Painting Portland: an unexpected cyclist haven

the West Hills rising above downtown- from Mt. Tabor

The most prominent feature of the West Hills in Portland is, well, you guessed it, the hills! As remnants of the Tualatin Mountains which separate the Portland Basin on the east from the Tualatin Basin in the west, they primarily consist of basalt bedrock, piled high with volcanic rock and Portland Hills Silt; a rich ground cover of fir, cedar, and pine needles; a mass of dead maple and alder leaves; and an interwoven network of roots from a bevy of native shrubs and trees.

At a towering 1000 ft or higher (downtown is located at approximately sea level), these hills certainly aren’t friendly to bikers. Though I do see the bravest among us straining their quad muscles almost clear out of their spandex shorts; chests heaving, lights frantically flashing distress, their “Deschutes Brewery” jersey carrying a clear message: “I’d rather be drinking a beer than climb this damn hill!”; that doesn’t mean it’s not brutal.  There are many ways these cyclists reach the top. To get to the Arboretum, or the Northernmost hill, one can take Burnside or the equally meandering but less busy streets inside Washington Park. To reach the next hill south, Council Crest, one can struggle up Montgomery St., Broadway Drive, 16th Avenue, or Vista Avenue. To reach OHSU’s hill, even further south, one can go up Sam Jackson Parkway or Terwilliger. All of these are not necessarily recommended.

You may be wondering why am I writing about biking in the West Hills, if it’s so unpleasant to reach one’s destination. Why am I featuring a post about this area as a biking destination if it means putting oneself in danger from cars or his/her own body calling out in resistance? Well, the truth is, I cheat. Alas, I hate to admit it on my own blog, but I am a cheater. Yes, I am a biker living in the West Hills, but there is no way you’ll find me hauling myself and my heavy 1980s vintage bike up the hill. I do wish I had that strength, but for now, I’ll cheat. And I wish to share with you my beautiful cheating route that is sure to be less strain on your legs and very soft on the eyes as well.

Canyon Court

It all begins with me and my bike at the Goose Hollow MAX stop, arriving from various destinations around Portland. I take the MAX one stop to, arriving at Washington Park, where I ascend a few hundred feet to the Zoo-Children’s Museum-Forestry Museum complex in an elevator. Thereby, in about 5 minutes, I have reached my destination at the top of the hill by avoiding the ruinous ascent. Then, I traverse the loop of Canyon Rd, turning Right on Canyon Ct. at a Stop sign. This road parallels Highway 26 and is the only way for cars to get to the Westbound Sunset Highway from the zoo. However, this little stretch of gently undulating and uphill road is also frequented by bikers such as myself. The sound of cars speeding by at 60 mph only a couple feet to your left is constant and loud, but it is very possible to ignore the sound, instead taking in the beauty of the maple trees overhead as they change through the seasons. My favorite season is fall, as you may have guessed already, with its explosion of color. This stretch of paved road, serenaded by a symphony of car exhaust, is surprisingly breathtaking, especially on a cold, crisp day.

Pacific Chorus frog (thanks http://www.wildherps.com!)

When you reach the Sylvan area, you will probably be out of breath from the gradual ascent to the top of the hill and freeway interchange. Cross over the freeway (it may be safest to stay on the sidewalk), until you cross Humphrey Blvd on a little break in the barrier between Scholls Ferry. Cross the street and, ah, there you will be, taking a big sigh of relief as you and your bike begin to glide onto Hewett Blvd. Now, this street is one of the gems for biking in Portland. Overhung with a canopy of maple and alder trees, windy but relatively flat, almost entirely deserted during the day, complete with breathtaking views of the suburbs of Beaverton and Tualatin. Whenever I bike this route to work, I am always amazed that I get to ride on this street as part of my commute! Usually, it is quiet except for the soft whir of my wheels and the friendly chatter of Douglas Squirrels and songbirds in the trees. One day, I even heard the telltale song of a Pacific Chorus Frog from amidst the heavy trees to the left of me as I sped by.

One of the most moving experiences I have had with the natural world occurred while I was biking Hewett. It was late at night- 11 or midnight. We may have even caught the last MAX from downtown as we stashed our bikes, relieved, and sat down in our seats. Upon reaching Washington Park, we quickly biked the route I just described, arriving at Hewett having seen few vehicles. We only had one working headlight between the two of us, creating a creepy shaft of light that just barely carved out a visible path for us to follow on the windy, dark road. The weak light reached only a few feet ahead, a span of distance that passes by quickly when pedaling at 10-15 mph. Rounding a corner about halfway down the route,  the light briefly illuminated a dark shape in the middle of the road. We both instinctively reached for our brakes to avoid hitting whatever it was obscuring our path but quickly realized this wasn’t necessary. Upon seeing our weak light illuminating the night, the shape immediately spread its gigantic wingspan and fled into the trees. I am still not exactly sure what we saw, as all it showed to us was a bulky black shape, two glowing eyes, and large wings. My guess is a Great Horned Owl, but regardless, we were certainly stunned and awed into silence as witnesses of what was evidently a creature of great presence, commanding the nighttime landscape. After experiences like this, I am always reminded of the richness of Portland’s ecosystem.

a grand house and breathtaking view from Hewett Boulevard

Hewett ends at Patton Road, about 2 miles from where it starts at Scholls Ferry. At Patton, take a Left and proceed to the four-way Stop next to the gas station. Take a Right here onto Talbot Road and you will pedal up a small hill. You’ll reach another stop sign, whereupon you will continue straight, right onto Fairmont Blvd. Now, this is the second half of my featured bicycle route of the West Hills, a 3.5 mile loop that circles the base of Council Crest Park. Unlike Hewett, Fairmont Blvd is very well-used. In fact, it is frequented by many different types of transport. You have your runners, in their reflective jackets and iPods, hopefully running against traffic. I’m usually one of these. You’ve got your neighbors walking their dogs. You’ve got your commuters and neighbors, cruising on the loop in their cars. Unfortunately, I imagine that this must be quite frustrating as a driver on Fairmount, as you are always having to negotiate slower people.

Out of all the people that use this route, it is by far most populated by cyclists. Most are dressed up in spandex, some in full uniforms, some like me commuting in street clothes. Some bike alone, some bike in pairs, their snippets of conversation floating by one phrase at a time as they speed by runners and walkers. This is one of the most beautiful places to bike in the fall (or, really, any season!) The road twists and turns, never leading you in a straight path. It snakes just below Council Crest Park and bisects Marquam Nature Park, maples and firs and cedars carving a yellow, dappled light path on the road. Sometimes you are enveloped in the embrace of the forest, sometimes you can see for miles across the Western suburbs. The view changes as you circumnavigate the route- from the Western Suburbs to the Southern edge of the West Hills, to a view over to Ross Island and Sellwood peeking over Macadam, to the Southern edge of downtown featuring the Koin Tower, these landmarks always peeking out from between the foliage which is ever-present during your ride. I have found myself almost riding off the road, especially while looking out over the Western suburbs, the snippets of view popping out unexpectedly from between trees and houses. One would never guess that 500 feet below, the beautifully rolling hills colored by changing leaves are actually hiding wide suburban roads, strip malls, Target, Fred Meyer, and probably at least 5 Starbucks. It is always a strange revelation to come to.

As you come to the conclusion of the 3.5 mile loop, you can either do it again (or multiple times!) like the hardcore bikers or return to Patton Road once again, winding down to Lambs Thriftway grocery store at Stroheckers for a quick bite to eat and a sip of coffee at their coffee shop. This friendly grocery store is an icon of Portland history, serving generations of Portland families over the years. And then you can speed off down the rest of the hill, enjoying this time the whip of the wind and the ease on your legs as you let gravity carry you back downtown or to your next destination. And all in one afternoon, joining the ranks of cyclists that are insane enough to venture to the West Hills to ride.

Share the Road!

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6 thoughts on “Painting Portland: an unexpected cyclist haven

  1. I felt like I was on the bike ride with you. Sounds like I will need to plan to do so. Would love to see a map of the area that you biked to get a better idea about the route,

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