In my final post on Portland’s geography I wanted to talk about some of the defining landmarks and landscapes that make up the greater Portland area and region. Portland lies in the northern most end of the Willamette Valley. Our geography is defined by two natural features and one giant event that occurred in the last ice age.
The first natural feature is the volcanic activity in the area. There are four extinct volcanic cinder cones in the Portland city limits; Mt. Tabor, Powell Butte, Rocky Butte, and Kelly Butte. There are also two “living” valcanos just off our doorstep Mt. Hood to our east (pictured above) and Mr. St. Helens to the north (pictured below).
The second natural feature that defines our area is of course the rivers. Portland lies at the confluence of two great rivers. The Willamette which divides the city in half and the Columbia River which marks the border between Oregon and Washington. An interesting fact about the Willamette is that it is one of only a couple dozen rivers in the entire world that runs south to north (in fact Oregon has two, the other being the Deschutes River).
Finally, one single event truly marks not only the Portland area, but the Columbia River Gorge, the entire Willamette Valley, and Eastern Washington is a cataclysmic flood that occurred at the end of the last ice age; the great Missoula Flood. If you have never heard of the Missoula Flood I suggest watching the first few minutes of this PBS documentary, and if you have the time the entire hour. Bottom line, the reason the Willamette Valley has a lot of fertile soil is because a big ice dam burst in Montana. The resulting flood swept across Eastern Washington and created a temporary sea in the Willamette Valley depositing all of Eastern Washington’s soil in the valley. Thanks Washington!
Now that we have had that history lesson let me point out some of the geographic features of the area.
West Hills and Beyond
On Portland’s west side are the west hills. The hills were formed from volcanic activity and the highest point in the City is in the west hills at Council Crest (1,000 feet). The west hills are also where you will find popular tourist attractions like the Zoo, Japanese Garden, the International Rose Test Garden, and Pittock Mansion. On the northern end of the West Hills is also Forest Park, a terrific urban forest and great for hiking.
Past the West Hills lies the suburbs of Beaverton, Hillsboro, and others. Keep going west and eventually you will reach the beautiful Oregon coast.
The Cascades and the Columbia River Gorge
To the east of Portland is the Cascade Mountain range and the Columbia River Gorge. The Cascades are a string of volcanoes that run from California to Canada. The last major eruption was Mt. St. Helens in 1980. Mt. St. Helens has also had numerous smaller eruptions since 1980, the last being in 2008. Mt. St. Helens is clearly visible from Portland, when looking north it is the mountain missing its top.
The Columbia River Gorge is a beautiful area known for its hiking and waterfalls. The most famous of which is Multnomah Falls. Multnomah Falls is an easy 30 minute drive from Portland on I-84 or about an hour if you take the Historic Columbia River Highway.
The gorge also acts as a big old wind tunnel. If you are here during the colder months and hear a Portlander complain about the damn east wind, that is what he is talking about. Especially in east county the wind can be pretty strong and pretty cold.
South of Portland
To the south the Willamette Valley continues. You do not have too drive to far south out of Portland to be surrounded by farm land. Most of the Willamette Valley is still used for agriculture. Oregon has land use planning laws that try, and for the most do a good job, of keeping cities contained so they do not sprawl into green space and farm land. To the south and east of Salem, about 90 minutes from Portland, is Silver State Falls which is a really great place to spend the day hiking.