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Smith and Bybee Lakes: Oasis for Portland Birders

Sculpture at the trailhead

Sculpture at the trailhead

The first you might notice on the Interlakes Trail are the tall cottonwood trees.  Then you will notice the constant chatter of birdsong.  The area at Smith and Bybee Lakes is one of the great natural treasures in the Portland area, made more valuable by its industrial surroundings. Two miles west of I-5, adjacent to a major set of train tracks, Smith and Bybee Lakes is a 2000 acre natural haven for ospreys, herons, otters, and many other creatures.

View towards Bybee Lake

View towards Bybee Lake

According to Portland Parks and Recreation website, this “is the largest protected wetland within an American city.”

The area boasts a small trail system, only one chunk of which penetrates the wetlands area, but there are miles of cycling or running to be had on the perimeter.  The Interlakes Trail splits off of the road-like path of the Forty Mile Loop trail near the entrance to the park.

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Dense deciduous woods; lots of black cottonwood

The main path ends after two-thirds of a mile at a covered viewing platform facing the reedy shallows of Bybee Lake.

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Standing there, you will see waterbirds scoot about, songbirds dart about, and wind ruffling the lush grasses.  It is a peaceful place if you can ignore the powerlines in the corner of your eye.

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Lovely scene; notice the powerlines.

An unmaintained trail continues beyond the viewing platform, well-trod but increasingly muddy, meandering through grasses as trees become sparser and views open up in most directions. The song of red winged blackbirds punctuates the scene.

Out at the end of the muddy world

Out at the end of the muddy world

It is hard to imagine a more pleasant payoff for such an easy hike.  This a top-notch venture for all ages.

Pines, art, trailhead, and a train

Returning to the trailhead with pines, art, and a train in the background

Note that because the area is a wildlife refuge, dogs are not welcome on the Interlakes Trail.  Sorry, Jackie.

Powell Butte excursion with the pup

Jackie Chan strikes a pose with Mount Hood

Jackie Chan strikes a pose with Mount Hood

On a recent sunny day, I needed to get out of the house while there was time.  I quickly thought of Powell Butte, an oasis of outdoor recreation on an extinct volcanic cinder cone plopped on the periphery of Southeast Portland.  It I been a decade or so since I’d been there.  I hopped in my trusty Subaru with the pup and headed over to the spot I recalled as the main trailhead.  If I’d done more than two minutes of research, I would have known that a construction project had been underway for months, and the park gate was closed.  A massive underground reservoir was being built.  But I didn’t do that research.  So when I had to continue past the closed gate, I turned into Walter Matthau from Grumpy Old Men like a fool.

Powell Butte Reservoir

Future vacation home of Portland water

I did find a different access point in ten or fifteen minutes, walking up an old road.

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It eventually met a side trail that may was a piecemeal connector.  It started up a long set of stairs, so I took it.   I came into the sunlight alongside a little aqueduct.  IMG_6033

I could have continued toward the meadow above, but I found another trail leading off into the woods, and I opted for that in hopes of making a decent loop through the forest.  So it was as it traversed, then descended for a bit, and finally turned uphill out of a creek valley.

Along the Orchard Trail

Along the Orchard Trail

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It felt unseasonably warm, and I definitely worked up a little sweat.  There were  no other people for a while, but once I looped back on top of the broad butte and into the open meadow, there were many hikers, runners and bikers.  There were even two sets of people on horses.   What a day to be outside!

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The sun was glorious, and the views of Mounts St. Helens and Hood were terrific.  It was even interesting to see the cordoned-off construction area, where there was a giant moraine of dirt.

Heading home down the stairs

Heading home down the stairs

After looping around the Orchard Trail, getting a few photos, I headed back to the car, pleased with my stroll, and I reminded myself that there are many trails here, with miles of walking possible.   Powell Butte may fall in the shadow of the more famed and larger Forest Park, but this is an underrated gem for urban hiking.  I forecast a return trip!

P.S. Do your homework on trailheads.

Finding silence in the stillness

Baker's Bump

My dog Niko loves hiking cross country. Here’s a favorite foothills spot.

Do you enjoy crowds on your hiking trails?  You know, the trails that make the travel section of the paper, occasional blurbs in national magazines, and websites of know-it-all hikers.   Seriously, certain areas are more popular than others, often with good reason, but there’s little worse than wanting to escape your work life and find the parking area, trail, or campsites crowded with others who had similar ideas.  The quality of your wilderness experience is necessarily affected.  Luckily, there are a few ways to avoid such experiences.

Location, location, location.  If a trail is written up repeatedly, count on it to be crowded on weekends or during vacation times.  Beautiful lakes or dramatic mountain views?   Yep, assume that if you know about the spot, it will be busy.  Try seeking similar but lesser known destinations further from the nearest metropolitan area.  That might mean avoiding Mount Hood, a major hiking destination.  It might simply mean being more specific with trail choices on Mount Hood.  In other words, if you expect Mount Hood to be busy during, try the Coast Range.  If, however, you are set on Mount Hood, try a trail off the beaten path.  There is bound to be beauty along the way that just might surprise you, whether in a dramatic river crossing, wildlife, or a clifftop view.

Timing is crucial for solitude.  For instance, if you are planning an overnighter far in advance, consider seasonal fluctuations in crowds and weather.  While an easily accessible lake might have few hikers and fisherfolk in April, a Memorial Day weekend visit might find the place overrun.  Other holidays are traditionally big for outdoor adventures too, so beware.  Student vacations can affect crowds as well.  In Oregon, that’s usually December and March, although Thanksgiving now often turns into a week thanks to conferences and budget cuts.  The best option may be to take off time during the week, even if it’s only to add one day to the weekend.  The difference between a Sunday and a Monday can be stark.

If the ideas above aren’t enough to help you find solitude, you might go off trail.  It’s a sure way to beat the crowds and improve your navigation skills.  Yes, there are risks, and you do need to be prepared.  I didn’t start going off trail until I had been hiking for many years.  Now it is a way to keep things fresh in the same areas.  I have been able to find a number of places where I can safely hike off trail, minimally affecting the landscape, and solitude is all but ensured.

If you still find things too hectic on your hikes, I have one word for you.  Alaska.

Hikers of the world, unite!

Welcome to Hiking Northwest!  I plan to slowly build content about hiking in Oregon and Washington, with occasional ventures further afield.  There is a lot of generic coverage of popular hiking spots and trendy new equipment, but I want to go beyond the obvious.  I will also write about gear and how to use it, from emergency firestarter to ever important boots to treking poles, hydration systems, and more.  I also want to touch on the mistakes I see less experienced hikers make regularly, especially at those popular trails on holiday weekends.

As far as my credentials, I am not only an avid hiker, but I have experience on foot as a U.S. Marine, a wilderness ranger for the U.S. Forest Service, and a volunteer firefighter going out on trail rescues.

At the foot of Barrett Spur

In my element

I have hiked thousands of miles across the West, and I’ve climbed many peaks in Oregon, Washington, Montana, Colorado, New York, and New Hampshire.  If my knees and back hold up, I’d like that list to continue growing.Being in the wilderness with a small pack is normal for  me, and I love to write, but publishing a blog will be a different kind of adventure.  If you have ideas for stories or content you would like to see, please drop me a line.  Thanks, and happy hiking.

Josh