1962, her apartment was located up above Chapman grade school, just minutes from Forest Park.  I’ve had many memorable times in Forest Park.  The following story contains two sections.  The first section is a detailed history of the park; the second section goes into my own experiences with this magical place.


According to the recent article written in Wikipedia, “Forest Park (Portland, Oregon)”  (n.d.)  In Wikipedia.  Retrieved October 15, 2012, from “ Park Portland, Oregon,” Forest Park is a public municipal park west of downtown Portland, Oregon.  Stretching for more than 8 miles on hillsides overlooking the Willamette River, it is one of the country’s largest urban forest reserves.  The park, a major component of a regional system of parks and trails, covers more than 5,100 acres of mostly second-growth forest with a few patches of old growth.  About 70 miles of recreational trails, including the Wildwood Trail segment of the city’s 40 Mile loop system, crisscross the park.

As early as the 1860s, civic leaders sought to create a natural preserve in the woods near Portland.  Their efforts led to the creation of a municipal park commission that in 1903 hired the Olmsted Brothers landscape architectural firm to develop a plan for Portland’s parks.  Acquiring land through donations, transfers from Multnomah County, and delinquent tax foreclosures, the city eventually acted on a proposal by the City Club of Portland and combined parcels totaling about 4,000 acres to create the reserve.  Formally dedicated in 1948, it ranks 19th in size among parks within U.S. cities, according to The Trust for Public Land.

Before settlers arrived, the land that became known as Forest Park was covered by a Douglas-fir forest.  By 1851, its acreage had been divided into donation land claims filed by settlers with plans to clear the forest and build upon the property.  After logging, the steep slopes and unstable silt loosened by heavy rains caused landslides that defeated construction plans, and claims were defaulted or donated to the city.

Civic leaders beginning with the Reverend Thomas Lamb Eliot, a minister who moved to Portland in 1867, sought to create a natural preserve in the woods that eventually became Forest Park.  By 1899, Eliot’s efforts led to the formation of the Municipal Park Commission of Portland, which in 1903 hired the highly regarded landscape architecture firm, the Olmsted Brothers of Brookline, Massachusetts, to study the city’s park system and recommend a plan.  John Charles Olmsted, the stepson of Frederick Law Olmsted, spent May 1903 in Portland.  The Olmsted Report, received in December, emphasized creation of a system of parks and linking parkways that would take advantage of natural scenery.  It proposed a formal square for Union Station, squares along the downtown waterfront, and parks in places later known as Forest Park, Sellwood Park, Mount Tabor Park, Rocky Butte, and Ross Island, as well as Terwilliger Parkway, the 40 Mile Loop, and other connecting parkways.  Proposed parks for Swan Island, in the Willamette River, and other places in Portland did not develop.  Others like Forest Park came into being only after many years.

The city acquired land for Forest Park bit by bit over several decades.  In 1897, Donald McLeay, a Portland merchant and real-estate developer, deeded a 108-acre tract of land along Balch Creek to the city to provide an outdoor space for patients from nearby hospitals.  In the 1890s, Frederick Van Voorhies Holman, a Portland lawyer and a president of the Oregon Historical Society, proposed a gift of 52 acres of nearby land that was added to the city’s holdings in 1939 when his siblings, George F. and Mary Holman, completed the donation.  Clark and Wilson Timber Company donated 17 acres in 1927 to create a Western Oregon timber park near Northwest Germantown Road.  Nine years later, the estate of Aaron Meier, one of the founders of the Meier & Frank chain of department stores, donated land for Linnton Park near Portland’s Linnton neighborhood along Highway 30.  These smaller parks became part of the larger park when it was finally created.  Some of them, such as McLeay Park, are still referred to by their original names even though they are part of Forest Park.

Other parcels were acquired through government action.  In 1928, the City Council’s Delinquent Tax Committee transferred land to the Parks Bureau for a wildflower garden along Balch Creek.  Multnomah County in that year gave the bureau perpetual use of about 145 acres of land north of Washington Park.  Encouraged by the City Club of Portland, which conducted a park feasibility study in 1945, civic leaders supported the Forest Park project.  In 1948, Multnomah County transferred to the city another 2,000 acres acquired through delinquent tax foreclosures.  On September 23, 1948, the city formally dedicated 4,200 acres of land as Forest Park, which as of 2009 covered more than 5,100 acres.  It is one of the largest urban forest reserves in the U.S, though its exact ranking has been questioned.  The city’s Parks and Recreation Department claims it is the “largest forested natural area within city limits in the United States.”  However, an article in the Portland Tribune said Forest Park ranked no higher than third among U.S. urban forests in 2006.

In 1991, Metro, the regional governmental agency for the Oregon portion of the Portland metropolitan area, began budgeting for what became its Natural Areas Program aimed at protecting these areas in Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas counties.  By 1995, the program had targeted 320 acres next to or within Forest Park for acquisition.  A 2006 bond measure allowed for the purchase of more land to expand the park, to protect its creeks’ headwaters and those of nearby streams in Washington County, and to link Forest Park to other public lands to the northwest.  Along with buying land, the regional government protects it through environmental easements on land that is privately owned.  Through early 2009, the agency had acquired or protected 865 acres related to Forest Park, including 600 acres (beyond the existing park’s northern boundary.

Forest Park is a major component, sometimes called the “crown jewel,” of a regional network of parks, trails, and natural areas.  At the southeastern end of the park, Wildwood Trail, the centerpiece of the Forest Park trail system, passes through McLeay Park.  This part of the larger park, which includes the Forest Park field headquarters, is heavily used by pedestrians entering Balch Creek Canyon from nearby city streets.  Further southeast, Wildwood Trail, while still in Forest Park, passes Pittock Mansion and its panoramic views of Portland and five volcanic peaks: Mounts Rainier, Adams, St. Helens, Hood, and Jefferson.  Shortly thereafter, the trail connects to adjoining Washington Park and attractions such as the Oregon Zoo.  From this point and from more remote Forest Park trailheads near the St. Johns Bridge, other components of the 40 Mile Loop system of trails encircle the city.  They follow the Willamette and Columbia rivers, the Columbia Slough and the Springwater Corridor along Johnson Creek and extend to the eastern suburbs of Fairview, Gresham, and Boring.  This trail network links more than 30 separate parks that offer diverse recreational opportunities, such as horse-back riding, in-line skating, canoeing, and viewing of wetland wildlife, in addition to hiking and biking.  It connects to other trail systems such as Discovery Trail in Clark County, Washington, and the Terwilliger Trail running through Tryon Creek State Natural Area to Lake Oswego.

As of 2009, this network of parks and trails is still expanding.  Metro, the regional government, plans to link the 40 Mile Loop to trails along the Willamette River to Wilsonville, south of Lake Oswego.  The regional government has also proposed connecting Wildwood Trail to the partly completed Westside Trail running north–south through Washington County to the Tualatin River.  Another planned trail would extend the Springwater Corridor along a proposed Cazadero Trail to Barton on the Clackamas River.  Longer-term goals include trail links to the Sandy River Gorge Trail east of Gresham and the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from Mexico to Canada and follows the Cascade Range through Oregon.

More than 70 miles of trails and fire lanes cut through the park.  The longest trail in the park is the Wildwood Trail, of which about 27 miles is in Forest Park and about 3 miles in Washington Park.  It is also the longest section of the 40 Mile Loop, a trail network of roughly 150 miles reaching many parts of the Portland metropolitan area.  The trail runs southeast to northwest from trail marker 0 in Washington Park to Northwest Newberry Road, just beyond trail marker 30 on the ridge above the southeastern end of Sauvie Island.  The straight-line distance from beginning to end is about 9 miles, but because the trail includes many switchbacks and hairpin turns, it is 30.2 miles long.

Wildwood Trail begins in Washington Park near the Oregon Zoo, a light rail stop, the Oregon Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the World Forestry Center and the Hoyt Arboretum.  Blue diamonds placed about 6 feet above the ground appear on trees along the trail every 0.25 mile.  The diamonds and the mileage markers above them are visible to hikers traveling in either direction on the path.  In its first 5 miles, the trail passes near the Portland Japanese Garden, Pittock Mansion, the Audubon Society of Portland wildlife sanctuary, and the Stone House in Balch Creek Canyon.  From this point west, Wildwood Trail runs through forest generally uninterrupted by buildings but crisscrossed by shorter trails, small streams, roads, and fire lanes.

Many shorter Forest Park trails, roads, and fire lanes intersect the Wildwood Trail.  Most of the trails are open only to hikers and runners, but several roads and fire lanes are open to bicycles or horses or both.  Leif Erickson Drive, a road closed to motorized traffic, runs at lower elevation than and roughly parallel to the Wildwood Trail for about 11 miles from the end of Northwest Thurman Street to Northwest Germantown Road.  Originally called Hillside Drive, it was renamed in 1933 at the request of the Sons of Norway, a fraternal organization.  Easements for an oil line, a gas line, and electric transmission lines for the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) cross the park.  Paved roads surround the park, which is crossed or entered by other roads including Northwest Pittock Drive, Northwest Cornell Road, Northwest 53rd Drive, Northwest Saltzman Road, Northwest Springville Road, Northwest Germantown Road, Northwest Newton Road, and BPA Road.

Forest Park lies in the Coast Range Eco region designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  In its natural state, the forest consists mainly of three tree species, Douglas-fir, western hemlock, and western red cedar, and smaller numbers of grand fir, black cottonwood, red alder, big leaf maple, madrone, and western yew.  Much of the forest that existed here before 1850 was gone by 1940.  The stage of re-growth in the forest depends on when it was last logged or burned.

In the mid-1990s, about one percent of the total vegetation in the park consisted of grasses, bracken, thistle, and fireweed in sections of the forest cleared two to five years earlier.  Another two percent had reached the shrub stage, between three and thirty years old, with small trees dominated by such plants as thimbleberry, salmonberry, and blackberry.  Forest areas 10 to 30 years old that contained tall alder and maple trees and smaller conifers accounted for about 20 percent of the park.

Larger areas were occupied by forests in which conifers had grown taller than the alders and maples.  About 50 percent of Forest Park consists of these areas, which are between 30 and 80 years old and in which Douglas-firs have begun to dominate.  Another 25 percent of the park contains forests dominated by middle-aged conifers; 80 to 250 years old.  In these areas, red alders, which live for about 100 years, have begun to die, and the Douglas-firs, which can live for 750 years, attain heights up to about 240 feet.  Under the big trees are shade-tolerant trees such as western red cedar, western hemlock, and grand fir and smaller plants such as Oregon-grape, and vine maple.

The last forest stage, old growth, is reached after 250 years and includes many snags, downed and dead trees, and fallen logs.  Timber-cutting and fires reduced old growth in Forest Park to “almost nothing” by 1940 and most of the forest has not yet attained this stage.  Patches exist near McLeay Park and further west near Germantown Road and Newton Road.  The largest tree in Forest Park is a Douglas-fir near the Stone House, the remains of a former public restroom near Balch Creek.  It is 242 feet high, and the trunk is 18.6 feet in circumference.

Among the prominent wildflowers are Hooker’s fairy bells, vanilla leaf, evergreen violet, and trillium.  Invasive species include English ivy, European holly, clematis, morning glory, and Himalayan blackberry.  Citizen groups such as the No Ivy League and The Forest Park Conservancy engage in projects to remove ivy, maintain trails, and plant native species.

Wildlife in Forest Park is strongly affected by contiguous tracts of nearby habitat that make the park accessible to birds and animals from the Tualatin River valley, the Oregon Coast Range, the Willamette River, Sauvie Island, the Columbia River, and the Vancouver, Washington, lowlands.  Sixty-two mammal species, including the northern flying squirrel, black-tailed deer, creeping vole, bobcat, coyote, Mazama pocket gopher, little brown bat, Roosevelt elk, and Pacific Jumping Mouse frequent Forest Park.  Blue Grouse, Great Horned Owl, Hairy Woodpecker, Bewick’s Wren, Orange-crowned Warbler, Osprey, Northern Pygmy-owl, and Hermit Thrush are among the more than 112 species of birds that have been observed in the park.  In Balch Creek Canyon adjacent to Forest Park, the Audubon Society of Portland maintains a wildlife sanctuary with more than 4 miles of trails, a wildlife care center, and avian exhibits.  Amphibian species frequenting the Audubon Society pond include rough-skinned newts, Pacific tree frogs, and salamanders.

Pressure from habitat loss, pollution, hunting, and urban development has reduced or eliminated the presence of wolves, bears, and wild cats and has led to increased numbers of weasels, raccoons, and other small predators.  Invasive plant species such as English ivy have made the habitat simpler and less supportive of native insects and the salamanders and other amphibians that feed on them.  Roads in the area severely hamper the movement of large animals.  Multnomah County has designated Northwest Cornell Road and Northwest Germantown Road as “rural collector” streets, carrying traffic of less than 3,000 vehicles per day but more than streets designated as “local roads.”  Dogs allowed to run (illegally) off-leash in the park pose threats to birds, fish, and other wildlife.

About 40 inches of rain falls on Forest Park each year.  Many small creeks, only a few of which are named, flow northeast through the park from the ridge at the top of the West Hills to the base of the hills near U.S. Route 30.  The five named streams from east to west are Balch Creek, Rocking Chair Creek, Saltzman Creek, Doane Creek, and Miller Creek.  Rocking Chair Creek is a tributary of Saltzman Creek.  After leaving the park, the streams pass through culverts and other conduits before reaching the Willamette River.  These conduits block fish migration to and from the Willamette River except on Miller Creek, where the conduits are short and have been modified to assist the fish. Near the east end of the park, the free-flowing reaches of Balch Creek support a population of resident cutthroat trout. Near the west end, furthest from the city center, Miller Creek retains much of its historic nature and supports a greater diversity of aquatic organisms than other Forest Park streams. Biological field surveys of Miller Creek in 1990 noted sea-run cutthroat trout, Coho salmon, as well as abundant macro invertebrate species including stoneflies, mayflies, caddis flies, water striders, and crayfish.


I’ve had several memorable moments in Forest Park. While I was in first grade, our teacher Mrs. Hughes scheduled our class to take a field trip in the park, it was the first time I really realized what this great place had to offer. 

We started out from Chapman, headed out on N.W. 27th., then north to N.W. Thurman, from there we headed up Thurman to the staircase that leads you down under the Thurman Bridge, located in this exact spot there once was a farm owned by Donald McLeay, it spread up along Balch Creek, his livestock roamed the land back then. He is famous for killing his son in law, seems as though they had a family argument and wound up shooting him. 

We traveled up Balch Creek to what is known as the Stone House, which was built in the early 1920’s. There are many myths about the use of the old Stone House, according to historical records it was originally built as restrooms for the forest service workers that helped maintain the area. The stone house has sat vacated for years.

I was introduced on that field trip to Balch Creek and to the Portland Audubon Society, located up in Forest Park. The Audubon Society is located off of N.W. Cornell Road. It includes a wide collection of birds of prey, including owls, falcons and eagles. 

I went crawdad fishing in Balch Creek when I was in the Cub Scout, back when I was in fourth grade, the crawdads use to be found in fresh water pools located under rocks and boulders that helped form the creek. 

In grade school, say around 1968 or so I can remember Leif Erickson road use to be open to traffic; the cars and trucks would flow up to N.W. Germantown.  Friends of mine fathers use to go up off Leif Erickson and hunt deer and elk.  Back then it wasn’t uncommon in seeing deer strapped down to old International pick-up trucks or rusty Ramblers.  The city of Portland closed access to N.W. Leif Erickson road around the early 1970’s.

When I was a Cub Scout back around 1970 our den took hikes on Wildwood trail and Cherry trail, there are several paths that off shoot some of the major trials located in the park, several of the trails can take you up to the Pittock Mansion, one of the highest points in the area.

In high school we use to have kegger’s off of N.W. Aspen (The meadow) and N.W. 53rd avenue (Inspiration point), usually on a Friday night after a football game, several of the kids that attended Lincoln High school  would gather in these secluded spots.  We’d laugh and joke, tell stories and listen to music on our car stereos.

While in high school kids in their muscle cars use to race on N.W. Thompson road, usually seeing how fast their big American muscle cars roared down the road.  One of the more popular stretches back then was where N.W. Thompson heads up to N.W. Skyline.  Old farms and orchards were located along N.W. Thompson.  I can remember hillbillies that had cabins and farms located up around Forest park.  Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s hippies use to have communes in the Willamette Heights neighborhood a few of them had old cabins that bordered the park.

There are the two tunnels that are located on N.W. Cornell road, both being built back in the 1920’s and 1930’s.  Before the tunnels were built old dirt roads wound around the hillsides leading you up to N.W. Skyline.

I started running the trails of Forest park back around 1978 or so, running three or four miles at first and then increasing the distance.  I guess I first met my good buddy Chuck Eidenschink back in 1978 or so, Chuck was one of the first people that I knew that ran ultra-marathons, Chuck use to run close to eighty or nighty miles a week back then, he was always encouraging me to run with him, we ran the hills, up Balch Creek, along Wildwood Trail, up through to the Pittock Mansion, over N.W. Burnside, up along Himalaya Trail, along through the Portland Zoo and the Portland Audubon Society, down through Washington Park, the Japanese Gardens, the tennis courts, the Rose Garden and up along N.W. Westover. I traveled thousands of miles with Chuck through the years.  He was always such a driving force in helping me run back in the late 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s.

I had some great times in Forest Park; back around 1985 I bought my first mountain bike, a Panasonic mountain bike to be exact.  I bought it from Sherman over at Coventry Bicycles (Located on S.E. Hawthorne), I was one of the first people that I knew that had a mountain bike back then, and I liked the idea of being able to bike almost anywhere and not have to worry about wear and tear being done to my bicycle.  I had a road bike and I always had to repair the bike.  My mountain bike was heavy duty, had a chrome frame, thick knobby tires, and upright handles bars; it got me through the trails and fire lanes that cut through Forest Park.  I was one of only three bicyclists back then that I knew who had a mountain bike. 

I usually would wake up early in the morning and bike up N.W Thurman, over the Thurman Bridge, up to N.W. Leif Erickson, heading up to N.W. Saltzman or N.W. Springville, out to N.W. Skyline road to N.W. Newbery road, and then down to Highway 30 and back home.

Balch Creek use to flow into Guild’s Lake back around 1900, the old lake front use to run along Highway 30, if you travel down along the old streets you can see the homes that bordered Forest Park, many of the old homes are dilapidated, old warehouses and shops dot the land.

In the winter of 1996 it snowed around 6” inches in the park, within twenty four hours the temperature started to rise, it rose above freezing, the snow pack melted, causing flooding down through Balch Creek, soon there were major landslides that formed off of the dead end of N.W. Savier and Raleigh, an old home slid down the hillside overlooking Balch Creek, huge mud slides poured into the creek, the creeks natural flow had changed, areas of the creek were damned up.  Trees came down the hillside into the water, natural habitats were destroyed.  Up off N.W. Skyline sections of the road slid down into Forest Heights.  The slides covered trails along Wildwood trail and Leif Erickson road.

As you travel back further west on N.W. Leif Erickson you start to go deeper and deeper into the woods.  Off of N.W. Springville, as you head down this fire lane you pass through Linton, one of the oldest cities along the banks of the Willamette.  I love this section of Forest Park, old homes dot the hillside, the homes are surrounded by trees and foliage, old gravel roads take you down to the St. John’s Bridge.  There are views of the Willamette River from several vistas located around Linton; the roads drops you down to highway 30. 

During the 1880’s and 1890’s huge wooden clipper ships would dock up in Linton, N.W. Springville road was the main road into Beaverton and Washington County back then, it provided wooden horse drawn carts to load and unload produce from farms that were located along the western hillside overlooking the valley.

During the 1904 the Lewis and Clark Exposition Balch creek flowed into Guilds Lake.  There were numerous buildings and exhibits located around the lake front that stretched along Forest Park, several homes and buildings were temporarily built during this time.  Most of the buildings were made of plaster of Paris, they were soon torn down after the exhibit ended.  The lake damned up, dried out, and during the 1910’s and 1920’s oil refineries and industrial parks were built, the lake country was gone.  Huge warehouses, rail lines, and businesses were built in the area.

One of my favorite spots that I enjoy the most in Forest Park has to be what is known as “The Meadow,” located off of Holman Trail and N.W. Aspen.  The meadow has been a gathering spot with locals for years; it provides a great area for picnics and in reading a good book or providing a great spot to view native birds.  I love the meadow; I’ve seen deer roam through this area many times.

N.W. Holman road goes up through the meadow; it’s a fire lane, heading up to N.W. 53rd avenue.  One of my favorite spots up along this stretch has to be a secluded meadow up on N.W. 53rd, nested up along old growth this area has been a great stopping spot in viewing young deer, especially in the spring.  I have biked up and ran up N.W. Holman several times; it has always been one of my favorite hills located in and around Forest Park.

N.W. Saltzman road is located off of N.W. Skyline, from N.W. Skyline you can travel down the fire lane, beautiful views of forest stretch out for miles, leading you down to N.W. Leif Erickson.  If you keep traveling down Saltzman you will eventually hit Highway 30.  N.W. Saltzman is a great stretch through Forest Park.  Traveling further west on N.W. Leif Erickson you eventually will connect with N.W. Germantown road.  N.W. Germantown road will take you up to N.W. Skyline or down to Highway 30.  The St. Johns Bridge is located off of N.W. Germantown.

Forest Park borders Willamette Heights, one of my favorite neighborhoods in Portland.  Most of the homes were carved out during the 1880’s and 1890’s; massive wooden homes surround the hillside.  One of my favorite spots to go explore is located off of N.W. Thurman, off of N.W. Gordon, if you travel down N.W. Gordon you will eventually cross over an old bridge leading you to the White Shield home, an old school and grounds built specifically for unwed mothers, not many people know about this area, its hidden away up in a secluded area.

Back in 2001 I was mountain biking down N.W. Springville road; it was a sunny day, as I was heading down the trail from N.W. Leif Erikson road a man in his late twenties made a face at me as I went down the trail, he pretended to lunge at me, I passed by on my bike, a few days later the local news had broadcasted news stories about girls that were found murdered up in Forest Park, I called the local police and told them about the strange man that I had encountered on N.W. Springville that day.  They brought me in and the detectives in charge asked me questions, they brought in a sketch artist and we came up with a composite drawing of the man I saw that day.  About a month later the Portland police department caught the murderer, he wasn’t the man that I had described in the drawing.  Thankfully they caught him.

Friends of Forest Park

I joined Friends of Forest Park in 2000.  I sat on the board for almost two years.  I tried to help preserve the park.  I was proud in working with this organization.  The following is a brief history of Friends of Forest Park.

In 1948, due to heroic efforts by the City Club and corporate visionary Ding Cannon, CEO of The Standard, the 3,000-acre core of the current Forest Park was dedicated as city parkland.  Since this beginning, Forest Park has attracted a group of citizen stewards dedicated to its protection and enhancement.  Since 1989, working in partnership with Portland Parks & Recreation, the Friends of Forest Park advocated, educated, raised funds, and coordinated volunteer efforts for the Park.  In 2007, Friends of Forest Park evolved into The Forest Park Conservancy.

What better way to protect a place of such rich history and inestimable value?  Strategically purchase land and add it to existing acreage!  In the 1990’s, Friends of Forest Park raised over $1 million for the acquisition of 78 acres of privately-owned lands inside the park that were slated for development.  Friends of Forest Park also raised the funds to acquire a 38-acre stand of low-elevation old growth forest to the north of the Park that was going to be logged.  In 2002, we partnered with Metro and Portland Parks &Recreation to purchase a 31-acre in-holding in the north end of the Park that was also destined for housing.  A more recent acquisition is a 1.5-acre parcel of land at the bottom of Fire lane 9 that was headed for housing.  We are grateful to the many individual donors stepped forward to make these acquisitions possible.

I love Forest Park; it’s a wonderful spot.  I hope that the city of Portland continues to preserve this land for future generations to enjoy.

Leave a Reply

Proudly powered by WordPress | Theme: Lean Blog by Crimson Themes.