Friday, May 27, 2016

A Refuge in the City: Oaks Bottom

Below the bustling Sellwood neighborhood in southeast Portland, a peaceful wetland spreads toward the Willamette. Venerable Oaks Amusement Park opened on one edge of this marsh in 1905, and over 100 years later the rides still run and families skate in the rink. My father explored this bottom land with his friends in the 1950s, and I have been wandering its paths since the early 1980s. Long a destination for families, this wetland has been a haven for wildlife for centuries. While many things have changed over the years in Oaks Bottom, some things have stayed the same.

At one time, this park was simply a marshy flood plain. At almost 150 acres and lying right beside the busy Willamette, it seemed to be ripe with possibilities for progress. Oaks Amusement Park, known as the "Coney Island of the West," drew families to the water's edge, and the railroad built its tracks on a berm to keep them above the floodwaters. This berm effectively separated the wetland from the river, and the wetland began to gradually be filled. At one time there was a landfill here, and the city dumped fill from the construction of I-405. By the 1970s, it seemed like a good idea to fill the wetland altogether. A number of local groups came together, however, and their combined voices persuaded the city to rethink the fate of the area (read more about the rebirth of Oaks Bottom here).

This land was still largely ignored into the 1980s, and it was possible to spend hours following a maze of winding, often muddy, tracks through woods and grasslands. It seemed both undiscovered and abandoned. In 1988, though, Oaks Bottom was officially named Portland's first wildlife refuge, and in 2004 it was designated as the city's first migratory bird park. Work on the refuge continues to this day, improving the park for wildlife as well as for human visitors.

Sellwood and Sellwood Riverfront Parks
To experience the refuge for yourself, print out this map and head for Old Sellwood, a varied collection of unique shops and restaurants. There is a small parking lot on Milwaukie Avenue just east of McGloughlin; the Bluff Trail drops down into the woods here, and bicyclists can take this route to meet up with the Springwater Corridor. Another trail drops down from Sellwood Park (take Bybee to Sellwood Blvd.). This park has lovely old trees, picnic tables, and a play area. Sellwood Riverfront Park has river access with a dock, a small beach (water levels permitting), tables, and a trail that wanders off into Oaks Bottom. This park is on Oaks Park Way, just past some office buildings. There is one more access from Oaks Park itself, with a trail that crosses an open, grassy meadow on its way to the Bluff Trail.

However you access it, the Bluff Trail is the best way to experience the refuge. The muddiest areas now have catwalks, but the rest of the trail is a simple dirt path. Winding through lush Oregon woodland, one could almost imagine that the city were far away if it were not for the clash and clatter of the rides at Oaks Park and the sounds of the city drifting by. The marshier areas, with their mud floors and thin-trunked trees, look like a southern swamp during the rainy season. Wildflowers bloom and cottonwoods sway in the breeze. Watch and listen for a variety of songbirds, raptors, and waterfowl; click here for a list of bird species to be found in this refuge. At one point you will pass below a mausoleum, which is something one usually doesn't see in a wildlife refuge!

As shown on the map, there are several side trails which connect the Bluff Trail with the popular Springwater Corridor, part of a 40-mile paved bike loop. This section of the corridor is shared among bicyclists, hikers, birdwatchers, dog walkers, and parents with strollers. Connecting with the Corridor makes the hike into a 2-mile loop. Watch for signs for the tadpole pond, a habitat set up especially for the northern red legged frog; this pond is not on the map, but it is near the art installation.

Check the map for access points for the Corridor, as the railroad tracks I wandered in my youth are now fenced off and underpasses have been built. This busy path is worth walking, as it passes beside the riverbank and the refuge pond. Watch the skies for hawks, ospreys, and great blue herons.

This area is a great family destination, as it offers parks, playgrounds, bike trails, picnicking, fishing, boating, and even an amusement park. The best parts, though, are the parts that haven't changed much over the years: the industrious birds, the sly animals, the tall grasses swaying in the warm air, and the wide, meandering Willamette sparkling in the sun.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Trail to a Parking Lot: The St. Perpetua Trail and an Accessible Alternative

Don't you hate hiking up a steep trail, working hard and sweating, just to arrive at a parking lot? Well, this is one of those hikes, but it is one of our favorites anyway. Beginning in a lush creek bottom and ending at a rocky headland high above the ocean, this trail gains 600 feet of elevation in less than a mile and a half. The relatively short trail makes this a perfect stop during a long drive down the coast, and the views along the way make the                                                                                                     climb more than worth the effort.

Solomon's Seal
Cape Perpetua juts into the sea between Yachats and Florence on the central coast. You will know you are getting close when Highway 101 narrows and begins to twist and wind upward. This hike begins at the Visitor Center parking lot, where you will need to pay a $5 parking fee if you do not have a Northwest Forest Pass (don't forgo this hike because of the fee, though; the Visitor Center is worth a stop, too). Look for the trailhead near the restrooms outside the Center.

The trail here is crowded with forest plants and roofed with tall evergreens. Descend toward sparkling Cape Creek. The Giant Spruce Trail branches off to the right; this worthwhile creekside trail leads to, of all things, a really big spruce tree, estimated to be about 600 years old.

Staying left at the junction, cross the creek and head into the Cape Perpetua Campground. This popular campground is, sadly, only open during the summer season. Sites are tucked near Cape Creek well off of Highway 101 and near everything the Cape Scenic Area has to offer. There is room for most RVs, but accommodations are simple, with no hookups available.

Cross the paved campground road and find the trail, which immediately begins to climb Cape Perpetua in a series of switchbacks. Occasional breaks in the forest wall reveal ever-more-spectacular views, giving ample reason to stop to rest and take photos. Note the changing plant life as you ascend the rocky face, finally bursting from the dim forest onto a south-facing, flower-covered slope. Continue among the grasses and flowers to the top, where you will find a paved overlook. Unless coastal fog has rolled in, plan to spend quite a bit of time taking pictures here. This is also an excellent picnic spot, well-furnished with tables and benches.

Next, follow the short Whispering Spruce Trail along the cliff's edge to a stone shelter built in the 1930s by the CCC. Plan to take more pictures here, then return the way you came.

As for the parking lot...if you are not up to the climb, Cape Perpetua's breathtaking views are still accessible to  you. Just north of the Visitor Center, turn toward the campground and then turn left to drive up Cape Perpetua. A short, paved trail from the parking area leads to the overlook. The Whispering Spruce Trail to the stone shelter is a quarter-mile loop; click here for accessibility details.

On your next drive along 101, take time to enjoy Cape Perpetua's spectacular views. This is one parking lot we can highly recommend.
Indian Paintbrush
Wild Iris

Monkey Flower

Be forewarned, snakes the size of pencils with inflated egos inhabit these areas. They attempt to strike fear into the hearts of humans, but the end result is more one of, "Aww..." To the photographer, this one looks like he just made a terrible pun and is waiting in vain for a response.