Portland’s signature park isn’t just loaded with big trees and picnic tables. Located a mere two miles west of downtown and accessible by MAX light rail, 159-acre Washington Park offers up a zoo, two museums, a spectacular rose garden, one of the most authentic Japanese gardens in the world and more, all bordered by Forest Park — at 5,100 acres, one of the country’s premier urban wildernesses. Here’s a tour.
Polar bears, Steller sea lions, mountain goats and lion prides all draw crowds to the Oregon Zoo. But the biggest celebrity of all is Packy, the oldest Asian elephant born in a zoo in North America — a product of the Oregon Zoo’s renowned Asian elephant breeding program. (With the birth of Lily in December 2012, the zoo is now home to seven Asian elephants.) There’s no bad time to visit: From summer concerts to “Howloween” trick or treat to holiday ZooLights, Portland’s beloved zoo sparkles in any season.
How’s this for hands-on learning? Pick from more than a dozen exhibit rooms at the Portland Children’s Museum, including the “dig pit” full of dozers and shovels, a theater room complete with stage and props, a pet hospital with plush patients, and a baby’s garden soft enough (and fun enough) for the smallest tykes. Daily events can include clay-shaping lessons, animal story times and fencing. (Not to worry, the swords are foam — but the belly laughs are real.)
Forest ecology has never been so cool. Exhibits at the World Forestry Center amp up the adrenaline, simulating everything from smoke jumping to Jeep tours in African jungles. Heart still not racing? Hop into the treetop canopy ride, which rises more than 50 feet in the air, or check out spine-tingling special exhibitions.
Washington Park’s playground just south of the Rose Garden is a doozy, with slides, giant castle structures, ramps, bridges and swings. Arrive in style via the Oregon Zoo steam train, which stops just a few feet away.
Apricot Candy, Burgundy Iceberg, Rhapsody in Blue — these are just a few of the 722 different varieties represented among the more than 10,000 roses bushes to ogle, caress and, of course, sniff at the International Rose Test Garden, the oldest continuously operated public rose garden in the nation. Peak bloom season runs from late May to September. But even sans petals, the 4.5-acre, multi-tiered grounds dazzle with sculptures, a flower-themed gift shop and stunning views of Mount Hood and Portland’s skyline.
Touted by former Japanese ambassador Kunihiko Saito as the most authentic Japanese garden outside of his homeland, the 5.5-acre Portland Japanese Garden is a breathtaking passageway to the Land of the Rising Sun. Take in five unique gardenscapes (a strolling pond, ceremonial teahouse, natural garden, flat garden and sand-stone garden) set among cherry trees, azaleas and Japanese maples. Traditional events include autumn moon viewings.
Hoyt Arboretum staffers call it Portland’s “living classroom.” How else to categorize a 185-acre plot chock-full of more than 1,000 species of plants? Grab a walking map and stroll 12 miles’ worth of hiking trails, discovering exotic trees such as the Chilean Monkey Puzzle, weeping sequoias and a multitude of flowering specimens like dogwood and magnolias.
Designated as a National Recreation Trail, the Wildwood Trail stretches 30 miles, spanning the entire length of Forest Park, and offers endless loop options with shorter paths. The trail begins just northwest of the Washington Park MAX station.
Perfect for a little adventure in the city, the 4T Trail, a clearly marked 4.5-mile (7.2 km) loop, directs trekkers on a unique urban route that ropes in trails, a train, a trolley (aka the Portland Streetcar) and the Portland Aerial Tram. Pick up the trail by following the 4T signs outside the Washington Park MAX station; an all-day TriMet pass is required.
Dedicated in 1987, the Vietnam Veterans of Oregon Memorial is curved black granite wall that was inspired by the design of the famed Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. The names of 800 Oregonians who died or are still missing in action are inscribed here, contrasted by a record of concurrent local events.
Meant to evoke a town square — the kind of place where Jewish citizens were often gathered before being forced into concentration camps — the Oregon Holocaust Memorial is a small monument that packs an emotional wallop. Bronze casts of shoes, eyeglasses and suitcases representing meager possessions lost in the chaos, and a wall engraved with quotes from those who survived spur quiet reflection.
Every summer, the park comes alive for the Washington Park Summer Festival. For a week in August, visitors can take in free nightly concerts in the Rose Garden Amphitheater. The live music and warm weather makes for a perfect picnic environment, so bring a blanket and dinner (or dessert!) and enjoy the show.
Transportation to and in the park
Washington Park is served by the MAX light rail Blue and Red lines; the MAX station is close to the Oregon Zoo, Portland Children’s Museum, World Forestry Center Discovery Museum, Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the 4T and Wildwood trailheads.
TriMet bus #63 also goes from Providence Park in downtown to Washington Park, with stops near the International Rose Test Garden and Japanese Garden, and the Oregon Zoo, Portland Children’s Museum and World Forestry Center Discovery Museum.
From May through Labor Day, the Washington Park free shuttle stops at all the park’s major attractions, as well as the Washington Park MAX station. From June to Labor Day, the shuttle runs every 15 minutes from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Between Labor Day and Oct. 31, and between May 1 and Memorial Day, the shuttle runs on weekends only.