Perched atop a Northeast Portland cliff, The Grotto comprises over 62 acres (25 hectares) of lush, treed gardens. Constructed in 1924 as an outdoor Roman Catholic sanctuary dedicated to Mary, Our Sorrowful Mother, the nonprofit center now hosts 300,000 visitors of all faiths each year. The Grotto’s unique aesthetic, which features tranquil paths dotted with intricately carved Catholic shrines, combines a traditional forested park with profound meditative bliss.
There are two levels within the Grotto, and the lower garden is accessible to the public free of charge. It includes an imposing cave which was carved out of the 110-foot (33.5 m) basalt cliff in 1923 to serve as an outdoor cathedral. The marble statue in the center of the cave, a replica of Michelangelo’s depiction of Mary cradling Jesus’ crucified body, is surrounded by flowers and glowing votive candles.
Nearby, a tranquil trail is lined with towering trees; downy tufts of moss inch up their trunks, providing an aura of muted solitude. Along the way, elaborately carved sculptures tucked into the mossy stones illustrate the 14 Stations of the Cross.
The lower level also houses a visitor complex, an art gallery displaying historical nativity scenes, a gift shop chock-full of Catholic souvenirs and the Chapel of Mary, where mass is held every Sunday. Between masses, choral music plays softly from the speakers as visitors rest on wooden pews and observe the impressive architecture and art in hushed silence. From May through October, mass is also held outdoors in the Grotto Plaza — an expansive, pew-lined square facing the Grotto Cave.
For a $5 admission fee, guests can ride the elevator built against the cliff’s craggy rock face to reach the Grotto’s famed botanical gardens. Upon disembarking, visitors are greeted by a lush oasis of expertly groomed rhododendron gardens and dense foliage overlooking the Columbia River Valley, Cascade Mountains and Mount Saint Helens. Perched atop the cliff is the impressive Marilyn Moyer meditation chapel — a modernist granite and glass structure that has won numerous national and international architecture awards since its construction in 1991. The chapel’s north wall is made entirely of glass, providing a striking view of the Cascade Mountain Range and Columbia River Valley. Another bronze pietà occupies the center of the chapel, further casting an aura of solemnity and introspection.
The upper level also includes the Peace Garden, featuring a trail that meanders through mossy fir trees and flowerbeds and circles a serene reflection pond. The path leads guests to the Grotto’s labyrinth, a circle of crimson bricks surrounded by welcoming wooden benches. In the late spring and early summer, the botanical gardens are in full bloom, overflowing with Technicolor rhododendrons, daylilies, impatiens, roses and daisies. Another peaceful path weaves through St. Joseph Grove’s towering trees to St. Anne’s Chapel, a small brick building built in 1934 that houses several pastel-colored paintings.
In December, the Grotto hosts a dazzling Christmas Festival of Lights that draws over 60,000 guests each year. The trails are ablaze with lighted decorations, and the Chapel of Mary is filled with song in the form of nightly concerts and family caroling.
No matter what time of year you visit, the Grotto offers calm, peace and introspection, transcending boundaries of faith to offer an oasis of abundant greenery and breathtaking views. The sanctuary is located about 8 miles (12.8 km) from downtown Portland and is easily accessible by car or bus.