One of the things that’s gotten increasingly difficult to enjoy as Portland’s population swells and great swaths of Oregon catch on fire: HIKING.
Luckily, there are still plenty of ways to hit the trail in and around Portland. It’s good to keep a few tricks in mind to help avoid the crowds (go early in the morning, and take a “sick” day to go on weekdays to avoid the minivan masses), and thanks to a devastating fire that tore through the Columbia River Gorge in the summer of 2017, it’s a good idea to seek out trails that aren’t on the Oregon side of the Gorge. (Many of the trails that still exist are shut down for the foreseeable future, and there are stiff penalties for getting busted on closed trails.) And remember that as a result of those Oregon closures, the trails on the Washington side of the Gorge are seeing record numbers of visitors—so if you want to spend your time looking at nature and not the ass of whomever’s in front of you, venture further afield.
One great option: Highway 26, which runs to Portland’s northwest and southeast, and offers a significantly less congested route to nature. Three of my favorites off 26 are Ramona Falls, Elk Meadows, and Mirror Lake.
Ramona Falls, an easy, seven-mile hike about an hour southeast of Portland, is popular for a reason: 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 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.
Elk Meadows, featuring moderate hikes of varying lengths, is on the far side of Mt. Hood—it cuts through deep forest, goes over glacier-fed creeks, climbs steep switchbacks, and winds through a fire-ravaged forest before dropping you into a peaceful network of pristine meadows and streams. 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.
The trail to Mirror Lake is always crowded, and also kind of sucks—little more than dark, drab switchbacks from a packed parking lot off 26. But once you get to the lake—which, true to its name, can reflect Mt. Hood with striking clarity—you realize why the trail’s so crowded. And after you keep going, up above the lake, the hike becomes worthwhile. It can be a trying 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, and Mt. Hood, looming huge in the distance.
Highway 26 is hardly the only option. If you want to stay closer to town (or even stay in town), spots like Southwest Portland’s Tyron Creek State Natural Area and Powell Butte or Northwest Portland’s Forest Park offer some really great (and generally easier and more accessible) trails and views. There’s also Rocky Butte in Northeast, or, just north of town, Sauvie Island. Regardless of where you end up, be prepared, get a Northwest Forest Pass and a Discover Pass, and 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.