Portland City Trail (#2) – Mt. Tabor Park

September 29 and October 3

Mt. Tabor Park is the crown jewel of a southeast Portland neighborhood of the same name. The park wears an exuberant carpet of green that runs under tall firs and traverses alongside gravel paths. Tabor stretches for 190 acres and is crisscrossed by multiple hiking, biking and walking trails. It also reaches into the sky; at 650 feet above the Willamette Valley floor you can catch glimpses of the park from lucky parts of the city. The park’s most unique characteristic is that it is built on an extinct volcanic cinder cone.

The crisscrossing trails through Mt. Tabor.

Recently, I hiked  through this city park twice, the first time with Andy on a Saturday morning and then again a few days later with my friend, Lori.

More cool things about this park: the cone is part of the Boring Lava field – which is a network of cinder cones and small shield volcanoes that run from Boring, Oregon to southwestern Washington. Three other cinder cones of the Boring Lava field sit within Portland city limits.

–>Boring, Oregon is a sister city to Dull, Scotland. Boring and Dull couldn’t milk that partnership enough so they created The League of Extraordinary Communities and invited Bland, New South Wales, Australia  to join their exclusive club. 

On Mount Tabor there are 3 beautiful open-air water reservoirs and gatehouses, all were built at the turn of the 20th century to supply drinking water to some east Portland neighborhoods. The reservoirs are no longer used for water supply but have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places and must be maintained. In 2011, a man was seen peeing into one of the reservoirs and the resulting citizen uproar led to a decision to drain that reservoir’s water, costing about $36,000 to do so. There have been other grumblings of money mismanagement regarding the reservoirs but that story is one of the juiciest.


One reservoir and a gatehouse. Portland in background.

I checked with my friend Janet, who is a water scientist for Portland, to confirm that what I had discovered about the reservoirs and the peeing incident was correct. “True,” Janet confirmed, but she also shared that the continued maintenance of the reservoirs is not assured. It’s expensive and just because people in the Mt.Tabor neighborhood like the reflecting pools they’ve walked around for years doesn’t mean that the Parks Department is willing to support this indulgence forever. In anticipation of the eventual shut-down requests have gone out on what do with the reservoirs.  Many proposed designs have been eccentric and over-the-top (to be expected?) but one that captured Janet’s imagination: pipe the hot mineral water that may be flowing beneath the lava field into the reservoirs and create public hot springs. I love this idea, Portland as Reykjavík South.

Honestly, I couldn’t get Harvey’s head into the picture. The blog software cut it off. Click on the picture to see the full Harvey.

Mount Tabor Park also has a well outfitted playground, an outdoor amphitheater, basketball and tennis courts, softball fields, and the requisite statute of an old dead white guy, Harvey Scott who was a local newspaper editor. Lori shared this bit of wisdom as we walked up to the statue during our hike, if we moved Harvey off his pedestal and looked at him straight on, his head would look as if he was suffering from hydrocephalus, which by the way no one suffers from any more, because of shunts (Lori knows this stuff, she is a nurse). Lori clarified, sculptors create them with very big heads and put them on pedestals so as we gaze up in awe, the perspective looks right. A side note, Harvey Scott’s likeness, including his boulder-sized head, was created by Gutzon Borglum while he was at work on the Mt. Rushmore presidents.

Soapbox Derby, 2018.

Mount Tabor Park is home to an annual Adult Soapbox Derby. Every year home-made cars, some of which go as fast as 50 miles per hour, race down the cinder cone. This year over 40 people registered for the race which is seven-tenths of a mile. I have seen the videos. Race Day looks to be my kind of fun with its hints of cartoonish danger, clever car designs, and costumed drivers who are urged on from the sidelines by their slightly inebriated but enthusiastic buddies. This is not a sanctioned city park event, but has grown in popularity, and exaggerated pomp and circumstance over the last 20 years.

→An aside, my advice to someone looking to settle in a new city would be this: live in a place that is not afraid to be a bit silly.

Andy and I hiked through Mt. Tabor on a Saturday morning and covered 4 miles of trails. Different from hiking in wilderness where views consistently open to broader expanses of nature, this urban hike presented phenomenal cityscapes. Mt. Tabor has well-placed park benches and we passed people taking time to look back on their city. I am slow to realize things, and it took me until I was 60 years old to understand nature can also help us appreciate the constructed world. It is obvious the architects of the park took time to make this point by laying out key landscape features to frame city views.

Citizens sharing secrets.

The biggest activity in the park the day Andy and I hiked through was being driven by a large group of park volunteers. The volunteers were prepping the park for autumn and cleaning up the causalities of a long hot dry summer.

Mt. Tabor volunteers.

–>Here’s another bit of advice I’d give to someone looking to move to a new city: consider someplace that is not afraid to be silly and where volunteering and activism is as common as the rain.     

My second time through Mt. Tabor Park I hiked with my friend Lori, who was touting a Victorian style knee brace. But Lori is ever the optimist and I am not quite sure what would ever slow her down. During our walk she found something else injured, a lamppost, and we admired people’s futile attempt to save it (more silliness).

The Victorian apparatus Lori wears for her knee.

I am learning something about feet-to-ground (hiking/walking) and hands to ground (yoga) that sparks my mind and memory. But I don’t have much more to say than that right now, I’m still figuring it out, & maybe there is nothing more to it than just that. I can say that Lori and I talked for 4.5 miles and 28 stories (iphone app) as we randomly moved from trail to trial. It was a stunning fall day enhanced by the surrounding nature, a vibrant friendship, and perfectly framed city views.

Injury empathy.

Urban hiking involves sharing the road a little more than hiking in the forest or on remote spits of sand. There are children, hordes of volunteers, and cyclists all of whom can step into and out of your path from moment to moment. But rather than this feeling like a nuisance, it really is a glorious mashup of nature, fellow citizens, and the city that surrounds it.





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