The Best Parks in Portland: Local’s Guide to Portland’s Parks

Anytime I have friends visiting Portland, especially friends with kids, they always remark about all the parks in the city. And for a large portion of my life, I’d never considered the parks in Portland to be anything special until I started traveling to other cities in the U.S. and realized how lucky I was! Most city-dwellers don’t have nearly the same access to greenspaces as we do here in the City of Roses. 

I’ve always known that my home town of Portland was special, but with a little research I’ve learned that Portland frequently earns top honors for its green spaces. Each year in fact, The Trust for Public Land ranks all the cities in the U.S. and gives them a “Parkscore” based on the “access, investment, acreage, amenities, and equity” its residents have to outdoor spaces.

In 2021, Portland earned the #10 spot out of the entire country (and is always in the top ten—last year it was #6 and in 2019 it was #5). With 90% of Portland’s residents having a park within a ten minute walk (the national average is only 55%) it can be hard to choose which one you’ll spend your time at!

I’ve officially lived in all five quadrants of this fair city and while I probably haven’t stepped foot in all 327 parks, I have been to most of them and I’m here to share with you the best of the best. I’ll break it down by quadrant and only recommend parks I personally like going to. With Portland’s natural greenery and outdoorsy lifestyle permeating the whole city, you can’t go wrong spending a sunny day relaxing in one of Portland’s best parks.

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Best of Portland Parks: A Quick Summary

Here are some quick picks to help you figure out exactly what you’re looking for, whether it’s a tough hike or a great playground.

Best for a Picnic

  • Skidmore Bluffs: Bring along your White Claw and mingle with the hipsters on their fixed speed bikes

  • Peninsula Park: Stop and smell the roses—literally!

  • Tanner Springs: Grab food at one of the city’s incredible food carts, then take it down to Tanner Springs for a relaxing lunch

Parks with the Best Views

  • Powell Butte: Great for simultaneous sunsets to the west and mountains to the east

  • Council Crest: The sunrises are phenomenal here if you can wake up in time (or stay up till daybreak?)

  • Pittock Mansion: Best viewed after hiking up from Lower Macleay Park. You’ll have earned your view and can snub your nose at all the lazy people who drove to the top

Best for Kids

  • Arbor Lodge in N Portland is home to Harper’s Playground, the first universally accessible playground in Portland

  • Kʰunamokwst Park in NE Portland (named after the Chinook word, “together”) has a rad playground (tried and tested by my very own son). It has tons of stuff to climb on, big slides, and this awesome water feature where kids can turn the water on and off. There’s also a skate park for the bigger kiddos.

  • Westmorland Park Nature Playground in SE Portland is so cool, and if I had something like this when I was a kid I’d be in heaven. Huge rocks and log piles with ropes for climbing up to, a giant sand pit with tons of communal toys, and interactive water pumps!

Best for Dogs

As a cat owner and dog-lover-but-not-haver, I’m relying on my dog-having friends for these recommendations.

  • Sellwood Riverfront Park: Best spot to take the pups for a swim!

  • Chimney Park: This is a huge off-leash dog area with gated sections, friendly dogs and owners, and lots of non-muddy grass

  • Mt. Tabor: Big off-leash area close to the city, but a tad steep for both humans and canines, so only go if you’re sure footed. 

Best Hiking

  • Forest Park: Hands down the winner! I’ve been hiking in this forest for the bulk of my life, and still haven’t been on every trail!

  • Tryon Creek: Slightly easier trail than Forest Park, but you can still bag a good workout!

  • Powell Butte: Love this place for the days I need sunshine! Unlike Forest Park or Tryon Creek, Powell Butte has significantly less tree cover which is a godsend once the sun starts shining after our grey winters.

Psst! We have an entire guide dedicated to hiking in Portland – written by a lifelong Portlander – to help you find your next hike. If you’re looking for a new hike to tackle, make sure to read that guide.

Best for Viewing the Swifts

I’m no ornithologist, but from the little I know of swifts, their migratory patterns are truly a site to be seen. In the fall the Vaux Swifts put on quite a show and the best place to see them is at Chapman Elementary school in NW Portland, home to the largest roost of migrating swifts in the world!

Every September afternoon right before sunset, hundreds of people come to the fields of Chapman Elementary to watch the swifts as they come careening down, swirling and diving into the school’s large chimney to roost for the night with their new little families before eventually making their way down to South America. You’ve never seen anything like this. 

The Best Parks in Portland: A Local’s Guide

For those of you unfamiliar with the layout of the city, it’s easiest to orient yourself by which quadrant you’re in. That way, no matter what you’re up to or what you have planned for later in the day, you can always find some stellar park to run the pup, pack along a picnic, or toss around a frisbee. 

The Willamette River bisects the city into the east and west, and Burnside Avenue splits the north from the south. This arranges the city into its four main quadrants: NW, SW, NE, and SE. There’s also a triangular portion of the city that lies west of Interstate Ave and north of the Willamette that comprises North Portland. Some of the parks I’ll talk about make for a destination all on their own, or you can always hit up the one closest to you as you plan your day around whatever restaurant, bar,  or activity you’ve got lined up. 

Parks in Northwest Portland

Forest Park

Location: 8 miles long stretching along Hwy 30 with more than 40 access point

This is easily one of the best parks in Portland, and since it’s so big it truly offers something for everyone. I’ll soon write an entire post dedicated to Forest Park (here it is!), but for now you’ll just get a little teaser. Forest Park is Portland’s playground with over 80 miles of trails, and is one of the largest urban forests in the U.S.

Basically whenever you’re looking at downtown from the eastside, all that green forest you see stretching for miles along the hills is Forest Park. This is the best map you can get, and I recommend downloading it to your phone for easy navigation even though there are a number of maps posted within the park.

Iconic hike: Lower Macleay Park to Pittock Mansion to see the Witch’s Castle, Audubon Society, and catch killer views from the top of Pittock Mansion.

Tanner Springs

Location: NW 10th Ave & Marshall Street

Tanner Springs Park is one of my favorites in the city-center, right in the trendy Pearl district. And, though it’s only a block in size it somehow feels bigger. The park sits on what used to be a lake that was drained via underground tunnels into the Willamette River and has since been paved over. Now the area is filled with large warehouses, chic condos, and this cool park named after the actual springs that still run beneath it. The park’s architecture and natural water features are an attempt to bring back some of this history. 

Parks in Southwest Portland

Waterfront Park

Location: 98 SW Naito Pkwy

Tom McCall Waterfront Park is at its loveliest in the springtime when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom, but the park is host to events all year round. When there isn’t a festival (like the Rose Festival or the Project Pabst), you’ll find picnickers, bikers, drum-circlers, and joggers enjoying the view and soaking up the sun.

It’s also home to the Salmon Street fountain, a favorite spot to cool off for kids and grownups alike. The park  runs along the Willamette River and stretches roughly from the Steel Bridge at the northern border to the Hawthorne Bridge at the southern. When I was a teenager I thought it was great fun to jump off the seawall into the river below, though it horrified my mom when I told her about it. 

Park Blocks

Location: 1436 SW Park Ave

The Park Blocks run through downtown and the Pearl, are split into the North and South Park Blocks, with the south having the longer stretch heading all the way through the PSU campus (one of my many alma maters) and running for 12 blocks up to Salmon St.

The blocks are host to the PSU Farmers Market and are filled with towering poplars and elms, and plenty of benches to enjoy the shade and people watch.

There used to be quite a few sculptures lining the parks, notably one of Teddy Roosevelt and Abe Lincoln, but they were both toppled by protesters in 2020 and have yet to be re-installed. Will they ever return? Or will something new take their place? The fate of downtown’s public art is a lively debate since the BLM protests that made waves across the nation, but the city has recently unveiled a plan to revamp the south park blocks that includes artwork that better reflects the ​​region’s Indigenous communities.

Washington Park

Location: 4033 SW Canyon Rd

Washington Park is one of the oldest of Portland’s parks, first established in 1871 and it has continued to be one of the most popular destinations in the city for tourists and locals alike. Home to the Oregon Zoo, the Hoyt Arboretum, the International Rose Test Gardens, and the Japanese Gardens—what does Washington Park not have?

Some of these fantastic spots will cost you money to get in, but much of the park is free and just beautiful to walk around in. Do not miss the Hoyt Arboretum if you’re at all inclined to lofty trees, peaceful forest walks, or learning something new about the natural world around you. It’s free and gorgeous and you should do this loop

Mills End Park

Location: 56 SW Taylor St

Blink and you’ll miss it. Mills End Park is the smallest park in the world! Just one little tree trying hard to spread joy and light from its two foot diameter circle in the middle of Naito Pkwy.

This adorable park features prominently in the city’s St. Patrick’s Day festivities when it was officially dedicated in 1948 and is said to be a home for leprechauns. 

Tryon Creek State Natural Area

Location: 11321 SW Terwilliger Blvd

A bit south of town is a fantastic state park (the only one in a major metro area) that I had the good fortune of spending my youth tromping around in. Though it’s only been around since the 1980s its namesake (Dr. Socrates Hotchkiss Tryon—get outta here with that name!) was a settler in the 1850s who originally claimed the land.

Most of Tryon Creek lies in Portland proper, but its southern edges creep into Lake Oswego. They have well-maintained trails (if a little muddy), an informative visitor’s center, and it’s a great option if you’re looking for a decent hike but don’t want a ton of elevation gain. It’s also popular with runners, horseback riders, and Lewis and Clark students who study right next door.

Best bang-for-your-buck hike: this 3.5 mile loop that gives you a good tour of the park.

Northeast Portland’s Parks

The Grotto

Location: 8840 NE Skidmore St

Okay, so this isn’t technically a park, but it serves every purpose that a park does and I’ve yet to have a reason to write it up in any of my other guides, so I’m doing it now! The real name of the Grotto is The National Sanctuary of our Sorrowful Mother (that’s a mouthful!), but if you said that to literally anyone in Portland, they’d have no idea what you’re talking about.

I guess the Grotto is technically a Catholic sanctuary (full disclosure: I am not Catholic), but these gardens are so beautiful and serene and there’s incredible statues , architecture,  trees and this hella cool shrine that’s like cut out of a huge rock wall and I’m not religious in the least, but this is seriously awesome. It costs ten bucks to go up to the upper gardens (recommended), but you can go into the main lower level for free.

Rocky Butte Natural Area

Location: 3102 NE Rocky Butte Rd

Rocky Butte gives you excellent views of the city and surrounding area from the east. You can run, hike, or drive up to the top lookout for incredible 360 degree views of the city to the west and the mountains to the east. The park itself (technically named Joseph Wood Hill Park) isn’t too big, but there’s still plenty of space for a picnic or a game of catch. There’s also a couple large rock walls where you can often find people rock climbing. The park is lovely anytime of day, but my personal preference is going up after dark to see the city lights.

Mount Hood from Rocky Butte

Parks in Southeast Portland

Mt. Tabor

Location: SE 60th Ave &, SE Salmon St

Mt. Tabor is an extremely popular hiking, strolling, running, dog-walking, sunset-watching, picnicking spot in SE Portland. Its close proximity to the Hawthorne neighborhood makes it an easy destination to pop up to after a day of shopping and exploring. It’s very hilly (it’s an extinct volcano along with its neighbors Powell and Rocky Butte), and if you ever find yourself in Portland at the end of your pregnancy and desperate to get that baby out of you, you can try your hand at the tried-and-tested “Tabor Labor” hike which basically entails you climbing to the top of Mt. Tabor to induce labor. Yes, I did it. Yes, it worked.

And in more Portland sculpture gossip, there once stood an anonymously-installed bust of York, the only black man to travel in the Corps of Discovery with Lewis and Clark, but it was recently vandalised. The artist (Portland local, Todd McGrain) just came forward offering to replace the sculpture for free.

Also not to miss: Adult Soap Box Derby.

Laurelhurst Park

Location: SE Cesar E Chavez Blvd & Stark St,

A real contender for the best park in Portland, Laurelhurst Park is smack dab in the middle of the hippest neighborhoods in the city. It has a real Central Park vibe to it. On any given day you’ll find picnickers, a wedding, a movie, people blowing giant bubbles, kids frolicking, lovebirds being all lovey, or people just enjoying the city.

There’s also a nice big pond in the middle for you duck lovers. Laurelhurst park is close to tons of great restaurants and shops and bars, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met friends for a game of frisbee and then moved on to a local watering hole to continue our evening. A true Portland experience. 

Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge

Location: SE 7th Avenue and Sellwood Blvd

Oaks Amusement Park and roller skating rink are indelibly fixed in my memories of childhood, but the Oaks Bottom Preserve is equally as deserving of your visit! This 163 acre park has tons of trails and is a great place for birders and nature enthusiasts to explore the city’s wetlands and meadows. I somehow always see bald eagles here. If you’re a cyclist, I highly recommend the Springwater Corridor that takes you along the eastside of the city and through Oaks Bottom. 

Powell Butte

Location: 16160 SE Powell Blvd

One of the best and biggest eastside parks! At 600 acres this park is great for hikes, catching some rays, taking the dog (or horse) for a walk, or checking out the views. It’s a little bit further out from the city center, but if you’re in the area or heading back into town from adventures in the Gorge or up on Hood, it’s an easy pit stop. Parking can be limited, so proceed with caution if you’re heading out on a sunny weekend day.

Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden

Location: 5801 SE 28th Ave

Again, this isn’t technically a “park,” but if we’re talking about green spaces within the city it’s hard to beat the Rhododendron Gardens. Yes, there is a fee to get in, but imo it’s totally reasonable ($5 a person, kids under 10 are free, and it’s free on Mondays). The park is best viewed in the spring when the rhodies and azaleas are in full bloom, but I also love visiting in the winter when there’s less color but just as much beauty. Other than the sometimes-aggressive geese (I’ve only had to fight off one while here) you’re sure to be whisked away to a serene oasis the minute you set foot in here and feel instantly transported out of the city and into a magical world.

Parks in North Portland

Cathedral Park

Location: 6635 N Baltimore Ave, Portland

So named because the park sits directly under the St. Johns Bridge and the gothic arches that hold up its massive weight make it feel like a real cathedral when you’re down below. The picturesque nature of Cathedral Park makes it a popular destination for photographers and you’re almost guaranteed to see someone having their wedding / engagement / graduation / family pictures being taken here because the scenery is unreal.

The park extends down to the Willamette River and is host to the wildly popular Cathedral Park Blues festival every summer. You also get incredible views up to the bridge, which is the prettiest in all of Portland and I’m not just saying that cuz it’s my neighborhood. You’ll agree.

Pier Park

Location: 10325 N Lombard St

I don’t mean to boast about my hood, but we’ve got two of the best parks in the city up in here! Pier Park is also in St. Johns’ neighborhood, and fans of the TV show Grimm will no doubt recognize it since it was a frequent filming location.

In the park’s 85 acres there’s great trails, a community pool, skate park, and if you’re into frisbee golf you’ll be in heaven (I’ve seriously run into people out of state who mention the Pier Park course). Don’t be fooled by the name though, it’s not near the water and there’s no ‘pier’ to speak of. The park was named after a popular city commissioner and mayor, Stanhope S. Pier, who worked to expand the park system in the city in the 1920’s and 30’s.

Peninsula Park

Location: 700 N Rosa Parks Way

Peninsula Park is home to the smaller (but still grand) rose gardens which were actually the first official rose gardens in the city, established in 1909. If you can’t make it to the International Rose Test Gardens, this is your next best option. They have a cool playground for kids, a public pool, a pretty gazebo, and a fountain just waiting to be splashed around in. 

Skidmore Bluffs (Mocks Crest)

Location: 2206 N Skidmore Ct

This place can be tricky to find the first time since it’s so small and tucked away (some even call it a “parklet”) so be sure to map it out first. Also, even though the official name of this park is “Mocks Crest,” you won’t hear anyone call it that. Instead, people will refer to it as the Skidmore Bluffs.

There’s not much more to this park other than an open field, but it’s one of the best spots to watch the sunset and enjoy a late picnic. It’s very popular with “the kids” (of which I mean anyone younger than me). You’ll have views  to the west hills over the Willamette, to your left is the Portland city skyline, and 200 feet below is the industrial train yard giving off a very “city” feel.


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