Just before August ended, I dug out my guidebook of urban hikes and headed for a part of town I’d otherwise have no reason to visit.
This would be Dunthorpe, a wealthy enclave of homes in unincorporated Multnomah County, just south of the Portland city limits and a few miles north of Lake Oswego, the affluent suburb that lies in Clackamas County not far from Tryon Creek State Park and Lewis & Clark College.
On this particular weekday morning, I set out to see two public gardens about two miles apart on opposite sides of Oregon 43, the state highway running along the west side of the Willamette River. I wound up seeing one.
No big deal, though, because I saw plenty in my two-hour hike following the directions outlined in Laura O. Foster’s “Portland Hill Walks.” She does an amazing job of providing ground-level detail and historical context no matter which neighborhood walk she is describing.
This walk was titled “Dunthorpe Gardens.” And so here we go:
Starting at the intersection of SW Riverwood Road and Military Road, a stone’s throw from the river, I headed west, up a hill toward a leafy neighborhood full of big homes and lots of gated driveways. A plaque nearby informed me of what had been there long before: an 1870s-era structure called the White House that featured a casino, dining room, dance hall and racetrack. It was destroyed by fire in 1904 and the area was later developed with homes.
In recent years, the area has become popular with the Portland Trail Blazers, as players have bought homes here or further south and east in Lake Oswego and West Linn. I didn’t see anything that screamed “NBA player lives here” but I had just barely begun my walk when I spotted an open garage with a silver Jaguar. Talk about the Dunthorpe stereotype.
Moving forward, I heard the banter of a Spanish-speaking crew hired to maintain the grounds of one of these sprawling homes.
(Quick aside: Military Road is an old American Indian trail that once ran across the Tualatin Mountains. Farmers would bring their produce via this road to the ferry landing, whose owner so happened to be a business partner of the man who owned a mill directly across the river in Milwaukie. The pair would offer free passage to any farmer who ground his grain at the Milwaukie mill. Can you say “monopoly”?)
It wasn’t long before I turned onto a quiet side street, SW Military Lane. Beyond two giant sequoias at the end of the lane was my first destination: Bishop’s Close.
According to Foster, close is a Scottish word that refers to a road, usually with private homes, that vehicles can enter only from one end. A bishop’s close is a cloister area set apart from but still accessible to the public.
In this case, a wealthy couple who moved into this area in the early 1900s are the ones responsible for the lovely garden found beyond the end of the lane. Peter Kerr, a grain merchant from Scotland, and his wife Laurie built a home on an estate that also included a garden, tennis courts, swimming pool and golf course. The grounds were designed by the stepson of Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous designer of New York City’s Central Park.
After the couple died, their two daughters set up an endowment to provide for maintenance and gave the property to the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon with a stipulation that the grounds remain forever open to the public.
And that’s how I found myself visiting Elk Rock Garden with its impressive collection of trees, plants and flowers, and a footbridge.
The sun was still rising and the automatic sprinklers were going, keeping everything green and misty. I followed a small stone staircase that took me onto narrow gravel and dirt trails that passed through the rock garden. At the southernmost end of the trail I came to the Point.
The Point is where you can peer carefully over a low wall built on sheer cliffs and see down to the Willamette River. Here at the Point the view is somewhat narrow — a 180-degree panorama at best — but you can get a good view of Milwaukie on the east side of the river as you walk back to he main garden. Also plainly visible is Elk Rock Island, which the Kerrs owned and later gave to the city of Portland in 1940 on the condition it be preserved as a natural area.
With my garden tour completed, I headed back out to Military Road and resumed my hike. I crossed the busy highway and soon came to Riverdale Grade School (pre-K through eighth grade). The grade school and its sibling, Riverdale High School, are the only two schools in the exclusive Riverdale School District, which serves about 600 families in the neighborhood.
Leaving the grade school behind, I was grateful for the shade as I made my way up the twisting two-lane road without sidewalks. As with residences nearby the river, the homes in this area are characterized by luxury and privacy. At one point, I came upon a cluster of streets carved out of the former Henry Corbett estate, named for a U.S. senator who served during the 19th Century.
I turned off Military Road onto a side street and headed for my second destination: Berry Botanical Garden.
According to the guide book, the garden is known worldwide for its species plant collections and conservation efforts. The garden is named for Rae Selling Berry, a Northeast Portland resident. She and her husband bought nine acres of previously logged-off land here in 1938 after she had run out of gardening space at the family’s home in Irvington, the neighborhood where we live.
There was no sign for the garden and as I reached the end of the street, just past the last house, the road headed downhill, as if I were about to walk down someone’s private driveway. That’s when I spotted the “No Trespassing” sign.
Turns out the garden is closed.
After Rae Berry’s death in 1976, a nonprofit group bought and maintained the property but sold it in 2011 because of funding problems. The new owner? The Environmental Science and Management Program at Portland State University.
Foster’s book was published in 2005 and reprinted in 2006 and 2007. How was she to predict the Berry Botanical Garden’s fate?
I was only mildly disappointed to learn the garden had closed. After all, I had enjoyed the solitude at Bishop’s Close and got in two solid hours of walking up and down hills. I turned around, took a few more photos on SW Summerfield Lane, and headed back to my car, this time going downhill.
I was grateful to have Foster’s guidebook. Without it, I would have never known about these public gardens in Southwest Portland. More to the point, it’s been an indispensible resource as I’ve ventured out beyond my neighborhood and learned more about the history and topography of this city I’ve adopted as my own.
I may have missed Berry Botancial Garden, but I will gladly return to Bishop’s Close for another visit to Elk Rock Garden.