Historically, Forest Park has had only three major fires. Two burned in the late 1800s before the park’s official inception. The most recent broke out in 1951 and burned 2,400 acres, a high-intensity crown fire that swept over 25% of the park. Pretty wild. That explains the absence of large, old growth trunks around there. Since then, Portland has installed mechanisms to combat future damage to its precious 2025 hectares of maple, fir, and hemlock. Firelanes were bulldozed through the forest to provide quick access to any blaze foolish enough to start something. Most of these roads are still in good condition, with much of their gravel intact, others have been reduced by time and nature to meandering dirt ruts. All of them are open to foot traffic, a few to bikes and horses. They are an easy way to get quickly into the heart of the park for a little shade, some peace and quiet, or your standard tooth-gritting, sweat-dripping work out.
Though they are numbered 1 through 15, I found only twelve firelanes in the park. I posted them in order of appearance from south to north as well as any intriguing side trails they run across. Elevation gains are approximations rounded to the nearest ten vertical feet via Google Earth, mileages are to the nearest tenth of a mile.
8-22-11 Firelane #1 955′ elevation gain, 4 miles RT
Firelane 1 is the mother of all firelanes. It’s steep, it’s long, it has both deep forest (above) and open meadow, it affords an impressive view of distant volcanoes and the industry along Swan Island on the Columbia River, and it’s accessible from either NW Skyline Boulevard at the top or NW St. Helens Road at the bottom (on the north side of the Brazil Electric Motors building). Actually, “steep” doesn’t quite cover it. I’ve done this one in the muddy, slimy wintertime and I distinctly remember sliding down large portions of it while uttering select expletives. You’d better have darned good brakes on your mountain bike and ten buckets of courage to go with it.
Along one of the gnarliert inclines is a lovely grove of Madrone, the largest in the park. Its artistic russet bark curls back at this time of year to reveal colors within colors, it’s slick yellow leaves litter the forest floor (below). I took a little detour at this spot and dropped my pack in the middle of it to meditate. Every time the wind blew, a cascade of leaves fluttered to the ground around me like a hundred paper airplanes. I could have stayed there all day. Next time, I’ll bring along an extra can of mosquito repellent and an inflatable cushion so I can.
Near the bottom, Firelane 1 jags right and joins an open area cleared beneath the power lines. Forest shadows and slugs fall away and bright sunlight suddenly illuminates birds and butterflies darting around large Blue Elderberry bushes. The berries are edible and one of these days I’m going to work up the courage to try them. In the meantime, I’m very happy with the blackberry harvest….
At a high point beneath the power line, there’s an expansive view of the miasma of buildings and docks along the Columbia River as well as distant Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Rainier, and Mt. Adams. You can even catch a glimpse of a few downtown skyscrapers. They’re all majestic but I’m more enamored of beautiful things closer to the ground, like cute garter snakes.
This route is Berry Row. There is so much Thimbleberry and Pacific Blackberry you almost don’t need to pack a lunch. Pacific Blackberry (left) differs from the ubiquitous Himalaya Blackberry in that it is a lower, smaller plant with a more slender, blueish cane and far less deadly thorns. The fruit has a subtler flavor than the Himalaya with less of a sweet, winey tang. Lots of open space between the forest floor and upper canopy lends a cathedral feel to Firelane 2 in spots. It’s narrower than Firelane 3 and sweeps up and down in giant arches like a roller coaster. There’s zero parking at the hidden gate on NW Skyline Boulevard but about thirty feet south of there across from NW Kelly Circle, there’s a gravel pull out large enough for three small vehicles. The trail looks deceptively socked in from the outside but once you pass through that chain link fence, don’t worry, it all opens up.
8-18-11 Firelane #3 480′ elevation gain, 2 miles RT
This one is very popular with bikers, it’s labeled on Google Earth. It’s easy to access from NW Skyline Boulevard if you turn into the community called Thunder Crest and continue to the end of the paved drive. There is no parking, as a very sternly worded sign at the gate attests, but you can leave your vehicle outside the entrance of the Skyline Memorial Gardens just up the road north of there. Firelane 3 is relatively straight (below) and just under a mile long, hooking up with Maple Trail a mere 15 feet before Leif Erikson Road. There are Himalaya Blackberries at the top and a tiny break in the trees at the bottom that affords a bit of a view of the industry along the Columbia River.
I stumbled upon Firelane 4 while looking for something else. It’s represented on the map as an unnamed route that begins shortly after milepost 5 on Leif Erikson and heads downward along some power lines (below). If you want the jungle experience, this is your firelane. It’s so socked in with Himalaya Blackberry and Thimbleberry that I was wishing for a machete by the time I got to the intersection with Maple Trail. I recommend taking a sheep dip in Deet before striking out on this one. If you continue down Firelane 4 and take the left route up the hill, you’ll come to a nice look out under a large Doug fir with a low skirt that provides shade from the sun like a circus tent.
8-28-11 Firelane #5 455′ elevation gain, 2.4 miles RT
Firelane 5 is another popular one with bikers, mostly because it originates in the NW Saltzman Road parking lot, providing easy access for the incoming hordes. It winds back and forth on an incline less steep than other firelanes and launches onto a couple tangents. The first tangent leads to a small open field at one end and a “secret” trail looping back onto NW Saltzman Road at the other, a trail that seems a little too wide and pounded down to be a true secret (below). The second tangent literally leads nowhere, but it’s a soothing, unpopulated nowhere with openness and sunshine. Though not indicated on the map, Firelane 5 does in fact connect with Leif Erikson Road and a bizarre structure sits at the junction: a strange pair of small, moisture-sealed buildings upholstered in moss (below). An enigmatic bumper sticker decorates one of them, keeping Portland weird. Note: Firelane 5 has multiple sharp, blind curves on a narrow track that can and will bring you face to face with a mountain biker who is traveling fast. Be alert in case they’re not.
Pearly Everlasting (below)
8-14-11 Firelane #7, 7A 990′ elevation gain, 4.25 miles RT together (Foot traffic only)
Firelanes 7 and 7A are also known as Gas and Oil Line Roads, respectively. They start out together as a single road 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 (7A) 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, especially when you consider that bikes aren’t even allowed on Firelanes 7 and 7A. Gas Line Road (7) 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 traveling either one in winter.
Gas Line Road (7) 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, sweet 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 feet or so of road is an obvious cutbank into basalt cliffs 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!
The shortest and sweetest firelane in all of Forest Park also seems to have the most slugs–it’s like a slug roundup. The flanks of this quiet, out of the way trail are blanketed with Piggyback Plant (right), the most I’ve seen anywhere. It meanders from an access gate 0.1 mile above the Wildwood Trail parking lot on NW Germantown Road down to an obvious intersection with Wildwood Trail and a burbling creek. 8-18-11 Firelane #9 430′ elevation gain, 1.3 miles RT (Foot traffic only)
This one is interesting. It starts directly across NW Germantown Road from the Leif Erikson parking lot, rolls through a few open, mowed meadows that make you pine for a lawn chair and a tall glass of iced tea, dips down a long, steep ramp of a hill lined with Red Huckleberries, and comes to rest at a sharp turn around an old concrete reservoir that nature is elegantly returning to its original wild state (below). At this point, there are two choices. If you turn left and proceed through a couple concrete barricades on a deceptively well traveled path you’ll swiftly come to an incline so steep that only Crampons could ever get a purchase. It seems to lead down to a creek drainage but I wasn’t in the mood for injury, so I took door number two and turned right onto a paved road that drops you at the intersection of NW Wilark and NW Mackay Avenues. There were For Sale signs along this road when I was there so it may look different in the near future. There is also a boulder with a plaque declaring that “You are standing in Clark & Wilson Park,” a park within a park that resulted when Forest Park was created around it many years after the original gift of 18 acres was bequeathed by O.M. Clark of Clark & Wilson Lumber Company. Not sure how the For Sale signs fit into that.
8-30-11 Firelane #10 790′ elevation gain, 3+ miles RT
Firelane 10 is probably the most accessible firelane in all of Forest Park, with three points of entry. It starts just up NW Germantown Road from the Leif Erikson parking lot with its own pull out space for a dozen vehicles along the road. The other end starts right off the NW Newton Road parking lot which can accommodate even more. Somewhere in the middle is a junction with Linnton Trail that takes you right down to a route 16 bus stop on the Columbia Highway. But that’s not why I love it. It’s the preponderance of old growth firs with huge barrel trunks that make this route memorable (below). The largest collection of these impressive giants is between the NW Germantown Road gate and the creek, you can’t miss ’em. They kind of stand out. Another nice feature of Firelane 10 is a small loop close to the NW Newton Road access that gives you an alternative route. It has a large blow down that stops bikers in their tracks, so the road is pretty quiet.
8-31-11 Firelane #12 390′ elevation gain, 3 miles RT
This firelane has the most gentle incline of all, save a few short drops. It’s almost entirely a shaded route, which makes it a nice stroll on a hot day. A bronze plaque marks the spot where Firelane 12 parts company with BPA Road, explaining how this 73-acre “Hole in the Park” was saved from development in 1999 by Metro, Portland Parks and Recreation, the Friends of Forest Park, John Sherman, and generous donations from a myriad of nature lovers. Some of the donors are definitely keeping Portland weird (above and below). Firelane 12 bottoms out next to 12631 NW Creston Road. There is a depressing lack of parking in the confusing neighborhood (don’t believe the Thomas Guide for a second–stick to Google Maps), however a few pull outs can be claimed if you arrive early and hunt long. But beware, the gate is ferociously guarded by two loud mini-dogs and one fierce predator:
Okay, so maybe fierce isn’t quite the word. Persistent is more like it, especially as regards head scratching and tummy rubbing. He just can’t get enough, and he’ll tell you all about it, loudly. Anyway, not many dangerous predators are named Happy.
8-31-11 Firelane #13, 13A 385′ elevation gain, 1.3 mile RT together
Although steep, Firelane 13 does begin with an awfully nice incentive at it’s highest point: the best view from a picnic table in all of Forest Park (if you don’t mind power lines)(above). It’s also the straightest firelane until you get to a tiny spur called 13A that leads you one hill over under said power lines. If you stand at the terminus of Firelane 13 and your buddy goes to the end of 13A, you can wave to each other and take simultaneous portrait photos. I prefer 13, though, because you get a nice peek at the new Sauvie Island Bridge (below). This is the sole firelane that is a total dead end geographically; it only leads to those power lines and back to it’s humble beginnings at BPA Road, it’s not a thru street.
8-28-11 Firelane #15 340′ elevation gain, 2.7 miles RT
This delightful route is now officially my favorite stroll in all of Forest Park. It begins at NW Skyline Boulevard at a turn-out that can handle about three cars, then gallops through the tall grass beside eight foot walls of delicious Himalaya Blackberries. It darts into the forest on a roller coaster of well-maintained gravel road, lifts you up into a high view of the Columbia River valley, then plunges back into the deep, dark green (below) to meet Firelane 12 at a well-cobbled brook.
There’s even a side trip to the prettiest open space in the park, Keilhorn Meadow, which just begs for a picnic lunch and a nap on a soft blanket in the sun (below). At the highest point of Firelane 15 is a mowed area beneath the powerlines that gives you a clear view of Mt. Rainier and Mt. St. Helens. At the lowest point, the junction with Firelane 12 is graced with a tiny Buddhist altar fashioned out of black volcanic stones and found treasures. Someone has even set a log before it to sit upon as you meditate beside Miller Creek (below). I can’t wait for the winter rains to fill that creek with music. But I’ll be sure to pack a lot of bug spray every other season of the year. Yowza.
Last, but not least, the trails….