Portland 4T signage
Colorful signs lead you along the 4T in Portland

While making plans to visit Portland this winter, I asked friends who’d been there as to the best places to visit outdoors. Everyone had the Columbia River Gorge at the top of their list, of course, followed by other local hot spots like Mount St. Helens and the Pacific Crest Trail, which crosses the Columbia River east of the city at Columbia Locks. But they all said “it’s the wrong season for hiking! Go later!”

Columbia River Gorge at Multnomah Falls
Two days before we did the 4T, it looked like this in the Gorge

We didn’t have a choice. With a meeting to attend, we’d be staying downtown at the historic Multnomah Hotel, now the Embassy Suites. We looked into the city parks, but none seemed easy to reach on foot. And then our friend Doug said, “Have you heard about the 4T?”

Washington Park Four T route and map
Detailed sign about the route at Washington Park

A little online research did the trick. The 4T is a trifecta of transportation – train, trolley, and tram – linked together with a four mile hiking trail to make a loop around Southwest Portland. Connecting Washington Park – home of the Oregon Zoo and Hoyt Arboretum – with the city’s high point at Council Crest, it looked to be a fine way to get to know Portland on foot.

Portland 4T map online
Map we found online and printed off to guide us

We’d already had five days to get used to city streets and transportation routes, so it was an easy walk to find the correct Tri-Met train to Washington Park, which we caught in front of Pioneer Courthouse Square after buying all-day passes. Either the Blue or Red Line would do.

Waiting for Max to start the Portland 4T
Waiting for Max to start the Portland 4T

Disembarking deep in the bowels of the earth at the Washington Park Station, we got to peek at core samples taken from when the tunnel was bored. At 260 feet below ground, it’s the deepest subway tunnel in America.

Core samples in the subway tunnel
Core samples in the subway tunnel

A high-speed elevator brought us to the surface, where it opened to face the World Forestry Center. I was instantly distracted by the idea of learning more about Oregon’s forests before we hiked into them, so we headed into the nature center.

World Forestry Center Portland
Inside the World Forestry Center

The Hoyt Arboretum was right next door, so we hiked up its hills to stand among the giant trees. With no lunch stop within sight, we decided to visit the Oregon Zoo to grab a bite – and spent the next hour walking around looking at native animals.

Oregon Zoo in Washington Park
Had to get ourselves acquainted with the Great Northwest

So much for an auspicious start!

The next morning, we left immediately after breakfast and headed back up the Tri-Met to Washington Park, this time following the signs pointing us in the correction direction, past the zoo, to the 4T Trail.

Portland 4T signpost near the zoo
The first of many signposts we’d be following

Crossing a busy highway on a bridge, it led us along the edge of an on-ramp and plunged into moss-covered trees, up a mucky slope. Now we were getting somewhere. I’d wished we’d brought our hiking poles, to navigate the muck and to handle steep slopes. So we walked very gingerly on this new-to-us slippery terrain.

Finally getting into the woods
The trees in Portland are HUGE!

I was thankful I’d printed out a map, as we referred to it often. The trail utilizes steep slopes that haven’t been built on, little slivers of green space between roads and homes.

Portland 4T signs through neighborhoods
Following signs through a residential neighborhood

After a little walk through a residential neighborhood, it led us straight up to Council Crest, so named as a high point where native tribes were thought to have met. In more recent history, it was topped with an amusement park in the early 1900s, at the end of a streetcar line.

Portland 4T Council Crest
Atop Council Crest. On a clear day you can see three of the Cascades.

For us, it meant we had nowhere to go but down. Fortunately, the trail was well marked, and remained a footpath for the rest of the route. In some spots, we walked right behind people’s homes; in others, the trail entered deep ravines under the deep shade of enormous spruce trees. It was hard to believe we were in a city.

Big spruce on the Portland 4T
One of the big spruces along the route
Portland 4T urban forest
Hard to believe you’re in a city

Reaching Marquam Nature Park, we realized from the signage that there would be one steep climb ahead, up to OHSU, a hospital complex on a high bluff above downtown.

Took a break at the Marquam Shelter

The trail snaked its way up the hill on switchbacks and led us right into the hospital complex – and, unexpectedly, into the hospital itself. It was here we caught the tram, the third component of the 4T.

Portland 4T enters OHSU
The trail led us right into the hospital to the aerial tram

This aerial tram is an integral part of the transportation system in Portland, the only way to easily connect people living and working atop the bluffs to the riverside community of South Portland. Riding it downhill was free.

Aerial tram on Portland 4T
Aerial tram on the Portland 4T

It wasn’t obvious where the trolley stop was that we were supposed to catch next, although the trolley tracks went right past the tram station.

Trolley station and aerial tram
The tram station and its transportation options

We walked a block and jumped on the trolley, only to discover it looped around again and went past the tram station a different way. No matter: we were headed towards the Cultural District, which we knew was within walking distance of our hotel. It also allowed us to visit the Oregon History Museum before we finished up our day.

Trolley portion of Portland 4T
Trolley portion of the Portland 4T
Trolley stop on the Portland 4T
One of the stops along the trolley route

Our adventure cost us $10 in transportation fare for two and five hours of our time. Some might complete it more quickly, but we were soaking it all in. We took our time, of course, and got rained on along the way, as we expected. But the 4T helped us see far more of Portland up close than we would have if we’d just driven around, and it gave us a taste of the forests that we’d soon be exploring beyond these urban bounds.

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