The Last Best Summer Ever
This summer, it’s going to be harder than ever to get out of Portland.
Point fingers at the usual suspects for ruining not only your daily commute, but your weekend expeditions, too: Thanks to the invasion of New Portlanders and a months-long closure of the Morrison Bridge, we’re looking at a long, hot summer with gridlock cramming the roads that once made Portland a perfect gateway to the outdoors.
But when you get tired of ranting about how things used to be (back in real Portland, back when you were the one doing the gentrifying), and still want to go on a hike, remember there are a few ways out of the city that won’t require you spending more time in the car than on the trail. Namely: Highway 26.
While I-84, I-5, and I-205 will be scabbed over with cars, the gorgeous Highway 26—running to Portland’s northwest and southeast—offers a significantly less congested route to nature.
Here are a few of my favorite hikes that can be accessed by 26—there are way more, but if you’re just getting started, these are where to go. Be prepared, get a Northwest Forest Pass, do your research (I keep local writer Paul Gerald’s trusty 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Portland in my backpack, and I double-check for trail updates on oregonhikers.org), and keep in mind that, thankfully, there are even more routes to nature that don’t require a freeway—from exploring the Tryon Creek State Natural Area, to wandering Powell Butte, to getting lost in Forest Park.
Ramona Falls (easy, seven-mile hike, about an hour southeast of Portland)—This one’s popular for a reason: Like most drives along Highway 26, the view on the way there is stunning, and at the hike’s chill, shady turnaround, you can get real close to a unique waterfall—one where water cascades and jumps down the wide, jagged face of a small cliff. If there’s high water, it can be a bit tricky fording the Sandy River—but most of the time, and so long as you’re cool balancing on logs, you should be fine. The rest of the hike is basically a pleasant stroll through the woods that border the Sandy, with Mt. Hood looming above.
Elk Meadows (moderate hikes of varying lengths; about an hour and a half east of Portland)—On the far side of Mt. Hood is one of my favorite hikes—one that takes you through deep forest, over glacier-fed creeks, up steep switchbacks, and through a fire-ravaged forest before dropping you into a peaceful network of pristine meadows and streams. Varied and fun, it’s just difficult enough to make you feel like you’ve accomplished something. Give yourself a full day for this one: It’s easy to get turned around in the meadows, and you’ll want to have plenty of time for the descent before dark. (Worst case scenario for budgeting too much time: You’ll end up with an extra hour or two in one of Oregon’s most beautiful places. There are worse predicaments.)
Salmon River (easy, six-mile hike, about an hour southeast of Portland)—If, on the other hand, you just want to ramble around some woods for a few hours, poking around the Salmon River is pretty great—and close enough that you won’t feel like an idiot for driving out there just to wander. Despite the hike’s popularity, the mossy, old-growth woods just off the trail are some primordial, Dark Crystal shit—even the drive to the trailhead feels vaguely magical—and you’re never far from the rush of water. There are also some great campsites alongside the trail, if you feel like packing a tent and making a night of it.
Mirror Lake (moderate, seven-mile hike, about an hour southeast of Portland)—The always-crowded trail to Mirror Lake—dark, drab switchbacks from a packed parking lot off 26—is, you know... fine. It’s once you get to the lake—which, true to its name, can reflect Mt. Hood with striking clarity—that you realize why the trail is so crowded. And it’s once you keep going, up above the lake, that the hike becomes totally, utterly worthwhile. It can be a difficult ascent to the top of Tom, Dick, and Harry Mountain (especially when it’s hot), but once you reach its rocky summit, you’ll have a breathtaking view: Mirror Lake, tiny below you; Mt. Hood, huge in the distance; and between them, Highway 26, snaking through the trees and leading to next weekend’s hike.