Rocky Butte is a prominent promontory in NE Portland, lying just west of I-205. It’s part of the Boring Lava Field, a collection of volcanic cinder cones found along the east side. From the height of the hill at 613 ft/187m, one can get an impressive view of the eastern part of the city, across the Columbia River into Vancouver, Washington, the distant Columbia Gorge and Cascade Range, and bits of central Portland and the West Hills. It’s one of my favorite spots in Portland, but even though it’s just about five miles by bike from my house, my visits are infrequent. Heck, I don’t think I got up there at all in 2020. So I was jonesin’ for a return.
But when, exactly? Unlike Mount Tabor and Powell Butte, where there are other things to do, the whole point of Rocky Butte is The View. I wanted to wait for a nice sunny and clear day when I’d be able to see the snow-capped peaks of Mount Hood and Mount Saint Helens. I also wanted to wait until I got my Minolta SR-T 101 out of the shop, as I’d like to use a telephoto lens to take some shots from the top. Tuesday February 9th was turning out to be a great day–clear, a high of 46F/8C, light wind. It was also going to be before our Winter Storm of 2021, so I was motivated. I loaded up the SRT-101 with some Kodak ColorPlus 200 film, the Dacora Digna with AristaEDU 100 (black and white), and got on the Robin Hood. While a three speed isn’t the most obvious tool to tackle a hill like Rocky Butte, I’ve done it many a time on other three speeds. The Robin Hood was also back from the shop, and as far as I could tell, I never rode it to the top. Now was the time.
Let me tell you something: the climb to the top of Rocky Butte is A Climb. There are only two ways up, and they are both steep. I chose to ascend from the north side, around the old bible college. The grade gets up to 8% here. I feel that grade on my super-gear bikes when I’m in shape, so I really felt it with a three-speed with lowest gear of only 41 gear-inches and my body not that used to this stuff anymore. I stopped a bunch, but I pedaled the whole way up, trying not to get bothered too much by the 0% body fat roadies doing laps and passing me at 15 mph uphill.
There were people at the top, but not too many, as it was a Tuesday afternoon. A few years back the city closed the loop road around the top, discouraging the folks who would park there all day, along with the night partiers. This is a good thing, as the people who come here now make a point to go to the castle-like top. I took a spot on the southside and took a bunch of photos. I brought a tripod as it works best with my Minolta Celtic f/3.5 135mm lens. It was a great time up there. I was worried that I would get cold, as the east wind that blows out of the Gorge can hit the top of Rocky Butte at full force. (There have been more than a few winter excursions to Rocky Butte where I mostly hide behind a wall because of the wind.) But the wind was a light breeze, so I ended up spending the better portion of an hour soaking the sun and the views.
As I usually do, I zoomed down the south side of the Butte. I love doing this, as I can bomb through The Tunnel. When the Works Progress Administration built Rocky Butte Road in the late 1930s, they created a switchback here with a tunnel going under the road to negotiate the sharp (almost 270 degrees) turn. It’s pretty cool, but it can be sketchy on a bike if you don’t know what you’re doing. I’ve known a few people who’ve eaten it here because there’s a small (and not that visible) raised median when the road enters the tunnel.
It was a good little adventure. The total ride was about 16 miles, with almost 1,000 feet of climbing. And if I keep on riding to the top of Rocky Butte on a regular basis, maybe I will become one of those 0% body fat roadies? Nah, I doubt it. But there’s definitely a bit of smug satisfaction “conquering” the climb on a mid-century mild steel British three speed!