The Balch Creek Canyon 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 a bustling city is just steps away. Located in the Macleay Park section of Forest Park, the trail begins at the Lower Macleay Park Trailhead and soon joins up with the Wildwood Trail. Although the diverse trail system of Forest Park can take you on a number of unique adventures though the 5,100-acre park, one of my favorites is the heart-pumping trip through Balch Creek Canyon up to the historic Pittock Mansion.
Leaving from the lower trailhead at the terminus of Northwest Upshur Street, the trail begins smooth and paved as it enters the canyon. But the concrete soon ends, and the surroundings become more wild and lush as the canyon walls rise. The largest Doug fir trees in Portland are in this part of the park, as well as native cutthroat trout. Discovered in 1987, the small population of trout that reside in the creek helped solidify efforts to restore the health of the entire watershed.
After 0.85 miles, you’ll come to a junction with the Wildwood Trail. Just past this turnoff you’ll find the Stone House, also known as “The Witch’s Castle.” Despite its medieval appearance, what remains here is the stone framework of an elaborate rest station, once with bathrooms, that was originally erected by the Civilian Conservation Corps back in the 1930s (though what you tell the kids about the mossy, fern-covered tribute to spookiness is entirely up to you).
Continue straight along the path that follows the creek, cross over a footbridge, and soon the trail ascends up three long switchbacks to the Upper Macleay Park on Cornell Road, .54 miles from the Stone House. Follow the path around the parking lot and use the crosswalk to cross Cornell Road and pick up the Wildwood Trail on the other side. The trail continues steadily up hill to the Pittock Mansion parking lot.
The Pittock Mansion holds historical significance, and the visual magnificence of the mansion and its grounds, including views of Portland’s skyline and Mt. Hood, offer a generous reward for your efforts.
Touring the grounds is free, but for an extra treat, I highly recommend paying the small entrance fee to tour the inside of the mansion. The exquisite artifacts, furniture, art, and every other piece of the house has been carefully preserved, and the moment you step into the mansion, you feel as though you’ve stepped 100 years back in time.
Once you’ve satiated your Downton Abbey fantasies, head back the way you came, and enjoy the lush forest as you descend back down the trail, across Cornell road, and down through the Balch Creek Canyon. The total hike is approximately 5 miles round trip, with about 900 feet of elevation gain.
How to get there by bus:
From downtown, board Line 15 at SW Washington & Broadway stop ID 6137. Alternatively, you can also take line 77 from the rose quarter transit center stop ID 2592. Whichever bus you choose, you’ll get off at NW Vaughn & 27th stop ID 8802. To get to the trailhead, walk east on Vaughn St., turn left on 26th Ave, right on Upshur St., and walk a short distance to the Lower Macleay Park Trailhead. Visit trimet.org‘s trip planning page and enter your starting location and use the ending location of stop ID 8802 to get your specific route and scheduled departures/arrivals.
Collaborative article by Adam Sawyer and Stephanie Paris
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