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Portland’s 4T Trail

Trail, tram, trolley, and train help you discover the delights of Oregon’s Rose City.

MAX light rail train (Portland)
Photo caption
A MAX light rail train makes a stop at Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland.

Don Baack strides along a forest trail in Portland’s Marquam Nature Park with the vim of a man far younger than his 73 years. Passing giant Douglas firs, mossy-barked maples, and hillsides of ferns, he pauses in dappled sunlight. “And to think we’re less than two miles from downtown,” he says. “That’s the beauty of 4T.”

Inaugurated last September, 4T is a scenic loop that takes you around Portland’s attraction-packed southwest quadrant by train, trail, tram, and trolley—the four T’s—for under $10 per person and a little shoe leather.

Stretching from downtown to 1,073-foot Council Crest, the city’s highest point, and back to the Willamette River, the 8.5-mile circuit is a great way to experience what makes this city of 582,000 one of the most admired communities in the nation and a go-now destination: bountiful parks, historic architecture, a vibrant restaurant scene, and world-class art—all tucked into a gorgeous setting crisscrossed by rivers and framed by snowcapped peaks.

Along the trail you’ll encounter plenty of Portlanders: urban yet outdoorsy, and quietly proud of keeping some blue in their collars while creating the greenest city in the United States.

There’s a back-to-the-future quality to 4T that mirrors Portland itself. “In fact, 4T wouldn’t have been possible if the city hadn’t acted on a 1903 plan and protected huge areas of in-town forest,” says Chet Orloff, a former executive director of the Oregon Historical Society who teaches urban studies and planning at Portland State University. “And it wouldn’t have been possible if, back in the 1970s, the city hadn’t pioneered the reintroduction of light-rails to American cities.”

I begin my own 4T adventure in the heart of downtown at “Portland’s living room,” Pioneer Courthouse Square. A brilliant feat of urban renewal that in 1984 replaced a bland, two-story parking structure, the one-square-block plaza buzzes with visitors—some 9.5 million annually—who come to watch the comings and goings, meet friends, and listen to music. It’s been ranked alongside the likes of New York’s Rockefeller Plaza as one of North America’s finest public squares.

I hop a light-rail MAX (Metropolitan Area Express) train and arrive 10 minutes later at Washington Park Station, which at 260 feet below the surface of the West Hills is North America’s deepest transit station. Above in Washington Park, you’ll find the Oregon Zoo and its new Red Ape Reserve, a Southeast Asia–style jungle alive with orangutans. On the other side of the park are two spectacular gardens: the 4½-acre International Rose Test Garden, where 6,800 bright bushes bloom from late May through September, and the Japanese Garden, 5½ meticulously landscaped acres that compose one of the most authentic plots of its kind outside Japan.

After an elevator zips me to sunlight in 20 seconds, I meet Baack. A retired timber executive, Baack was named one of Portland’s most prominent civic crusaders in February by Willamette Week for his determined defense of the city’s 166 miles of trails. He and other neighborhood advocates played a key role in developing 4T. “They came up with the plan and put a lot of sweat into making it happen,” says City Commissioner Nick Fish, who likes taking out-of-towners on the route. He calls 4T “yet another example of Portland’s do-it-yourself ethic and citizen involvement.”

Baack would be my companion along the roughly four-mile, moderately strenuous hiking portion of the route. “My son, Eric, came up with the idea in 2007 of a loop combining several public transportation modes with a pedestrian trail,” he says as we make the climb to Council Crest Park, one part of the Portland metro area’s 37,000 acres of green space. (Chicago, famed for its recent greening, has about 12,000 acres.) The views from the summit take in 3,000 square miles of city and farmland, and five Cascade peaks—Mounts Hood, St. Helens, Adams, Jefferson, and mighty Rainier.

Descending to the Fairmount neighborhood, we come to a signpost offering two options for continuing: a challenging 2.2-mile forest hike through Marquam Nature Park (300 feet up, 700 feet down), or a 1.6-mile urban shortcut on residential streets without sidewalks (0 feet up, 400 feet down). “Let’s do the forest,” says Baack, who has walked up to five miles a day for more than 15 years. About an hour later, we emerge from the woods and onto the Marquam Hill campus of Oregon Health & Science University. We board one of the cabins of the Portland Aerial Tram for a floating descent—like a three-minute dream—to the South Waterfront neighborhood by the river. The ride is free in this direction. Through the front windows, in the distance, the base of Mount Hood sits beneath cotton-ball clouds. “I never get tired of the view,” says a woman next to me. “Some days Hood is clear as crystal; other days there’s a lovely fog above the city and river.”

Back on land, I bid Baack good-bye and investigate 40-acre South Waterfront, a former industrial wasteland transformed into the largest sustainable redevelopment project in the nation. Like the Pearl District, the once moribund area north of downtown now bubbling with restaurants, shops, and lofts, South Waterfront exemplifies Portland’s devotion to recycling—not just cans and bottles but entire neighborhoods. Though construction is still in progress on these lean high-rises that mix retail with housing, 1,200 residents have already moved in. As I walk by, some of them are sitting in a new two-acre park with wind-activated sound sculptures or pulling weeds in the community garden.

For the next two days, I travel around on the Portland Streetcar, the “trolley” in 4T. When inaugurated in 2001, it was the first new streetcar system in North America since World War II, and a local firm now produces the only modern streetcars made in the United States. The system is free throughout most of downtown, as is MAX.

From RiverPlace Esplanade, a mix of promenades, restaurants, and a marina where you can rent kayaks, I see cyclists pedaling through Governor Tom McCall Waterfront Park. The park plays host to huge gatherings such as the Waterfront Blues Festival (July 2–5), the Oregon Brewers Festival (July 22–25), and Bite of Oregon (August 6–8).

I cast an eye on the cherry and oak woodwork inside at the Simon Benson House, a renovated 1900 Queen Anne that serves as a visitor and alumni center for Portland State University. Just in front of the house, the Portland Farmers Market at PSU takes place Saturdays under the graceful elms of the South Park Blocks. Summer is prime time for the market (held March to December), which draws roughly 12,000 shoppers each week and features some 120 food producers, chef demonstrations, and cooking classes. “In July and August, there’s an explosion of berries, tomatoes, and other produce,” says Greg Higgins, chef-owner of Higgins, the nearby bastion of Northwest cuisine. “It’s virtually impossible to walk through the market without buying things for a picnic.”

Over the two decades or so Higgins has been coming to the market and refining his craft, he’s been joined by a growing band of talented chef-restaurateurs whose establishments—many with an indie vibe like Portland’s thriving music scene—continually garner attention. At the most recent James Beard Awards, three of five finalists for best Northwest chef hailed from Portland restaurants (Nostrana, Pok Pok, and Beast), and Gabriel Rucker of Le Pigeon snagged a national rising-star nomination.

One sunny afternoon, I decide to walk the 4T route from the South Park Blocks to the hillside Stadium District. I wander into the Portland Art Museum—the oldest art museum in the Northwest—and admire an array of works ranging from water lilies by Monet to a 19th-century Tlingit headdress of copper, whalebone, abalone shell, and sea lion whiskers. At the Multnomah County Central Library, I discover a secret atop the 1913 American Renaissance–style landmark: an ecoroof planted in 2008 with sedums and grasses that change color with the seasons.

I end the afternoon at PGE Park, which is on the MAX portion of 4T. The minor-league Portland Beavers have played here since 1956, but this will be the last summer for baseball at the stadium. The Beavers head elsewhere in 2011 and the Timbers of major-league soccer move in, confirming Portland’s status as a mainstay of the increasingly popular sport. Past and future dovetail at PGE Park, as they do so often along 4T.

Photography courtesy Larry Geddis/Portland Oregon Visitors

This article was first published in July 2010. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.