As was the case with a previous post about the Harry Stairs in San Francisco, I have been saving up for a chance to write about my favorite stairways of the West Hills in Portland. When the creative juices are running low, nothing is more inspiring than thinking and writing about one’s favorite places. It is like what I recently wrote about spaces and places…it’s easy to be calm in places that are familiar and comfortable, places that we have come to claim as our own.
My relationship with stairways goes back to my earliest days of childhood, the long, sunny afternoons that were spent exploring the neighborhood over and over with my mom. We would roam the sidewalks, a large world of possibility and wonder opening up in front of our eyes. And then we’d round a corner, reach a dead end in our walk, no way to go except back the way we came. But wait- what’s that there in between a break in a hedge!? A stairway, at least a block long, descending to a street far below- completely unaware of this portal, a secret passageway into a lower, busier, unassuming realm of people. Though these stairways merely lead from one part of the neighborhood to the next, sometimes one busy road to another, they have a magical, almost mystical element to them in their secrecy. Hidden stairways act almost as secret passageways, shortcuts like the doors in “The Adjustment Bureau” or even like the closet in the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, passageways into another world. While descending one such stairway, your vision is narrowed, focusing on the circle of light at the bottom, a hazy and distant ring. Sometimes the tree canopy covers the sky from view, forming a tree tunnel to walk through. When I was a toddler, maybe even still now, I believed that fairies lived amongst the roots, tree hollows, and brambles in the Broadway Drive-Terrace Drive stairway. I would delight in going there, to leave the fairies gifts of pine cones and rose petals.
As I recall and describe this favorite walk of mine, I try to place myself in this imaginative space. A world in which fairies make their homes in tree tunnels and slide down the handrails of these stairways.
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Begin at the Benson Bubbler at the intersection of Broadway Drive, Vista Avenue, and Patton Road. There is, conveniently, a 51 bus stop right by this drinking fountain, so this walk is easily accessible from Downtown Portland. Check the times, though, if you are planning to get here via public transit. The 51 does not run that often! What, you may be asking, is a Benson Bubbler? These drinking fountains are uniquely Portland…you cannot find them anywhere else in the world! You may spot them around Downtown Portland or in various neighborhoods, like the Southwest Hills where this stairway walk takes place. They were first instated by Simon Benson in 1912, when the sawmill-owner tapped into a creative way to keep his loggers out of the saloons and sober during their shifts. So he planned a network of small, continuously running drinking fountains to keep his workers hydrated! Our little walk begins at a piece of Portland history!
Ascend the stairway directly behind the Benson Bubbler, which will take you to Talbot Road. This is a quiet street that winds down the hill from Fairmount Boulevard to Patton Road, for the most part paralleling Greenway Avenue. If you are looking for a quiet ascent to Council Crest Park, go on this street, as it winds its way up. If you are tall enough, you can peek over the hedges lining this street into the hills to the West! You could continue on Talbot all the way to Fairmount Boulevard, a 3.5 mile road that circles the base of Council Crest Park. Because of its flat and circular nature, runners, bikers, and dog walkers like to use this street for recreational purposes. BUT, we will be not continuing up to this road via Talbot. Instead, take a sharp Right turn onto Summit Drive.
The curved roads in this neighborhood are infamous and mind boggling, confusing drivers daily. But if you follow the directions I give (and I have included a map at the end of this post to guide you!) hopefully you will not get lost. Luckily, neighbors are courteous, so you can always stop and ask for directions to any main road, all of which are crossed at some point in this walk. Walk down Summit Drive until it dead ends into, guess what?…A stairway! This stairway descends to Greenway Avenue. Cross the street to the wooden boardwalk and take a Left, ascending the hill. Continue on the boardwalk until it ends at a crosswalk. At this point, you will cross the street (you will see Council Crest Drive and Park up ahead if you continued straight!) and descend a small stairway which actually brings you to Fairmount Boulevard, part of the 3.5 mile loop. You will turn ight at the base of the stairway and walk under the overpass. Walk only a few steps forward and you will see another stairway, wooden this time, to your Right!
This stairway descends to Montgomery Drive, another quiet street off a busy road. This street may be named after a historical figure in Portland, but is most likely named after Montgomery Ward, which was our country’s #1 mail order business in the late 19th century. Portland’s retail center for Montgomery Ward is at the current site of the Montgomery Park building. Montgomery Drive in the West Hills is one of the 4 major roads cyclists and motorists can use to descend to downtown (Broadway Drive, 16th Avenue, Vista Avenue, and Montgomery Drive.) Bikers definitely use this road as a meandering way to sweat and struggle up the hill in a less public manner. Walk down Montgomery until it crosses Patton Road and continue down. Just past Upper Drive, you will see a stairway ascending on your Right. Indeed! Walk up this stairway. You will find yourself on Vista Avenue. Cross if you can, but you don’t need to immediately. Descend Vista until you see a metal fence and walkway on the right side of the street.
At this point, you will ascend the stairway. This will take you to the spot where Elizabeth Street turns into Terrace Drive. Take a Right up Terrace drive, continuing to walk straight through the intersection of Ravensview Drive and Hawthorne Terrace. At this point, you will walk all the way to the end of Terrace Drive. And what do you think is at the end of this street? You’re right! A stairway! As a matter of fact, it is the exact one I spoke of at the beginning of this post. Note its magic, the overhanging canopy fit for fairy fun and descend to Broadway Drive, one of the West Hills’ busiest streets. Be cautious as you emerge onto this street, keeping to the Right (or eft, if there is a bigger shoulder here). When the road curves to the Right you have two options, both of which I have detailed on the map.
If you have time and would like a little romp in the woods, I would highly recommend diverting off of our stairway walk for a bit and turning left off of Broadway Drive into Marquam Nature Park, a destination I have written about extensively in this blog. You will see the trailhead clearly marked, where Broadway Drive curves to the Left. Descend this Broadway Trail until it Ts. Turn Right, continuing to follow signs that lead you to Council Crest Park. Eventually, you will emerge onto a street, Sherwood Drive. You will turn Right on this street and continue to follow it until it emerges onto Broadway Drive. Walk straight on Broadway until you see the trailhead that you first encountered.
Directly across Broadway Drive from this trailhead is another stairway! If you don’t want to explore the woodland detour I have just described, you skip it and walk up this stairway. This will take you to Gerald Avenue. Turn Left and continue walking. This road will turn into Corona Avenue and will lead you to Ravensview Drive. Turn Left on Ravensview and you will see a busy intersection ahead. Keep your eye out throughout the walk, this last bit especially, for small iron rings attached to the edge of the sidewalk. These rings were once used to hitch horses to the sidewalk, not at all different from keeping our dogs from running away by tying their leashes to sign posts!
The intersection ahead just happens to be the intersection where you started! You have now completed a 2.3 mile loop (3.3 mile if you took the Marquam Nature Park detour)! You should be very proud of yourself. And learned a little bit about Portland history and geography in the process! Also keep your ears open, as you will surely hear wildlife around you, especially in Marquam Nature Park. As I plotted this walk myself, I heard Chickadees, American Crows, and dozens of other birds, as well as chattering squirrels. Marquam Nature Park is known to house Great Horned Owls, raptors such as Falcons and Hawks, as well as deer and coyotes. So keep your eyes and ears open, not only to ensure that you don’t fall down a set of stairs but so that you can be in-tune with the wonders of the natural world all around us!
Hopefully I will be mapping and writing about other stairway walks I discover throughout Portland in the coming months, but Portland-based writer Laura Foster maintains her own blog on urban hikes throughout Portland. She often leads historical, cultural, and ecological walks throughout the city through local groups. You can view her calendar at the bottom of the front page of her blog.