The sun had risen more than two hours earlier when I reached the top of the hill and came upon a spectacular scene. Oregon’s tallest mountain, Mount Hood, its snow-capped peak rising like a painting on the eastern horizon.
I glanced to the right (southeast) and in the distance I could see the tip of Mount Jefferson more than 70 miles away. I looked left (north) into southwest Washington and took in the familiar sight of Mount St. Helens, also 70 miles away, its summit beckoning like a harmless scoop of vanilla ice cream after the 1980 volcanic eruption that blew away its jagged top.
It was 10 a.m. on a Friday and I had just walked up to the top of Rocky Butte. Here I was, enjoying a 360-degree view that included three iconic Northwest mountains, a glimpse of the Columbia River Gorge and traffic streaming across the I-205 bridge connecting Oregon and Washington.
On a clear day, I probably also could have seen two more mountains in the Cascade Range– Adams and Rainier — but I hardly felt cheated.
I had this place entirely to myself. It dawned on me that among the 7 billion people on this planet, I was the only person on Earth standing here at this particular moment.
A week earlier, I’d gone out to Southwest Portland to explore the residential neighborhoods adjacent to artsy Multnomah Village — part of an effort to explore Portland by taking a hike in a different part of the city each week. This week I’d stayed in Northeast Portland, intent on walking from base to peak of a 612-foot hill nestled among working-class neighborhoods.
That walk didn’t happen as planned, but the alternative was still mighty fine.
Before setting out, I had to be properly fueled. The breakfast choice this time? Pine State Biscuits.
Launched 10 years ago at the Portland Farmers Market, the biscuit shop has evolved into a business with three locations offering Southern-style shrimp and grits, chicken pot pie and assorted biscuit sandwiches, including the Reggie Deluxe — fried chicken, bacon, egg, cheese and gravy.
The newest location, near the Broadway/Weidler exit off I-5, is about a mile west of where we live. Until yesterday, I had resisted the temptation to go to that particular location. No more.
Once again, I looked to Laura O. Foster’s “Portland Hill Walks” to get a sense of what to expect in this week’s urban hike.
I was familiar with Rocky Butte State Park, having driven up once or twice. I knew there was a city park at the summit. I knew the county had built a World War II-era jail along the butte’s eastern side that had closed years ago. And I knew, as Foster reminded me, that “Rocky Butte is crowned by a rock tiara of magnificent stonework created by the Depression-era WPA.” But it had been ages since my last visit and I wanted to do it right this time — on foot.
I drove out to the starting point, eager to set out on a forested trail on the north side of the butte that would take me 1.25 miles each way. Didn’t happen.
No trespassing signs posted by the adjacent owner — The Grotto, a Catholic shrine and botanical garden — said the trails were closed because of environmental damage. Sigh.
I had to drive back out — past the area’s strip club, bingo hall, marijuana shop and used tire store — and approach the butte from a residential street on its western flank. It meant a shorter hike, starting from a higher elevation and walking along the shoulder of a paved road up to the top. No matter. It was still a great experience.
Here is some of what I saw:
— One jogger, two walkers, one young guy walking his dog, one bicyclist and two cars. Pretty quiet, I’d say.
— City Bible Church, its large dome at the center of a complex that also includes City Christian High School and Portland Bible College. The church and its affiliated buildings occupy the campus of what used to be an old military academy that operated from 1930 to 1959.
— Joseph Wood Hill Park. The two sons of the man who founded Hill Military Academy donated land at the butte’s summit in memory of their father to the city of Portland. Gravel paths lead into the park, which offers panoramic views and houses an old tower — an airway beacon that once guided early aviators through the Columbia River Gorge and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
— Just beyond a rock wall off the road leading to the summit is a steep trail that drops down into the woods. Descending the 31 wooden steps puts you inches away from massive handhewn basalt blocks, fashioned by WPA workers into a spectacularly sturdy wall. According to Foster, the path leads to the entrance of a looping tunnel trail, but I never saw it nor any of the other trails I had planned to explore.
Were I to visit again, I’d call in advance — either the city parks bureau or The Grotto — to find out if the north access trail is open. I’m sure I missed out on the full experience by not doing the base-to-summit climb. But, honestly, I have nothing to complain about after having the top of the butte all to myself for a while yesterday morning.