Once viewed as a waste of money, Washington Park has blossomed into one of Portland's principal treasures.
Washington Park, a 130-acre expanse of flowers and forest draped across Portland’s West Hills, has always been my park. It’s surrounded by stately homes whose owners probably believe their claim is more valid than mine. But I, like most people who grew up in the area, have a storehouse of memories from this place.
The roses are the reason, of course. But so is the zoo, which frequently lured my family across the Willamette River so we could hobnob with hippos and kangaroos. There were also grade-school field trips to the fragrant Hoyt Arboretum. And, later, stage productions at the amphitheater.
The postcard-perfect panorama of downtown and the snowy peak of Mount Hood seen from the park’s International Rose Test Garden is indelibly stamped in every Portlander’s brain, so I sometimes find it strange that a few of the park’s benches face the opposite direction.
But they do face the roses—10,000 bushes representing more than 600 varieties with names like Hot Cocoa, Knock Out, and Marilyn Monroe—that have been stealing the scene since 1917. Every June, the terraced gardens are awash in reds, whites, pinks, and yellows as the city revels in the month long Portland Rose Festival. Before the celebration ends, this year’s festival queen will etch her signature into a bronze square destined for the Queen’s Walk, where it will join scores of plaques immortalizing past royalty, including the first monarch, Queen Flora (1907).
In the beginning, Washington Park was aptly named City Park—a place for all citizens and Portland’s first official park. But back in 1871, when the land was purchased, it was so far away from the center of town that most people considered it a waste of money. Overgrown with brush and inhabited by wildlife that included cougars, the spread was largely inaccessible until the city’s cable car system reached it in 1892. By 1900, the park had walkways, carriage drives, clipped hedges, flower gardens, and a zoo. (It acquired its current name nine years later.)
Over the years, the Washington Park Zoo has moved twice and been rechristened the Oregon Zoo. This home to towering giraffes, wiry sea otters, burly polar bears, and an enormous 15-foot-long anaconda now sits at the south end of the park along with two of the city’s most popular attractions, the World Forestry Center and the Portland Children’s Museum.
Tree lovers have been rooting around the barn-size World Forestry Center since it opened in 1971, learning about the role of forests in ecosystems across the globe. This summer, following a six-month renovation, the center reopens with new high-tech exhibits, including a simulated ride through the treetops.
At the Portland Children’s Museum, young visitors create miniature works of art in the clay studio, compose symphonies, and dress up like their favorite fairy-tale characters.
This area of the park also has a more solemn side. A walkway spirals through the garden setting of the Oregon Vietnam Veterans Memorial as it climbs to a series of granite slabs bearing the names of those killed in the conflict.
One of the zoo’s earlier locations is now the Japanese Garden—a blend of trees, ferns, stone, sand, and water in five traditional, impeccably groomed plots. A great way to reach this tranquil setting is to enter the Wildwood Trail near the Vietnam memorial and follow it for two miles through the arboretum toward the Japanese Garden.
There are numerous other points of access to the park, including a stop on the light-rail line that runs to and from downtown. Another is the 102-year-old flagstone-and-cobblestone stairway on the park’s north side that early Portlanders scaled to reach the grassy lawns and flower beds.
My reward for wheezing up the 278 steep steps was a view of The Coming of the White Man, a 1904 bronze sculpture of two Multnomah Indians looking to the east. Just beyond lies the moving Oregon Holocaust Memorial, where bronzed versions of items left behind by the victims—a suitcase, a pair of shoes—are scattered across the cobblestones.
A more relaxed—and fun—way to see both ends of the park is to hop aboard the zoo train for a four-mile ride through the wooded hillside to the rose garden and back. It’s a far cry from the calorie-burning climb up those century-old stairs, but it’s certainly memorable.
Photography by Dennis Frates
This article was first published in May 2006. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
All phone numbers are area code 503.
For additional information about Washington Park, call 823-7529 or visit Washington Park  or Portland Parks .
Hoyt Arboretum 865-8733, www.hoytarboretum.org .
Japanese Garden 223-1321, www.japanesegarden.com .
Oregon Zoo 226-1561, www.oregonzoo.org .
Portland Children's Museum 223-6500, www.portlandcm.org .
World Forestry Center 228-1367, www.worldforestry.org .