Exploring Nature with Kids in the Greater Portland Area

Having lived in a variety of cities, I really appreciate the green space within Portland city limits and the proximity of great parks and hiking to the city. Rated # 3 nationwide for the number and size of parks in the city, Portland is truly a city of parks. Nearby parks and hiking trails (and the friendly families we meet there) are some of the reasons I find Portland to be such a great place to raise children. Here are some of our favorite parks which offer great opportunities for creative outdoor play, hiking and exploring nature with young kids. Every place on this list is either free or has a small parking fee.

Forest Park - photo by Forest Park Conservancy

Parks to explore and hike with kids

Forest Park boasts 5100 wooded acres and a 40 mile loop hike throughout the city. Enjoy the largest natural area within city limits in the US and be sure to visit the historic Stone House landmark on the Wildwood Trail.

Washington Park includes many of the tourist attractions in Portland, including but not limited to: The Japanese Gardens, Rose Test Garden, the Oregon Zoo, and The Children's Museum. These are all great places to visit with your kids. The Oregon Zoo might even change your mind about zoos in general. It boasts an extensive newly built elephant habitat, a large stage with evening performances, a train and carousel and delicious food and beer/wine trucks during the summer. There is a trail throughout the park you can explore and find views of the Cascades on a clear day. There is also Washington Park Playground, near the gardens. Best of all you can even get there via train!

Mt Tabor - photo by @animaliaart

Mt. Tabor is actually a dormant volcano on the east side of the city. It is my favorite city park. You can hike it, bike it, or drive most of the way to the top where you will have a 360 degree view of the city to the west and the Cascade Mountains to the north and east. The trails are safe for kids to walk or bike and it has one of the best playgrounds in Portland.

Wild raspberry at Tryon Creek - photo by @friendoftryoncreek

Tryon Creek Natural Area in Lake Oswego is 15 minutes from downtown Portland. It has 8 miles of mostly kid friendly hiking, an interpretive visitor center with fun exhibits and toys to explore. They even offer summer day camps as well as guided hikes.

Mary S. Young Park in West Linn offers 5-8 miles of kid friendly trails and the best access to the Willamette River I've found yet. When you reach the beach from the river trail loop you might even forget you're on the Willamette River! There's a small sandy beach and the water is shallow and warm on a summer day, perfect for playing with the kids.

Elk Rock Island is a natural area on the Willamette River in Milwaukie. There isn't much parking available, but you can park in the neighborhood. During the summer you can cross onto the island and explore the loop trail and river beaches along the way. Small kids should be kept close just because it's a rocky island with drop offs in places and there is some glass on the muddy beaches. The reason we like it so much is because the rocks are so fun to climb and you can spot wildlife like great blue herons, osprey and eagles here. It's also just a really cool, unique environment for imaginative play.

George Rogers Park is also in West Linn on the Willamette River. There is muddy river access for splashing on a hot day and spotting eagles overhead. The park itself is manicured and a beautiful place to spend an afternoon. The playground is unique and worth checking out. I'd recommend it especially on a cloudy day, because there isn't much shade and the structure can get very hot on sunny summer days.

Oxbow Regional Park - photo by @katie_aaberg

Oxbow Regional Park in Gresham offers safe hiking and a playground, but the main attraction here (and the reason to pay $5) is the sandy river beach access. The Sandy River is one of the cleanest rivers for swimming close to Portland. It can be crowded on hot summer weekends, but weekday trips are awesome. Bring buckets and nets for catching tadpoles and exploring the river pools.

Tip: Chinook book app offers a coupon for free entrance to park.

Milo McIver State Park in Estacada is a fee park as well, but it's worth it. It's a huge park with multiple parking areas and activities including: Clackamas River access, Estacada Lake access, picnicking, camping, plenty of kid friendly hiking, frisbee golf, and a horse staging area. If your kid loves horses this is the place to go to see horses for free. (If you have a kid who loves horses you know how amazing this is.)

Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge has a main trail from the center of Sellwood/Moreland, through the wetlands and down to the Willamette River. You can also access the trail from Oaks Bottom Amusement Park and Sellwood Playground (other awesome places to explore with young children). You can spot osprey, eagles, great blue herons and occasionally beavers from the trail.

Tip: Free Forest School is a wonderful way to explore nature and make friends in your area. They meet up at kid friendly parks and nature preserves around town almost every day of the week. You have to go online to register with their group and sign the waiver before joining the fun, but it's all free and it's a really great way to connect with like-minded families.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, there are so many other parks and nature preserves to explore nearby!

Tip: I'd recommend checking your local consignment shop to pick up one of those full body rain suits and rain boots so you'll be prepared to play rain or shine!

About the author:
Maria D'Alessandro is a fiction writer based in Portland. While caring for her young children she also enjoys rock climbing, exploring tide pools and eating burritos.