Urban Oases: Portland’s Great Green Spaces

Portland, Oregon has plenty of parks to turn your urban vacation into a green space oasis. Here are some of the city’s best places to feel blades of grass between your toes.

In the city with both the largest and the smallest city parks in the United States, outdoor attractions come with the territory. Nature surrounds Portland, Ore., from Mount Hood’s snow-capped peak in the distance to the Oregon Coast a mere hour away by car. Within the city limits, however, there’s plenty of nature to explore, from parks and gardens to tree-lined urban streets and unexpected green patches sprinkled throughout the city. Check out these spots on your Portland vacation to enjoy the nature that’s in and around this fresh-aired oasis of a city.

Forest Park

One of the most majestic areas in Portland, Forest Park is abundant with Douglas firs, hiking and running paths, and wildlife. It’s more an urban forest than a park, spanning more than 5,000 acres and offering more than 70 miles of trails, making it the largest urban park in the United States. (The smallest park in the world also is in Portland: Mill Ends Park—a mere 24 inches across—created to be a colony for leprechauns on St. Patrick’s Day, 1948.) Forest Park was dedicated as city parkland in 1948 and continues to be a favorite spot for recreation and enjoying the native landscape of the Pacific Northwest. Along its trails, you’ll pass fit Portland moms running with strollers and hikers admiring the majesty of the towering trees around them. Even though the park is near downtown Portland, the forest is so secluded that once inside, the city fades away.

Visitors can try hiking a portion of the Wildwood Trail, which meanders through the property for more than 30 miles, or stop for a picnic along the way. Teaching kids about flora and fauna is easy when there are many kinds to identify and learn about within the park. It’s also a good way to teach them about navigating the wilderness and using tools like GPS units and compasses to find their way back to town. [Read our Products review Lost and Found for information about various GPS devices.]

It’s a great idea to take a trail map, since Forest Park’s trails are very long, and it’s easy to get turned around without a reference point.

Tom McCall Waterfront Park

One of Portland’s most famous parks, Tom McCall Waterfront Park plays host to summer festivals and concerts and is continually filled with cyclists, skaters, walkers, runners and strollers. The path stretches along the west side of the Willamette River in downtown, under bridges and along the river. Its grassy expanses offer a place to take a load off, people-watch and enjoy the scenery.

In the summer, the park plays host to the city’s huge July 4 fireworks display, the Bite of Oregon food festival, the Waterfront Blues Festival and many more gatherings throughout the season. Salmon Street Springs is a popular fountain where families gather and kids splash on hot days, and its location at the terminus of Salmon Street in the park makes it an ideal meeting or picnic spot.

South Park Blocks

The South Park Blocks were practically designed for a summer picnic. Running almost the length of the southwest downtown area, these 12 blocks provide green grass, benches, art, and play structures and shade from towering trees that offer a streak of green in the bustling urban center of Portland. Families can stroll through, from one neighborhood to the next, as they stop to eat or play.

Throughout the park blocks and the rest of the city, Benson Bubblers are unique drinking fountains that continuously pump water and signify Portland to many. At the north end of the park block on Salmon Street, a memorial honors the inventor of the fountains, Simon Benson. Teaching the kids about Portland’s history is easy as you stroll among memorials, public art and historical remembrances while enjoying more urban green space.

Washington Park

Another huge urban park at almost 130 acres, Washington Park plays host to rose gardens, the Hoyt Arboretum, the Oregon Zoo and Portland’s Japanese Garden, as well as many other recreational opportunities for families, such as the 34-foot granite Lewis and Clark Memorial and the Oregon Holocaust Memorial.

During the summer, families can saunter through the sweetly scented air of the International Rose Test Gardens, where hundreds of rose varieties bloom and a nearby amphitheater often hosts family-friendly shows in the summer with a backdrop of the city skyline. Nearby, the Japanese Garden offers a calm place to stop and reflect while enjoying traditional gardens. In 1995, the sprawling Rose Garden Children’s Park was added and allows a place for kids to kick back while they enjoy the surrounding nature.

Destinations: Portland

Themes: Ecotourism, Family Travel, Urban Endeavors

Activities: Parks and Playgrounds