Urban Refuge

It storms today. Out of a black pearl sky, winter rains drench Portland’s hills. Wind rises through the Douglas firs: a resonant, insistent song.

Windrush on the north side of Powell Butte, midmorning, spoke of a temporary reprieve. Rain had fallen; more promised. From the promontory, we watched its approach. We took our chance in the interim to circle the ancient volcano.


You would only know its fiery history from the summit. The Cascade Mountains dominate to the north and east, white peaks undeniably the children of geological violence. A scatter of stranger outcroppings dot the flat valleys below – one of which you stand atop. These extinct cones – four of them stretch for the sky within Portland’s city limits – are green and lush and surprisingly gentle to walk on. They make for beloved city parks.

This one also houses an enormous amount of the city’s water, even more since 2012, when a second 50-million-gallon reservoir was completed. It’s a working place, with wide graveled access roads and city employees out and about. But most of this old mountain is covered in a comfortable patchwork of weathered ecosystems: mature Doug fir forest next to open meadow next to oak savannah.


To construct the new reservoir – and to update and expand the trail system – Powell Butte Nature Park closed some years ago. Between one thing and another, I haven’t been since the reopening, which means today was my first visit in at least five years.


There’s a visitor’s center now, focused as much on the municipal water supply as the natural environment. I wonder if this is the new language of public parks: equal dedication to the practical and the mystical. After the successive reigns of each, perhaps we’re ready for a considered middle ground. If we do not preserve, we will destroy. If we do not use, we will be destroyed.

Since our culture thinks in dichotomies, I’ll put it this way: because we need resources both consumable and intangible (body and soul, if you will), I think we must embrace a more complex construction of our outdoor space.


We decide to make a circuit of the perimeter, and soon find ourselves on a vaguely downhill forest path. The rain holds off, but a creek is full somewhere; its plinking and clattering fill the spaces between trees. It takes me a moment to realize that the sound is coming from inside a large metal pipeline snaking down the side of the trail. Without it, the noise I’ve just romanticized as a perfect hillside waterway would be subtler and less focused: very different indeed.


It’s a longer route than I remember. (We seem to have found the new trails.) The tread is moderately muddy, so that you may pause, but the trail continues on beneath your unwary boot. Even with the slippage, it’s a pleasant walk, with no slope too breathlessly steep, no creekshed crossing too mired.

Wrapping gradually around the south side, we emerge at last in my favorite landscape: the wide and wind-scoured summit meadows. Beneath the sheltering Dougs, no breeze reached the forest floor, but up here it pushes and shouts.

We raise our voices, grinning, while the wind jostles us forward and visibly knocks about the half dozen hawks hunting for lunch in the short grass. A tiny kestrel arrows by, barely in control. One red-tail drops low to skim the ground. A sudden gust nearly bowls her beak-over-tail into the ground, but she saves it, soaring back skyward on crazily tilting pinions. I watch her until she angles down to land in a bare-limbed walnut at the edge of the old orchard.


Today’s heavy, marbled skies obscure the Cascade peaks, but the great range’s foothills lift and roll to the east, veiled in distant rain. It’s the sort of view a hiker thinks they ought to work for. All I’ve done is ramble a few easy miles.

In my enthusiasm for the grandeur of the Gorge and the mountains, for the vast unsilent quiet of wilderness, for the comparative solitude of rural walks in places like Sauvie Island, I’ve forgotten this urban refuge exists. Buried in the spill and sprawl of southeast Portland toward Gresham, the wooded shoulders and grassy summit sweep of unassuming Powell Butte provide a haven that is not an escape. It is, instead, a fast route to a new perspective on Portland. And a pleasant adventure I’m pleased to add back to my mental map.



Powell Butte Nature Park is at 162nd and Powell (US 26), just before Portland becomes Gresham. Parking is plentiful and free. You can also reach the butte by walking or cycling on the Springwater Corridor, which touches its southern boundary. The walking is easy, on several miles of graveled or dirt paths; the summit is ADA-accessible. The entire park is a great place for birding. More information: The Intertwine, Friends of Powell Butte.



2 thoughts on “Urban Refuge

  1. Remember you pointing this out, and talking about it. Not a fan of the traffic on 26 through that area, but would brave it again to experience this.  :-)

    Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android


  2. We have talked about going there, but I do remember it was many years ago. Didn’t know it had been closed. Sounds like a great walk. The traffic and congestion of 26 through that area is something I distinctly remember, and don’t care for, but I’d brave it again to experience this urban Refuge.


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