Oaks Bottom Game Refuge

In most places, “urban” and “wildlife refuge” are two things that don’t mix. But they do in Portland. There is a true wildlife preserve only a few miles from downtown named Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge. It proves that the natural world and the world of the city can peacefully coexist. The 141-168 acre (the size depends on your source) complex of wetland, meadow and forest is as beautiful as it is serene.

More than 185 bird species have been recorded in the refuge including herons, egrets, hawks, osprey, shorebirds, gulls, terns, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, grebes, falcons, vultures, waterfowl, and many others.

The land was originally cut off from the Willamette River in the early 20th century as the railroad came into town, forming a wetland out of what used to be a riverbank. For years the land saw many uses, from the Portland Memorial Mausoleum to a construction waste landfill.

What we know today as Oaks Bottom is actually a patchwork of parcels, woven together by city officials over time. The largest portion – a 115-acre tract next to Sellwood Park – was dubbed Oaks Pioneer Park in 1959, originally envisioned as a showcase of Oregon’s pioneer past. Another 25 acres of riverfront came from deals with Portland General Electric and the Donald M. Drake Company, which was looking into industrial development on the land.

History of the Refuge

The Portland Parks Department plan in the early 1970s was to fill the rest of the wetlands and to use the space for museums, perhaps a motocross course, and a gondola lift to transport visitors from the top of the bluff to the park. Public pressure from the Audubon Society of Portland, the Sellwood-Moreland Improvement League, and The Nature Conservancy helped persuade the city to stop filling the wetlands.

According to the book Portlandness: A Cultural Atlas, by Portland State University professors David Banis and Hunter Shobe the work of a couple of guys changed the Bottom into a wildlife refuge instead of a park. Below is how they did it.

“By Any Means Necessary, a credo born of the 1960s, inspired some guerrilla action in the face of the city’s refusal to recognize the Bottoms as a wildlife refuge. In that spirit, Mike Houck, currently director of the Urban Greenspaces Institute, and Jimbo Beckman decided to force the issue in 1985. Houck knew that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has large yellow signs with “Wildlife Refuge” printed in large impossible to miss black text. He obtained forty signs and cut off any markings that could be traced to the agency. He replaced the identifying information with a handmade stencil reading “City Park” and spray-painted that onto the bottom of the signs.

Houck and Beckmann then took a tall ladder, nails, a hammer, and a fifth of Jim Beam and posted all forty signs around the perimeter of the Bottoms, high enough that no one could remove them. Within a couple weeks, The Oregonian began referring to Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge related to the Bottoms. It was only a matter of time until the general public began referring to Oaks Bottom as a wildlife refuge.”

In 1988, after many years of debate, officials designated Oaks Bottom as the first urban wildlife refuge in Portland.

Refuge Layout

The elongated park, which parallels the river, includes a large shallow lake on the east side of the Springwater Corridor. The Corridor is a hiking and biking path that also runs parallel to the river between Sellwood and downtown Portland.

Between the lake and the Corridor is a Portland Traction rail line on a berm. Slightly south of the refuge are Sellwood Park and Sellwood Riverfront Park, and Oaks Amusement Park is to the west, near the river. To the east, the top of a bluff above the lake is mainly residential, though one of the buildings is a mausoleum and crematorium with a huge great blue heron mural (55,00 square feet) overlooking the wetlands.

A one mile (1.6 km) hiking trail wraps around the east side of the lake beneath the bluff. A side trail connects the east trail with Sellwood Park.

To the north are mixed woodlands, shrubs, and a few open fields, and a trail crossing the north section of the refuge links the Corridor to a parking lot at the top of the bluff. West of the north part of the refuge are two islands, East and Hardtack, that belong to the Ross Island group in the Willamette. Ross Island is the site of a heron rookery.

Before the Bottom became a park, the raised bed of the rail line had largely separated the wetlands from the river.

The south part of the wetlands had been altered by a sanitary landfill that the city acquired in 1969 to prevent its development as industrial land. The city later filled the north end of the park with debris from construction of Interstate 405.

In the winter of 1991 ArtFX Murals owner Mark Bennett painted a giant great blue heron on the west-facing wall of the Portland Memorial Mausoleum overlooking Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge. Mark installed a seventy-foot by fifty-foot heron, designed by portland artist Lynn Kitagawa, which was dedicated on May 18 of that year. Seventeen years later, Mark returned to “finish the job” by  painting the remaining west- and south-facing blank walls of the mausoleum. The ArtFX team created the largest hand-painted building mural in North America — a 55,000-square-foot homage to wildlife common to Oaks Bottom. 

Bluff Trail

The main trail through the refuge is called the Bluff Trail, running north from Sellwood Park to small parking lot off S.E. Milwaukie Avenue. Unless you want to jockey for spaces, avoid the main parking lot (ten lined spaces with room for about five more cars) and drive down to the Sellwood Park parking lot (entrance at SE 7th Avenue and SE Lambert Street) at the southern end of the refuge. Follow the JEH Trail out of the lot, and stay right to find the Bluff Trail, leading away from the Willamette River. There are numerous options for accessing the Bluff Trail.

The scenic little trail is an easy walk beneath cottonwoods, cedars, maples and white alders – fine habitat for the 185 species of birds that occupy the refuge at all times of the year. Birders flock there to see great blue herons, yellow-rumped warblers and ruby-crowned kinglets, a colorful array among the grasses and trees.

In recent years more vulnerable parts of the trail have been replaced with walkways and bridges, leading walkers past a scenic viewpoint into the wetland, and up to the most visible landmark in the refuge: the Portland Memorial Mausoleum 55,000-square-foot mural.  

Springwater Corridor

The Bluff Trail continues north to the smaller parking lot, but to complete the loop you should head left at the fork to connect with the Springwater Corridor, Portland’s bustling bike path that loops 40 miles around the city. Walkers will be quickly surpassed by cyclists and runners, so stay sharp and stick to the far right-hand side of the paved pathway.

The corridor runs along the western edge of the refuge, where you can get a great view of the Portland Memorial Mausoleum (You’ll want to take a photo). Veer right off the corridor once it reaches Oaks Park, and head through a tunnel underneath the Springwater Corridor and rail track to go back to the refuge. A dirt path leads back to the JEH Trail and the Sellwood Park parking lot.

Side Trips

The most obvious side trip is to Oaks Amusement Park, Portland’s 111-year old amusement park which can be accessed from a branch of the JEH Trail or via the Springwater Corridor. Crowds flood the park come spring and summer, when the shouts of kids and lights from the rides fill warm nights on the Willamette River.

You can also take a detour to Tadpole Pond, found along the connecting path between the Bluff Trail and the Springwater Corridor. The “frog study area” is a small interpretive loop around a roped-off pond where you can spot Pacific chorus frogs, northern red-legged frogs and salamanders.

Once you reach the intersection with the Springwater Corridor, head straight across it to find the Willamette River floodplain area, a lesser-known part of Oaks Bottom along the river. A small clearing offers a riverside rest, while the trail runs for about a half mile parallel to the bike path, offering several pop-out views of the Willamette.  (don’t be surprised if you also encounter a few homeless encampments.)

Options for Accessing the Bluff Trail

  • Option 1:  Park in the accessible parking spaces at Oaks Amusement Park, where there is an intended accessible route and crosswalk that takes one under the Springwater Corridor trail.  Note that the gate may be locked, it’s the only way to get into the parking lot is to go through the driveway. 
  • Option 2:  Park in the street by Oaks Pioneer Church and use the gravel service road next to the church.  This adds about 1/3 mile, each way.
  • Option 3:  Park in the Sellwood Riverfront parking lot and walk to the gravel service road below the Oaks Pioneer Church. You will cross the Springwater Corridor and rail tracks.
  • Option 4:  Park at the north parking lot off SE Milwaukie Street and come down the very steep paved bike path.  However, if the three stone steps pose an obstacle, one will not be able to get to the Bluff Trail.  This is an option if one wants to explore other than the Bluff Trail.  This adds about 1/2 mile, each way.

Click here for a detailed map of the Bluff Trail and surrounding area.