The Wednesday Hike: Wooded Ravines, Frosty Heights, Smoking Mountains, and Free Beer

Reasons Why I Love Living in Portland, Part 28: Where can you start out by hopping a standard-fare city bus from downtown, ride for 15 minutes, get dropped off in a neighborhood that quickly turns into full-on woods, wind through wooded ravines up to a hill over 1,000 feet high that has views of four snow capped volcanic mountains, one of which may be smoking, amble back down through secret paths in tony neighborhoods, and then end up back downtown, yes downtown, in the span of a few hours? Lemme give you a clue: It Ain’t Des Moines.

Okay, snarkiness aside, the above paragraph described my day. Since the weather has been consistently nice for December (which in Portland means dry, sunny, daytime high in low 40s) I decided today would be the day I would get up to Council Crest. I hadn’t been to Portland’s highest point since before my two-month cross-con trip (read about it all on my Temporary Relocation Project blog) and I don’t go up there unless the view is going to be good. What better time than now?

And let me tell you something about Council Crest: While Portland may not be as known for its hills as Our-“Neighbor”-City-To-The-North-Seattle, or Our-“Neighbor”-City-To-The-South-San-Francisco, we do have some decent ones! The east side of town is relatively flat, yet peppered with volcanic hills at or above 500 feet high (Tabor, Rocky Butte, Kelly Butte, Mt. Scott). And we’ve got a solid LINE of hills running on the west side, so steep that it’s stupid to build houses on most of it (yet people still do). And Council Crest is a full 1,070 feet high, which tops San Francisco’s highest (Mount Davidson, 938 ft) or Seattle (some obscure point in West Seattle near 35th and Myrtle, only 520 feet–520 feet?! MOUNT TABOR IS TALLER THAN THAT!) Am I showing my Portland pride? Why yes I am!

A little after noon, I caught the 8-Jackson Park bus on SW 5th Ave. The bus quickly filled up, laden with passengers heading for the infamous “Pill Hill”, location of the VA and OHSU Hospitals. I rode the 8 all the way past the VA up into the lost neighborhood of Homestead. (read more about it here) Editor’s Note, 28 Oct 2022: Link dead. From the intersection of SW Gaines and 11th I walk a block. Neighborhood ends and woods begin. A short trail brings me to the intersection of the Marquam Trail, a little-known five mile segment of the 40-Mile Loop that winds through the West Hills from Terwilliger Blvd to Hoyt Arboretum (where it meets the more well-known Wildwood Trail). But before I hit the Marquam, I find a pleasant surprise: three FULL, unopened bottles of moderate-quality beer! What the hell? It’s pretty normal to find empties in the woods, but unfinished ones? Is this some sort of trick? Where’s Allen Funt? Most likely, someone decided this would be a good drinking spot (woods=good drinking spot) but then got discovered and had to make a break for it. Seeing as the beer would go to waste if I didn’t act quickly, I put the bottles into my bag.

The two miles to Council Crest were mostly through Marquam Nature Park, a hidden forest preserve in the gulch behind Pill Hill. Even though it was beautiful out, the only people I ran into were cross-country runners. And though this be the dead of winter, the forest was remarkedly green. Some of it due to the invasive evergreen English Ivy that likes to live in these wooded slopes, but much of it attributed to the ferns and Douglas Firs. (Is this Reasons Why I Love Living in Portland, Part 29: It’s Always Green? Could be!) And though this be within the limits of the city, a scant two miles or so (as the crow flies) from downtown, signs of urbanity were few and far between. Occasionally butt-ugly houses-on-stilts could be seen through the foliage, and a road or three had to be crossed, and distant I-5 created an ambient roar-hum, but that was about it.

At about a half mile from the summit of Council Crest, I saw various signs regarding the ascent in elevation. The wind picked up, the air got noticeably colder, and speckles of white were on the ground–huh? On closer inspection, I saw li’l bits of frost! It’s below freezing up here! Crunch-crunch went the hardened ground. Crossing the access road to Council Crest, I saw patches of ice on the pavement. How exciting! When I got to the top, the still green grass had a sheen of frost. I sat down, taking in the view and snacking on some tabouleh. Mounts Hood, St. Helens, Adams, and Rainier looked spectacular with all the snow on them. And then I realized how damn cold and windy it was up here. Guess I won’t be staying at the top for long! Hey, at least I’m up here, walking all the way. I saw one person casually drive up, get out of the car with the intent of sitting at a park bench, then quickly get back into their car, heat and radio blasting. I must admit at that moment I felt quite superior to them.

I descended down the north face of Council Crest. This part of the hike was through expensive neighborhoods. But there’s always something interesting to find, no matter what part of the city I’m in. Up in these parks there are plenty of hidden staircases, paths, and bridges that are known only to its inhabitants. The Heights are amazing in their own way: only on hilltops can you convince wealthy people to settle for small houses on small plots of land crammed tightly together. So what if we’re living in areas as densely populated as “the flats”? At least we have a great view!

I make a quick pit-stop at Stroecker’s Market for coffee to warm me up. I’m now descended enough in elevation that the wind isn’t as bad as at the hill top. The rest of the way down was pleasant, with a great view of Mount St. Helens. It’s always hard to tell, but I could swear I could see a small plume of steam coming from the top. How ’bout that? Seeing actual volcanoes actually act like volcanoes–while still safe in my city!

Coming down the steep slope at SW Upper Hall St, I was greeted with one of the best views in town. All of downtown was right below me, and in the distance I could make out points in North and Northeast. Knowing the water towers is a good way to get your bearings (“There’s the one in Overlook, and over to the right are the Sabin Towers”). Upper Hall makes a sharp switchback here, and there is a clear drop from the side of the street. Below me in the brush I could make out a sign, and it read “Free Mini Movie Theater”. Huh? This sign puzzled me for a sec, until I realized it was a roundabout way of describing the view. Yes, this is as good as going to the movies, and much cheaper. A few hundred yards of descent down stairways between houses that are reminiscent of San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill, and I’m at the backside of Portland State University. And it isn’t even 4pm yet.

Does this particular type of Urban Adventure sound interesting to you? Well then, you should check out the Urban Adventure League’s Council Crest Climb, an urban hike that travels through much of the above-mentioned territories. We had the first one back in April of 2005, and I’m planning on having one in February of 2006. Stay tuned for details!

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