Tackling Dog Mountain and Mt. Defiance is worth bragging about. You may have even tested your mettle by summiting St. Helens or Hood. But while you might enjoy those thigh-burning, hard-breathing, well-earned badges of honor, odds are the little ones in your life won’t. Whether they are yours or a friend’s, kids dig a good outing as much or more than you do; but you have to choose the proper venue. Here’s a list of five hikes and adventures within the city or a semi-quick car ride away, that kids will be able and willing to do.
1. The Tualatin Hills Nature Park
When you get past the world-class Interpretive Center, roughly 5 miles of paved and unpaved trails await. There are numerous loop options of varying lengths that allow you to choose your own adventure. The Rangers at the Tualatin Hills Nature Park describe the area as a “mosaic of habitats” with good reason. In about 4 miles worth of hiking you’ll be able to visit evergreen and deciduous forests, meadows, wetlands, ponds, and creeks. And the park is full of wildlife. Park staff often see deer roaming the Nature Park.
2. The 4T Trail
The T’s of the 4T Trail stand for Trail, Tram, Trolley (Portland Streetcar) and Train (MAX). When combined, these T’s create an approximately nine-mile loop (only 4 of it is hiking) and a quintessential Portland experience. The 4T highlights some of the city’s best assets: urban parks and trails, stunning views of volcanoes and cityscapes, a tram ride, and our legendary public transportation. Tag on lunch downtown or a zoo visit at the Washington Park MAX stop and you have a family outing of epic proportion.
3. Ape Caves
If you’re looking for an unconventional adventure, head to the Ape Caves for a little spelunking. The Ape Caves were formed about 2,000 years ago when basaltic lava came pouring out of Mount St. Helens. As the flow proceeded, the surface cooled, forming a crust. The lava underneath the crust continued moving through the tube for months. When the eruption finally ceased, it left a 13,042-foot lava tube.
There are two routes to explore from the cave’s main entrance. The lower cave provides a two-mile round trip, 200-foot-elevation-gain, out-and-back hike. The floor of the lower cave is composed primarily of volcanic ash and is easy to negotiate—a good route if you just want a taste of cave dwelling. The upper cave is a rugged three-mile, 400-foot-elevation-gain, loop hike. The first 1.5 miles of this option are spent in the cave before hikers climb out of a small hole near the end and return to a traditional hiking path. Hikers must navigate 27 boulder piles and climb an eight-foot-high lava falls in the process. This route requires good scrambling ability; something kids normally have in abundance.
4. Beacon Rock
Beacon Rock is the 848-foot-high monolith that sits on the banks of the Columbia River in Bonneville, Washington. Once a volcano, the Missoula Floods washed away the exterior of Beacon Rock, leaving only an eroded lava plug. The hike up Beacon Rock begins with a trail that ascends gently through a traditional Gorge forest. The real fun starts once you pass the metal gate used to close the trail when conditions are too icy. Once you head up onto the rock itself, the trail looks a lot like a madman’s jungle gym. Wooden platforms, metal railings, chiseled basalt, and molded concrete all combine to create this one-of-a-kind trail. The middle half-mile of the ascent can be very exciting for kids (and maybe a bit nail biting for parents).
The Balch Creek canyon gently winds its way from the Upper Macleay Park trailhead (near the Audubon Society on Cornell Road, be sure to throw in a stop there), to the lower trailhead at the end of Northwest Upshur Street. What lies between is one of the most beautiful urban canyons to be found anywhere. The transition from crowded city streets to peaceful canopied trail and flourishing canyon happens so quickly that you’ll find it hard to believe the car is parked only 200 yards away. This is just part of what makes the Balch Creek area so special.
Start from the lower trailhead and after about a mile you’ll come to a junction with the Wildwood Trail. Just past this turnoff are the old stone ruins known as “The Witch’s Castle.” Despite its medieval appearance, what remains here are the remnants of an elaborate bathroom erected by the Civilian Conservation Corpsback in the ‘30s. What you tell the kids about this mossy, fern-covered tribute to spookiness is entirely up to you.