"Don’t forget to bring your bicycle!” my friend Matt calls to remind me as I’m leaving Seattle for the drive to Portland.
Got it. Bicycle, helmet, and clothes are already stashed in my car.
Four hours later I’m bicycling through soft spring air along the Willamette River in Portland during the tail end of evening rush hour, grateful to be out of the car and moving my legs. After battling Friday afternoon traffic on I-5, this is the perfect way to end the day (or start the evening).
Portland, Oregon, was once again recently named the most bicycle-friendly city in the U.S.A., but this and other such kudos are no surprise to locals. Portland has been the most progressive city on the Left Coast since the 1970s, when it started converting old railroad beds and tearing up downtown streets for the first MAX light rail line.
Portland also boasts the highest percentage of bicycle commuters in the nation.
But I’m not thinking of all that on my early evening ride. On the first (first!) day of the year when the temperature rises above 70 ° F, I’m just thrilled to be pedaling sans jacket in my bicycle capris and a short-sleeved shirt (and, of course, a helmet).
From the Goose Hollow/Stadium District just above downtown Portland where I’m staying, it’s an easy ride about a dozen blocks down to the river. With the city criss-crossed by street car and light rail lines, vehicle traffic in downtown Portland is considerably lighter than in downtown Seattle and many other big cities.
It feels great to stretch my legs and cruise through the city streets down to the Vera Katz Esplanade. This wide trail loops over a few bridges and along the Willamette River for 1.5 miles in downtown Portland. It’s not a long ride, but getting to the esplanade and back adds distance and exercise. And who says you can’t loop around several times?
I wasn’t paying close attention to Matt’s directions to the trail, so I end up bicycling east across the Morrison Bridge instead of the Hawthorne Bridge. But look at that wide bicycle lane!
Just across the river I take the spiral bicycle off-ramp down to the esplanade along the riverfront. Then I bicycle north, sharing the trail with skaters, roller bladers, walkers, and other bicyclists. To my left, a few motorboats pass by on the river.
Despite traffic on the adjacent highway, it still feels peaceful and relaxed along the trail. Traveling by nonmotorized transportation on a designated trail has a way of dialing down the stress level, even if you’re pushing for a good workout. How often do you hear about bicycle rage versus road rage? I suppose it happens, but I’d bet not much. [Since I originally posted this, a friend sent me a link to a column about bicycle rage in Portland! So I stand corrected, it does happen more than you'd think! But not on bicycle trails so much.]
How many times have you bicycled on a floating trail? On the east side of the river, just north of the Morrison Bridge, the trail drops down for a stretch onto a floating dock, bringing me closer to the river.
At the northern edge of the esplanade, the trail crosses historic Steel Bridge, the world’s only double-layered drawbridge. Railroad tracks sit just about the trail on the lower level, and beyond the bridge I see the Broadway and Fremont Bridges to the north. Portland is, after all, a city of unique and historic bridges.
Along the west side of the river, skirting downtown, I slow down along the trail as it passes through Tom McCall Waterfront Park, where pedestrian traffic is heavier. (Sidebar: A solo Governor McCall approached me and shook my hand when I was a girl because he noticed me wearing a “Keep McCall” campaign button—courtesy of my father. He was a tall, friendly man!)
After wending my way along the waterfront park past interesting sculptures, fountains, and a museum, I double back and head uptown. Even though I’m heading back uphill, it’s not very steep and the going is easy. Try bicycling straight uphill from the waterfront in the middle of downtown Seattle, and you’ll appreciate the mellow grade of Portland’s rise to the base of the West Hills above the city.
So here’s where Portland’s bicycle love can get annoying: When I stop in the Pearl (District) to grab a quick bite to eat, the bicycle racks are full! I have to cruise several blocks to find a spot to lock my bike. At least I can take solace in that I’m burning calories and not gasoline searching for a place to park.
When You Go
Here’s a link to a bicycle map of downtown Portland. Of course there is a much larger network of bicycle trails throughout the city beyond downtown. And if you want some wilder and crazier bicycling, try the Sunday evening Zoobomb in Washington Park.