Gettin’ Elevated on the Roads of Forest Park

Now that I’ve canvassed Forest Park north to south, I thought I’d do a little cross hatch action and see it east to west. This means top to bottom: the highest point is 1100′ and the lowest is 50′, a steep transition that occurs in under two miles. All the non-vehicle roads that crisscross the park go one better by extending past park boundaries from NW Skyline Boulevard at the very tippy top all the way down to Highway 30 along the Columbia River. To make sure I got the biggest bang for my buck, I did each road round trip and touched toes to the pavement at either end. The elevation gains I list are approximations rounded to the nearest ten feet via Google Earth and “RT” stands for round trip. Below is a photo montage of the sign posted at most intersections with Wildwood Trail.

7-31-11 BPA Road 970′ elevation gain, 3.6 miles RT

This is either a mountain biker’s dream or worst nightmare. It starts out lovely: flat forest road, gently undulating double track with no bramble leg-whipping on the sides (you know what I mean)…but then something happens. Where the road and Firelane 13 part company, the bottom literally drops out from under you into a very steep decline. The gravel beneath your feet becomes a fast moving conveyor belt of rolling curses, slips, and dropped water bottles. Luckily, the view makes up for it (above). Do it before 10 AM in the summertime to take advantage of as much shade from the tall Doug firs as possible, after 1 PM in the winter when you’re desperate for light. There’s parking for about four vehicles at the trailhead but it’s tough to see, so just look for the pale blue house on your left about a mile past Germantown Road, the entrance is right across the street from it. I saw the most variety of wildlife on this route than any other in the park, including….

…your standard pile of cuteness, the Northern Alligator Lizard. Hey, when you’re that cuddly, you gotta expect a little lovin’.

7-23-11 Newton Road  950′ elevation gain, 3.86 miles RT

This one is a nice, wide road that heaves up and down a few dense forest hills, then takes a sharp dive into a very deep ravine. The earth falls away there on the edge at angles so steep, they are nearly cliffs, and you feel vaulted above the river valley. The wind races through this green crevasse, bringing fresh air and luscious white noise to drown the highway. As you creep downwards towards the creek, its music rises up, too, as well as a thousand bushes and branches that turn the trail into jungle again. At the end, it all opens out into an honest to goodness little field full of waist high grasses, asters, and tansy. And you get a great work out.

9-9-11 Waterline Road 340′ elevation gain, 1.3 miles RT (Foot traffic only)

Waterline Road is a relatively unattractive, gullied hike from top to bottom and a veritable mud slip in the wintertime. Multiple user trails have sprung up, leading to on-again, off-again illegal transient camps on both sides. The road starts up on NW Skyline Boulevard right across the street from a hard liquor bar, which could explain a lot. There is one quaint reminder that the route follows a water line (below).

8-10-11 Springville Road 940′ elevation gain, 3.5 miles RT

Although BPA and Springville Roads lose about the same amount of elevation over the same number of miles, Springville descends at nearly the same rate the entire way while BPA stays relatively flat, then drops like a stone. This makes Springville a great training ground for the inclines of Mt. Hood–in fact it reminds me very much of the routes that deliver you to Timberline Trail. Past the terminus of Forest Park at the bottom, Springville becomes gravel, then paved, then deposits you right at a route 16 bus stop on NW Bridge Avenue. On the way down you can make out Mt. St. Helens in the distance if it’s clear.

Lorquin’s Admiral butterfly (left)

8-14-11 Gas Line Road & Oil Line Roads 990′ elevation gain, 4.25 miles RT (Foot traffic only)

Gas and Oil Line Roads are also known as Firelanes 7 and 7A, respectively. They start out wider than a two lane street that stays relatively flat for almost a mile, then they branch into separate routes that each narrow to a steep and curvy trail. Oil Line Road is decorated with an ocean of Swordfern and ends at Leif Erikson in an ugly, eroded wall so steep, it is nearly impossible to descend–a sad testament to the devastation that unchecked mountain biking can wreak. Gas Line Road has similar damage but a more manageable elevation drop. They are the only roads in Forest Park that do not bear a smidgen of gravel anywhere on them for purchase so I don’t recommend either one in winter. Gas Line Road continues all the way down to the bottom of the park via an almost invisible route through brambles, blow downs, and a sea of zesty Lemon Balm. (Stinging Nettle is the spitting image of Lemon Balm to the untrained eye, so don’t grab anything and smell it unless you’re absolutely sure.) The very last five hundred yards or so of road is an obvious cutbank into the basalt cliffs above and has remnants of low concrete posts where a wooden safety railing used to be. Thanks for walking part of the way and picking blackberries with me, Walter, you are a fantastic conversationalist and hiking partner!

7-25-11 Saltzman Road 1040′ elevation gain, 7.5 miles RT

I’ve done this one to Leif Erikson a dozen times but I’ve never taken it all the way down to the highway. It is, hands down, the driest, best four-season road in all of Forest Park. I’m gonna remember it next winter when I’m dying to get out but don’t want to scrape mud off my pants afterwards for an hour. The lower terminus of Forest Park is a gate near Linnton and there is plenty of parking there, but you can trek another 0.70 miles to bus line 16 on the Columbia Highway if you want. There are several openings in the trees where a nice pic of St. John’s and/or the Burlington Northern Railroad Bridge 5.1 can be had when the sun is right. Or you can just play with the landscaping rocks (above).

7-29-11 Holman Lane 470′ elevation gain, 1.8 miles RT

This little road takes home the awards for Honkin’-est Huckleberries and Most-Butterflies-Per-Mile. The Oregon Swallowtails are everywhere but they’re cagey and they don’t pause very long for paparazzi, so get your camera ready beforehand and then just stake out some wild flowers and wait. Holman’s not a good winter hike unless you’re comfortable navigating steep hills in hip waders: lotsa mud. There is no parking at the trailhead, but the Birch Trail parking area just a hundred feet up the hill has more than enough room. Due to its slightly southern position on the hill and open under story, Holman Lane collects a lot of heat from the sun and isn’t a good choice to escape a sweltering summer afternoon. As I discovered today.

8-3-11 Leif Erikson Drive 11.22 miles RT

The elevation difference from one end to the other of Leif Erikson is only about 300′ but the road rises and lowers so often that you can claim at least 2000′ in gain if you do the whole thing round trip. I’ve already done the south half of it a dozen times, in every season, from NW Thurman Street to NW Saltzman Road. It’s pleasant but eternally crowded; summer weekends are practically a parade. However, about three miles in, at Firelane 1, most people turn around and it’s nothing but you and the hardcore runners and mountain bikers from there on out. That spot also heralds Leif Erikson’s swift lurch higher and deeper into the forest, away from the industrial sights and smells of Highway 30, so the ambiance is sweeter on just about every level. Both ends of the road have convenient trash cans, doggie pick up bag dispensers, and seasonal Port-a-potty’s in the summer. The south end has a spigot for water.

The section I hadn’t done yet in one fell swoop is the northern half, so that’s what I explored today. It’s got a couple places that turn positively gooey in the winter but other than that, it’s not bad. About 1.75 miles in, at the intersection with NW Sprinvgille Road, is an open area labeled “Scout’s Corner” by a local artist couple (look about eight feet up the tree to the right of the metal map) that honors a Golden Labrador Retriever they used to walk there. A hundred feet past that spot on the right is the Invisible House. Leif Erikson used to be a real road with houses along it and this concrete stoop is the only remaining evidence (below). I found a fascinating collection of historical photos that review the opening of Leif Erikson, the creation of the firelanes, and the fire that made them necessary.

The intersection with NW Saltzman Road is little open area that has a picnic table to lunch at or collapse upon. I dragged it into the shade and did the latter. Then, I watched butterflies and snakes for half an hour, put my shoes back on, and snapped a photo of the St. John’s Bridge.

On to the firelanes….