Washington Park

 

The Perfect Union of Urban and Natural Realms

 
In Washington Park, families and lovers picnic in the amphitheater next to the evergreen hedgerows of the Rose Garden. Children, giddy with excitement, marvel at the toothy yawn of an African lion at the Oregon Zoo. And from the deck of the pavilion in the Japanese Garden, conversation has gently ebbed into silence as visitors cast their gaze eastward: Mount Hood, the ever-watchful guardian over the City of Bridges, perfectly etched against the crystalline blue.
 
 

PORTLAND’S WASHINGTON PARK

Washington Park, one of the oldest and most popular parks in Portland, remains the classic gateway to the West Hills, the city’s easy-to-reach semi-wilderness playground. In the early 1900s, prominent landscape architects, the Olmstead Brothers, called these wooded highlands one of Portland’s leading assets, and that assessment has been more than borne out as the city has come of age. 

Washington Park embodies the perfect union of urban and natural realms: from paved walkway to soft forest path, from formal garden to wild groves, from museum hall and concert stage to cascading stream and flowering thickets. And just outside the park? On this summer’s day, park-goers can cap off the day’s activities with a sumptuous meal in Northwest Portland, while more adventuresome souls will lace up for an evening hike north along the Wildwood Trail into the quieter backwoods of 5,100-acre Forest Park.

It’s on the edge of the city, on the rim of the West Hills, but it’s no question that Washington Park is central to Portland life. Even if you haven’t been in a while, it’s among the first places you take your visiting family or friends: for the gardens and the sculptures, for the world-class zoo and arboretum, for the breathtaking views — and for that forest-in-a-city feeling that makes Portland so unique.

Location — Making something of a horseshoe shape open to the north, Washington Park covers some 400 acres of ridges and ravines between the SW Sunset Highway to the south — the canyon of Tanner Creek—and W. Burnside Road to the north, which follows the old defile of Johnson Creek. Many Washington Park visitors combine it with a swing north up to the magnificent promontory of Pittock Mansion, which bridges Washington and Forest parks and delivers one of the most knock-your-socks-off vistas of Portland available anywhere in the city.

View from the Japanese Garden

View from the Japanese Garden

 

History — The park — which occupies part of the old hunting ground of the Atfalati people — was born in 1871, when the city bought 40 mostly undeveloped acres in the West Hills from the homesteader Amos King. “The park had few roads and was a wilderness area thick with brush, trees, and roaming cougars that discouraged access and daily use,” the Explore Washington Park website observes.

That 40-acre core, initially called City Park, had a slow start, development-wise, but by the 1880s, it was starting to take shape. Under the oversight of its first manager, Charles M. Meyers, the park gained roads, cable cars, landscaped lawns and gardens. In 1888, a Portland pharmacist gifted the city a grizzly bear named Grace, the modest roots of today’s Oregon Zoo.

And in 1922, a donation from Multnomah County — the lands of its former County Poor Farm, which had moved operations over to Troutdale (the site today of the “adult Disneyland” of McMenamin’s Edgefield resort) — expanded Washington Park by 160 acres. That addition came to host the Hoyt Arboretum as well as the Oregon Zoo, the Portland Children’s Museum and the World Forestry Center.

Features — Half the joy of Washington Park, as the amblers and bench-sitters and sun-worshippers know this June day, is the sheer ambience. It’s the lush and woodsy feel of the West Hills: big trees, rubbery rhododendrons, sprawling lawns, the rise and fall of the land serving up sudden views here, tucked-away nooks there.

Pay tribute to a few layers of Portland’s past over in Washington Park’s northeastern lobe. A granite obelisk mimics the surrounding Douglas firs in ramrod stature. It’s the Lewis and Clark Memorial Column, tribute to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who famously forayed through the future site of Portland on their Corps of Discovery trek to the Pacific. None other than President Theodore Roosevelt laid the initial cornerstone, in May of 1903.

Not far away, appropriately enough, stands a bronze of Sacagawea, the Indian woman who traveled much of the way with Lewis and Clark, holding her son Jean-Baptiste. The statue dates from the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition, held in 1905 down the hill at the now-drained Guild’s Lake in Northwest.

A short jog to the north, meanwhile, right off SW Washington Way, another nod to indigenous heritage: the Coming of the White Man statue from 1904. Walk right up, peer into the eyes of the two American Indian figures: One represents Chief Multnomah of the Willamettes. Follow his gaze: He and his companion are looking eastward — the direction from which Lewis and Clark boated into view, and the direction from which the Oregon Trail pioneers trekked their way into the Willamette Valley via the Columbia and the old Barlow Road over the Cascades. Up here under the soaring Douglas firs, it’s not hard to indulge in a little imaginative time travel.

Speaking of the Cascades, this June afternoon puts them on a platter for you. Washington Park, like other West Hills vantages such as the Pittock Mansion to the north and Council Crest to the south, gives you unforgettable overviews of the Rose City — not just from the Japanese Garden, but also the tennis courts, the Overlook Trail, and numerous other vantages. When it’s clear, the giant snow heads of Mount St. Helens, Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, and Mount Hood loom from the lower blue-black ridges of the Cascade Range. From the flatlands of East Portland, meanwhile, rise lower timbered buttes: Mount Tabor, Mount Scott, and others. There’s the urban corridor of the Willamette, and the high-rises and skyscrapers of downtown Portland. No matter how many times you feast on that vista, it never gets old

 

THE OREGON ZOO

You can stroll from ecosystem to ecosystem, from continent to continent, always with those high, wavering Douglas firs reminding you of your West Hills context. The Oregon Zoo's woodland setting and the open-air, naturalistic exhibits feel, blessedly, worlds away from the heavy-barred, dimly lit cages of yesterday’s zoos.

You indulge in a staring contest with an orangutan in the “Red Ape Reserve” (the orangutan wins). An African wild dog on its long, lean legs paces past in the “Predators of the Serengeti” savanna-scape; an Amur tiger regards you with royal laziness. You peek beneath the waters of a simulated flooded rain forest in the Amazon Basin — drifting fish, a poised caiman — while over in the “Penguinarium,” the Humboldt penguins are inspiring plenty of envy with their submarine ballet. (You begin to ponder the feasibility of having your very own Penguinarium.)

If all the globe-trotting has you feeling a bit homesick, stray into the zoo’s magnificent “Great Northwest, past the mountain goat, across the high suspension bridge into the bruin- and bobcat-roamed forests of Black Bear Ridge, along the salmon streams of Eagle Canyon and through the rocky realm of Cougar Crossing — and then spend some time with a vanished Oregon native, the enormous California condor, an endangered species the Oregon Zoo helps breed for reintroduction purposes.

We’ve only scratched the surface, really, of the Oregon Zoo menagerie (still reeling from the loss in February of the mighty bull Asian elephant Packy, who became famous the world over when he was born in 1962: the first elephant born in the Western Hemisphere in many decades and the first to survive into adulthood).

And those lions and tigers and bears (and condors) aren’t the extent of the zoo’s appeal: You can also take a ride on the narrow-gauge Washington Park and Zoo Railway, attend a variety of live animal shows, or kick back on the lawn for one of the many summer concerts held on the grounds, a popular tradition since 1979.

 

THE HOYT ARBORETUM

Washington Park would be a top-grade city park for its setting and its views alone. In the 189-acre Hoyt Arboretum, though, it also lays claim to one of the finest urban forests in the world.

It’s certainly one of the most immersive arboretums in the country, laid out as it is on the up-and-down terrain of the West Hills and strung with natural groves. Northwest natives are only a component of its botanical roster: Better than 2,000 species grow here, including dozens of endangered or threatened trees and shrubs; the conifer collection, in particular, enjoys international renown.

Given the diversity of greenery represented, you’ll enjoy striking sensory spectacle year-round: from fragrant spring blossoms to fiery fall colors. Your June moseys might turn up the blooms of the purple smoketree or the Japanese snow-bell — and the rich soft green of the dawn redwood, the octopus-like root maze of a western hemlock, and countless other marvels.

The Hoyt is a fabulous place for strolling — between April and October, that might take the form of fascinating guided walking tours — and one of the year-round pleasures of the place is taking to the legendary track of the Wildwood Trail. Washington Park includes the southern trailhead of this 30-mile footpath, and it weaves and wends its way out of the park via the quiet conifer depths of the Hoyt — bound for Pittock Mansion and then the full length of Forest Park

 

THE INTERNATIONAL ROSE TEST GARDEN

More than any other swath of Washington Park, the Rose Garden serves as a defining Portland landscape.

It’s not called the Rose City for nothing: America’s very first rose society arose (pardon the pun) here, after all, way back in 1888, and more than 20 miles of rose hedge were planted along the city’s streets to promote the Lewis and Clark Expo. In 1917, the city established the International Rose Test Garden in Washington Park, partly to serve as a storehouse for European hybrid roses under threat from the ravages of World War I.

It’s the most venerable public rose test garden in the country and one of only 20 “Gardens of Excellence” declared by the World Federation of Rose Societies. All told, we’re talking some 8,000 rosebushes representing 600 distinct varieties. From the Shakespeare Garden (the roses of which bear the names of characters from the Bard’s plays) to the “Best Rose” plot (featuring the champions announced during each year’s Rose Festival), there’s a dizzying spectrum on display here, with hidden gems for those willing to slow down, take their time, focus on the micro-scale — to stop and smell the flowers, basically.

The blooming season typically extends from May through November, peaking in June, but — like every other spot in Washington Park — this is a year-round destination. The amphitheater’s a focal point: a place to read a book, haul up a to-go lunch from Northwest, or catch a summertime concert. Wander the redbrick lanes and the mown paths; linger on the gentle stairways. It’s no surprise that this gardened hillside’s one giant photo op.

 

THE PORTLAND JAPANESE GARDEN

The Rose Garden’s blooms are fetching, the trees of the Hoyt Arboretum magnificent, but you can make an argument that Washington Park attains its pinnacle of splendor in the Portland Japanese Garden. Here, classical elements of the Japanese garden — mossy streamways, little waterfalls, koi ponds, twisty maples, swaths of raked sand and rocks, bridges and bamboo gates and wooden pavilions — nestle in the magnificent West Hills surrounds of Douglas firs and red cedars and slopes of sword fern.

There’s a real seamlessness of landscape here and a remarkable spatial and aesthetic conversation going on between the built and the natural, the exotic and the native — and between cultures, of course. Appreciating it firsthand adopts a soothing tempo courtesy of the meandering paths and the distinct microenvironments, which include the Flat Garden, the Strolling Pond Garden, the Tea Garden, the Natural Garden, and the Sand and Stone Garden.

You wouldn’t guess it now, but this tranquil hilly haven — within shouting distance of the Rose Garden downslope — occupies the one-time grounds of the Oregon Zoo, which moved to its current site at the end of the 1950s. The Japanese Garden was constructed in 1967, nine years after Portland and Sapporo, Japan, became sister cities. The designer was a professor at Tokyo Agricultural University, Takuma Tono, and the caliber of his work — and that of the devoted non-profit that manages it — has made the Portland Japanese Garden among the highest regarded of any on the globe. In 1988, the Japanese ambassador to the U.S., Nobuo Matsunaga, went so far as to declare it “the most beautiful and authentic Japanese garden in the world outside of Japan.”

As its 300,000-plus annual visitors know, the garden’s stunning year-round, though it’s hard to top the autumnal flare of the Japanese maples and their close relatives, the Pacific Northwest-native vine maples. The exquisite pavilion hosts regular art and cultural exhibits as well as lectures, while the teahouse periodically showcases performances of the ultra-refined Japanese tea ceremony

 

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

In spelling out all these standout features, we’ve only gestured at Washington Park’s impressive roster of activities. The sylvan setting makes an appropriate perch for the World Forestry Center, too, while across the street from the Oregon Zoo, the Portland Children’s Museum makes a family-friendly house of learning. Other attractions include the outdoor archery range and the tennis courts overlooking the Rose Garden (where clear-day views of white volcanoes may distract you from chasing down that lob). There are places for sober reflection, too: Washington Park includes both the Oregon Holocaust Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans of Oregon Memorial.

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