Wildwood Adventures of Forest Park

Inspired by a hiking cohort, Alex, I committed to experiencing all 30+ miles of Wildwood Trail in a consecutive fashion. I decided against his approach of doing it all in one day because I wanted to live. Instead, I broke it up into chunks and traveled at a meditative pace, absorbing each nuance at my leisure.

Wildwood Trail meanders like a jagged river up and down the hills and in and out of the drainage ravines of Forest Park. Well-maintained and easy to follow, it’s a day hiker’s paradise when you don’t feel like driving too far out of town. In fact, you don’t even have to leave Portland–at 5,100 wooded acres, it’s the largest, forested natural area within city limits in the United States. This means two things: it’s easy and well-traveled. Not exactly the intense solo bushwhacks I’m used to but, hey, it beckoned.

The entire green strip is Forest Park:

I accessed my starting points each day via side trails and fire lanes that are scattered throughout the park, then backtracked to my vehicle. (Large map download) This accounts for the higher mileage I racked up than just the Wildwood sections. I tried to keep it under eight miles at a crack out of consideration for my feet and an interminable distaste for humidity. Forest Park can be a dripping sauna in the summertime and I am definitely one of those fall/winter types. A near-solid canopy of trees overhead and the fact that every trail is positioned on the east side of the hill meant that I had enough shade to avoid applying a single dab of sunscreen. Bug spray, on the other hand, I wore like a second skin. You pause for five seconds in Forest Park and you instantly become a vending machine for mosquitoes. DEET, hallowed be thy name.

6-25-11  Newberry Road to Newton Road  4 Wildwood miles down, 26 to go

My favorite part of Forest Park is definitely the north end. The topography is more open, the foliage understory looser, affording a better view through the trees, and there are almost no people. It’s serenity makes you feel like you are miles away from civilization. The trail is in better condition, too, drier and more even. This is probably why my planned inaugural hike of 4 miles turned into eight without a second thought.

I headed out in early evening to enjoy the cooler air and quiet. The whole earth seemed paused, holding it’s breath before exhaling into night. The secret sounds of birds and small, furry animals skittering around in the undergrowth were loud in the dim light. I received a lot of inadvertent spider web and moth kisses. White shelf fungus glowed along tree trunks. The sweet, moist smell of oxygen and green, growing things hung in the air.

A brood of Northern Red-breasted Sapsuckers cackled from a hole in a tree trunk above my head, their whiny racket reaching a fever pitch whenever the adult arrived at their hole to deliver another feeding. Millipedes and carnivorous ground beetles made like speed racers across the trail while giant Banana Slugs and Arions took their sweet, slimy time. I had a couple chats with Winter wrens; they are wicked conversationalists.

Banana slug:

A good start to my piecemeal marathon. I slept well tonight.

8.5 miles today, 8.5 cumulative total

6-27-11 Newton Road to Springville Road  7.75 Wildwood miles down, 22.25 to go

Today was humid. God, it was humid. It was so freaking humid, I don’t think I was actually hiking, it felt more like swimming. I was doing the breast-stroke through air so heavy you could pet it. Bugs were floating on the surface of it like flotsam. My plan of 8.5 miles disintegrated at the site of a short cut back to my vehicle near the end. Still, I managed to bag the section of Wildwood Trail that I wanted. Next time, though, I’m bringing a ton more water.

There was plenty of reward for toughing it out. I nudged a Western red-backed salamander off the trail to get him out of the path of trail runners. He did a slimy, jerking version of the Lambada in an effort to scare me off. It didn’t work, he was just too cute. More Red-breasted Sapsucker nests; it’s like the Sapsucker Suburbs out there. I heard a handful of robins sounding their warning screeches but didn’t spot any danger. Passing back that way again on the return trip, I paused to see what they were on about. I looked up: nothing. I looked down: nothing. I look–Holy Crap, a Barred Owl just exploded from a small tree directly in front of me! The camouflage feathers on these guys is legendary. He calmly sailed to another perch, dragging the incensed robins with him.

My shower that night was also legendary. Nothing like rinsing off bugs, sweat, dust, sticks, spider webs, insect repellent, leaves, mud, and slug slime to make you feel ten pounds lighter.

7.75 miles today, 16.25 cumulative total

6-30-11 Springville Road to Trillium Trail 11 Wildwood miles down, 19 to go

I’ve never been on this section of the Wildwood Trail before but I’ll definitely be coming back. Not only does it form a near-perfect 4.5 mile loop that places you right back at your vehicle, but it has the most variety of topography. The trail is dense, then open, up on the ridge, then deep in a drainage, flat as a jogging track, then steep enough to make your glutes whimper. On top of it all, the oldest growth of firs and hemlocks in the park live here so the trunks you pass are more magnificent and the canopy is taller.

There were more horseshoe prints on Springville Road than boot prints, so I’ll look forward to seeing some wildlife of the equine persuasion there in the future. Today, it was all about the snails. The most impressive ones–and the largest–were the Pacific Sidebands. They aren’t shy and can get pretty honking big.

Apparently, the Sapsucker Suburbs extend from one end of Forest Park to the other; I’ve passed a nest every single day now. At the intersection of Springville Road and Hardesty Trail stands a tree so ornately decorated with bright white shelf fungi that it stops you dead in your tracks. I suddenly missed my camera. Salmonberries are coming ripe all over but aren’t quite at the sweet stage yet. (Ack! Ptooey!) Wood Sorrel, with it’s lemony vinegar tang is far more refreshing to chew on.

I made a side trip down Hardesty Trail to check out the Big Stump all the maps talk about. He’s sizeable but if you stuck him in the middle of the Valley of the Giants, he’d look like a scrawny teenager in a gym full of body builders. Once you’ve seen the big boys, the young ‘uns just don’t impress anymore. The stalks of Columbia Lilies are getting ready to pop into bright orange lanterns and with all this rain, I’ve never seen them so tall. Next week should be spectacular.

5 miles today, 21.25 cumulative total

7-4-11 Trillium Trail to Firelane 3 16 Wildwood miles down, 14 to go

And now for the obstacle course portion of our show. If ever there was a section of Wildwood Trail that needed a weed whacker and a chainsaw, this is the one. I spent half the time with my arms in the air while Stinging nettle, Thimbleberry, and Swordfern swatted me across the midriff. There were so many logs to vault over and crouch under, I stopped counting. Still, it was a beautiful day. By the by, Thimbleberry is. Not. Tasty. Take a raspberry and remove about 90% of the flavor. Now, make it mealy and soft. Lastly, make it a muddy, sweaty chore just to collect a cup of them. Pass. I’ll hold out for the super-sweet, winey blackberries in about a month, thanks.

ThimbleberriesThe trick to enjoying such a public trail on a holiday weekend is to get there early. By the time I got back, there were cars lined up and idling, waiting for my parking spot. They should have been there at 9 AM when the air was cool, the forest was silent, and the bees in that hive right next to the trail were still asleep. I heard multiple reports that they definitely woke up later on. My own intimate wildlife encounter involved a nest of newly-hatched robins just a few feet over my head. A much sweeter sound than the Sapsuckers, to be sure. Also sweet were the F15’s flying formations overhead for the Fourth of July, their dark metal wings cutting giant patterns in the sky, their afterburners booming with indescribable power. Love that.


I heard a third piece of music in the forest, although a bittersweet one. Cicadas have begun their long, slow songs in the trees, wheezing like sleepy accordions in the heat. This always signals that the summer is more than half over and picking up speed into fall. I don’t know why a lingering sadness sweeps over me whenever I hear that tune because I adore fall above all seasons. Must be a leftover memory from school days when the freedoms of summer must come to a close. It usually accompanies a subtle but noticeable shift in the light and the length of days. Our spring was late this year; summer just began this weekend. Maybe the cicadas are confused. Or maybe they know something we don’t….

Longest day hike in over a decade today. Pretty proud.

10.5 miles today, 31.75 cumulative total

7-8-11 Firelane 3 to Morak Trail 19 Wildwood miles down, 11 to go

I’m calling this one the Avenue of Ferns. The Bracken Fern was seven feet across and five feet high, each plant. The Sword Ferns were up to my chest. It was eerie and prehistoric. I felt like I was walking through the movie set of Jurassic Park 3 and a Velociraptor would burst from the green at any moment, eager to reduce my face to bloody sauce in one bite.

Bracken fern

In reality, all I witnessed were his very, very distant descendants–Yellow and Wilson’s WarblersOregon Juncos and the usual noisy Towhee or two. Far more curious than clever, they succumbed to my calls without hesitation and within 30 seconds, I had a dozen or more just a few feet away. They bounced and fluttered from branch to branch, beady little eyes locked on me, a cloud of questioning tweets, chirps, and churgs filling the air around us. Cute as all get out.

Wilson’s Warbler

The closest I came to carnage was Banana Slugs. If you stick your finger about an inch in front of one and let him slowly advance upon it, he will stop, pull in his antennae, then gingerly stick them back out, wrap his mouth around your fingertip, and proceed to chew. The sensation is bizarre and comical: imagine the raspy tongue of a large dog or cow scraping along your skin, causing micro-vibrations. Not much of a threat. It was so amusing, I did it three times. The largest slug was bigger around than my finger and over twice as long, a slug body builder. I wonder if I could train him to chase the squirrels out of my garden….

Red Huckleberries

This hike was the longest I managed to go without seeing a single person. It was bliss until I came upon a large fire lane access road about the same time that people let out of work. Enter the hordes, the unwashed hordes. I’m not sure what sort of socio-political statement going without baths and deodorant makes but put me down for “No.” I’m just glad I only had to pass them once. And the wind was going the other way. And my mouth wasn’t open. I had to sniff the bugspray on my arm just to cleanse my palate. I consoled myself by munching on the first red huckleberries of the season. They’re so tiny, eight of them would barely fill a teaspoon but any sweet thing found is a treat. I just wish the Salmonberry would hurry up and ripen.

7.25 miles today, 39 cumulative total

7-13-11 Morak Trail to Cornell Road 24.75 Wildwood miles down, 5.5 to go

This extra-long leg was assisted by the fact that the red huckleberries are now ripe. I hiked and chewed. Almost every bush was decorated like a Christmas tree with edible red ornaments. The Red Elderberries were flashing even larger, more impressive displays. Combined with the fluorescent orange of the Columbia Lilies, it was one gorgeous trail.

Red Elderberry Sambucus racemosa arborescens

I passed a tall white snag almost completely drilled with vertical rectangular Pileated Woodpecker holes, a cubist totem pole. Later on, I was treated to an exciting fly-by from the artist. They are as big as crows but they move through the trees like Lear jets, very fast and sleek. Then, they surprise you with cartoon voices too high and comical for such large creatures, they’re like the Mike Tysons of the forest. I guess it goes with the hairstyle.

Pileated Woodpecker

Around 8 PM, evening fell heavily on the trail and the humidity shot up so high I couldn’t tell if my shirt was wet from my own efforts or the air’s. The snails came out in force and so did a variation on the Arions: red slugs. Their coloring reminds you of a wet red brick. Tiny white moths started floating around aimlessly. Every time I passed a patch of English Ivy, the pungent smell of it caught my attention before its leaves did. Fellow hikers do not seem to know what I mean, they can’t detect the difference in aroma between Thimbleberry, Oregon Grape, and English Ivy. I guess you have to be a gardener.

Arion ater, rufus variation

I decided on a whim to go farther than planned, all the way to the next road. The Portland Audubon Society Nature Store within their sanctuary on Cornell was just closing and I caught a break with their nice bathroom, using the sink for a water bottle refill. Balch Creek below them is the only water way in the entire park large enough to sustain a rocky bottom and four-season waterfalls. The sound of water over rocks is a far richer music than water over soil, with a broader acoustical range. It soothes like Mozart. I felt a definite inner pull to my autumn hiking range, Mt. Hood, where the glacial run offs ring out into the clear, thin air like full, roaring orchestras.

Breaking my previous record, this is now my longest solo hike in Oregon. My hamstrings and arches will vouch for me.

11.5 miles today, 50.5 cumulative total

7-20-11 Cornell Road to Oregon Zoo 30+ miles of Wildwood Trail completed

I have to admit, the only reasons I was looking forward to doing this final segment was to A: See a few tiny areas I hadn’t been to yet and B: Get ‘er done. The trail topography is steepest here and very muddy, kind of a double whammy. If you’re not wearing bug spray at this slow pace, you’re going to exhaust your list of expletives in the first mile. But don’t worry about smelling like Cutter or Off!, your scent will be handily overpowered by the constant stream of perfume-drenched joggers that pass you. This is a curiosity to me: what exactly are they all dolled up for? Each other? I started noticing them around Firelane 1. The closer you get to the city, the closer you get to “civilization” and all its bizarre vicissitudes.

Pittock Mansion

Besides the traffic noise, which is an ever present drone in the forest here, there is the delightful traffic atmosphere. Exhaust fumes hang in the humid air around Cornell and Burnside Roads so thickly that your tongue tastes like WD-40 after about 10 minutes. Luckily, I met a friendly trail runner who walked with me to Pittock Mansion and helped improve my mood–Thanks, Gary! But it would have taken Prozac in a Pez dispenser to keep me smiling on through to the Oregon Zoo, that was chaos in a bottle. Cars crawling around an over-stuffed parking lot in the heat, ice cream streaked children screaming and crying and running around everywhere, angry parents alternately barking at their children and honking their horns at imaginary enemies. Bedlam. Suffice it to say, this was the one time I did not take a few minutes to pause at my turning point to soak up the ambiance. The one pocket of calm in the entire day was the all-to-brief section that overlooks the Japanese Gardens. I peered a hundred feet down and spotted a few fluorescent colored Koi trolling the reflecting pools below like plump orange submarines. They were the only real wildlife of note all day.

The last half mile heralds the time for your favorite game and mine: “Where the #%@! is the trail?” Once you cross over SW Knights Boulevard, all bets are off. There is a trail junction every hundred yards on average and the ones that are labeled are labeled wrong, and I mean really wrong. I made it this far without losing my way once but now I was pausing every fifteen minutes and squinting at the map. The trick is that the exorbitantly priced “Hiking and Running Guide to Forest Park” does not show much detail in this section of the index map and the separate map blow-ups that come with it omit it entirely. I stopped a handful of locals and tried to get a bearing but they didn’t have a clue, either. In the end, I put in an extra half mile backtracking things and wandering around parking lots. Alex, I don’t know how you survived this section in the dark at the end of your Wildwood marathon.  I would have been sending up flares and waiting for the helicopters.

10.5 miles today, 61 miles cumulative total

Well, it’s done. I’m proud and feelin’ pretty sanctimonious about all my confirmed suspicions about staying as far away from the city as possible and hiking at off hours to avoid the hordes. I received nary a bug bite in 61 miles thanks to copious amounts of spray, an accomplishment unrealized in years past. I also managed to wake up each following day with zero soreness, a miracle in itself. Mt. Hood is still melting, so I think I’ll do all the roads and firelanes next to cover August. This time, I might even wear a pack.