Lifestyle Magazine

Forest Park: Portland’s Free Urban Nature Sanctuary

By Kathleen O'Malley @frugalportland
Forest Park: Portland’s Free Urban Nature Sanctuary

Photo by Anna Campbell

It’s hard to imagine 150 acres in Portland without concrete and traffic lights, especially just five minutes from downtown. But the Audubon Society Nature Sanctuary next to Forest Park is exactly that. Picture canopied hiking trails, exotic native birds, sleek amphibians, wily wildlife and indigenous old-growth Douglas firs – all open to the public and free every day, from dawn to dusk.

Four miles of forested trails wind through the sanctuary, including lazy beginner romps and more challenging paths for the longer-winded. The expansive grounds actually contain a collection of individual sanctuaries, so the trails are diverse and well-defined. They’re also marked, and an extensive printable trail map is available online or at the onsite Nature Store.

Keep an Eye Out

It’s easy to wander aimlessly, enjoying the fresh air and natural quietness – but knowing what envelops you along the all-encompassing pathways makes the experience come alive in an entirely different way. For example, the mixed conifer forest along Balch Creek harbors towering Giant Sequoias, Dawn Redwoods and Western Hemlock, with a thick understory of native plants, flora and fauna such as Western Trillium, Indian Plus, Stinging Nettle, Maidenhair Fern and dozens more.

The creek (one of many in the sanctuary) is chock-full of landlocked cutthroat trout, and the ponds are teeming with the likes of Western Painted Turtles and Red-legged Frogs. An extensive interpretive plant guide is available, which helps you identify the thousands of species living and breathing within arms reach.

Forest Park: Portland’s Free Urban Nature Sanctuary

Photo by Tammi Miller

If you’re not the hiking type, or only have an hour or two to spare, stop by the interpretive Wildlife Care Center, a wildlife rehabilitation facility that treats about 3,000 wild animals every year, preparing them for reentry in the wild. This is your chance for eye-to-eye contact with birds of prey residing in indoor and outdoor flight cages. There’s also a wildlife diagnostic laboratory and research programs.

Guess what else is free at the Audubon Society Nature Sanctuary? Field trips, Audubon outings, bird song walks and lectures. The field trips are open to the general public, with no need to pre-register. Just show up at the designated time and place; dress for the weather; and bring binoculars for a more intimate experience.

Forest Park: Portland’s Free Urban Nature Sanctuary

Photo by Tinsley Hunsdorfer

The morning bird song walks are for a special breed of folks: those who like to get up early, tiptoe through nature, and hold their breath for the tiniest of chirps, coos and warbles. These guided walks take you out of the sanctuary itself to one of four sites in Portland known as migration hot-spots each spring. Plan to join fellow birding enthusiasts on weekdays only, from April 1 to June 6 every year.

All field trips, bird walks and interpretive trail guides are led by volunteers and take place throughout the week and on weekends. Call for details: 503-292-6855.

The Bigger Picture 

The sanctuary also connects to the much larger Forest Park, with a maze of additional trails crisscrossing through 5,200 acres of urban forest lands. The free excursions multiply here, with regular herb walks, lichen explorations and even an annual “All Trails Challenge” that involves hiking all 80 miles of Forest Park trails while helping to restore the park as you go.

Forest Park: Portland’s Free Urban Nature Sanctuary

Photo by Geremia, Creative Commons

An alternate hike from the Audubon sanctuary is to head up the hill about 25 minutes to reach the 46-acre estate of Pittock Mansion, a French Renaissance-style château with 46 rooms constructed of Tenino sandstone in 1914 for the owner of The Oregonian newspaper. It’s now a public museum that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There’s a relatively small fee to enter, based on age (adults, youth and seniors), and children under age six are free.


The Audubon Society Nature Sanctuary never charges a fee, but you’re welcome to make a tax-deductible donation to honor John James Audubon’s dedication to natural habitat.

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