Portland, Oregon Wheelchair Access Travel Guide

The city of Portland was settled because of the transporting potential for passengers and cargo, especially lumber along the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. Portland, or the “city of roses,” is a thriving metropolis with a quirky vibe all its own. One of the most “green” or environmentally friendly cities in the United States, from buildings to food, organic or sustainable. Bio-dynamic farming, an ethical, ecological and spiritual style of farming, is very popular in Portland.

Today, Portland is divided into a few different neighborhoods: North, Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, and Southwest Portland and within these neighborhoods are districts varying in popularity. Many people living in Portland were drawn here for the close sense of community and organic living, which is why supporting local business is a big deal here, though a few corporate giants have found their way in. Portland is known for its large number of micro-breweries and micro-distilleries, like Rogue Ales and Jake’s. Rouge Ales offers distillery tours at 2pm Monday-Friday or by special request.

Summer and fall are by far the best times of the year to visit because the weather is the finest. Good weather cannot be kept a secret in Portland, so during the warmer season expect to find many others enjoying the sunshine. When it warms local events happen all over town, so choosing what to do may become challenging. “Winters are cold and dark and springtime rains seems to go on forever,” explains local resident Hillary Boyd who has loved living in Portland. I was in Portland and was amazed at how humid it was and realized I could have packed better. When the sun is out Portland is a happy place. People are smiling as they stroll about; sometimes on bikes or with dogs, while greeting each other. In general, keep an eye out for dog poop as you stroll the sidewalks as many owners were careless to pick after their dogs.

Southwest Portland

The Southwest is where Downtown Portland is located, including the Pioneer Square, Waterfront Park and the Harborwalk. Washington Park is also located in this region. Downtown consists of both local and corporate, high-priced shops and eateries. One of the most popular shopping areas is near Pioneer Square at Pioneer Place and outward. Also in Downtown Portland on SW Adler and 10th Street is where sixty or so food trucks are permanently parked for business. You can get a very tasty meal for an affordable price.

Park Street is located not too far from Pioneer Square in a beautiful neighborhood with old trees that line the streets. Running right up the middle of Park Street is literally a park with statues and a small rose garden. On either side of the street are local cafes, restaurants, pubs, museums, and historic buildings. Portland Art Museum is located on this street and is the oldest museum on the West Coast. It is internationally recognized for its permanent collection and ambitious special exhibitions, drawn from the Museum’s holdings and the world’s finest public and private collections. The museum is wheelchair accessible, equipped with ramps and restrooms. A few psychic readers are in the downtown area along with many strip clubs. Along the water at Waterfront Park is the Harborwalk Trail—a flat and paved path that runs approximately 5.2 miles from Portland’s East End Beach around the harbor and across the Casco Bay Bridge to the South Portland Greenbelt Walkway and Bug Light Park. It’s a very popular place for people to gather, especially tourists.

The Voodoo Doughnut Shop and Powell’s City of Books have become world-famous attractions in Portland and are worth experiencing if you like sugary doughnuts and independent book stores. Live music concerts are a popular form of entertainment and there are many indoor and outdoor venues throughout the city. During the warmer months a section of Main Street, in Downtown Portland, becomes a cultural center with rotating events one of which is “Music on Main.” Near an iconic Portland sign is where a stage is setup and then a small dancing area followed by a sea of tables and chairs, though many people also stood or brought seats from home. Food, beer, wine and non-alcoholic drinks are available. I found out about this only because my local friend had a friend in the band that was playing. Some people got up to dance will others moved and grooved wherever they were, including myself. It was a rich sense of community that I was happy to be a part of.

The hills of Portland are covered in forests with some lucky residents nestled in between. Two of the most popular parks in these hills are Washington Park and Forest Park. However, in the Southwest region of Portland many locals go to Council Crest Park for a picnic or to watch the sunset. The park has some paved and non-paved trails, and being on a hillside, there are some slopes to deal with but the vista point is easily accessible. Locals love this park for the view of the five Cascade Mountains. Parking is to the east (no sidewalks) and the vista point which has a sidewalk is to the west.

Two main roads cross through Washington Park with a few side streets. Washington Park is more of a tourist destination than Forest Park because of all the attractions located inside. To get around to the attractions you will definitely need your own vehicle. One of the biggest attractions is the International Rose Test Garden, since Portland is often referred to as the city of roses. From a handicapped parking spot head to the far right side of the garden where a ramp takes you down to the first rose bed. This area is semi wheelchair accessible because a set of stairs creates a barrier blocking access to the other side. To see the rest of the International Rose Test Garden one must travel down a paved but very steep pathway. A warning sign is displayed even for wheelchair users about the incline and the rest of the garden is quite hilly. Power wheelchairs would be able to manage at least some of the rose garden as long as breaks are well-tuned or if traveling with someone who is physically fit and willing to get a workout pushing.

Across from the International Rose Test Garden is Portland’s Japanese Garden. To get there requires hiking up a large roadway hill but at across the street from the rose garden is a shuttle stop for the Japanese Garden. The shuttle has a wheelchair accessible lift, which could accommodate at least two wheelchairs per trip. The Japanese garden is only partially accessible and so a discount is given (see map). When purchasing a ticket you will get a map and it will clarify what the accessible route is. What you can see is beautiful. Some areas may be challenging if using a manual wheelchair, like over a small patch of cobblestones or up a short hill to the waterfall. If needed, a wheelchair accessible bathroom is available here. The Portland Chinese Garden is located outside Washington Park but is also a lovely garden worth visiting. On the other side of Washington Park from the Japanese Garden is the Portland Zoo, which is ADA accessible but not level, so again manual wheelchairs may incur challenges.

About fifteen minutes from Downtown Portland in Southwest Portland is the wheelchair accessible hiking trail at Tryon Creek State Park. Near the Nature Center, where accessible restrooms and parking can be found, you can get right on the Ruth Pennington Trillium Trail—a fully paved ADA trail. The trail loop is little under half a mile long, is practically level and has a pathway that intersects the loop in case you need to cut the hike short. The trailhead to the bike bath is also located at the same parking lot. This trail is flat and wide enough for most wheelchairs. However, it is packed dirt which can be problematic for some wheelchairs especially when wet.

Northwest Portland

The Northwest area encompasses the posh Pearl District, part of Chinatown and an area known as the Alphabet District. Names of businesses on the street coincide with the order of the alphabet in this district, which makes finding what you are looking for a little easier. At most restaurants wheelchairs can get in the front door yet restrooms can be questionable, so inquire. Some businesses, including many retail shops, are older homes that have been converted into businesses and rarely have ramps. Regardless, there enough accessible options with friendly service. The two most popular streets in the Alphabet District are 21st Street and 23rd Street-parts are also referred to as Nob Hill or Uptown. On 23rd Street you can catch a small food stand serving sweet to savory grilled PB&J sandwiches; a totally unique and tasty experience! Both the Southwest and Northwest are the most desirable destinations for tourists focused on dining and entertainment.

Forest Park is larger than Washington Park and is made up of hiking trails with parking lots just off the side of the road. Forest Park is not very wheelchair friendly but a part of the Lower Macleay Trail is paved and designed to be ADA, meaning it is paved for about the first couple hundred feet. The accessible part ends along the Balch Creek and is quite scenic where cutthroat trout are often seen and fished for. After that the trail becomes steep and rocky. In Forest Park, you might also want to try Leif Erikson Drive, which is a gravel road that stretches 11 miles through Forest Park.  It is wide and with a gentle incline. It was built in the 1910s as a road for a future housing development but the development was stymied and the road became part of Forest Park. The entrance to Leif Erikson is on the narrow side as there is a locked gate with an opening on the side that pedestrians enter through. Some wheelchairs will have to off-road it a bit to pass through but once through the trail is wide enough for any size. Google Map these two wheelchair accessible trail options at Forest Park in Portland.

Northeast Portland

In the Northeast part of Portland is The Grotto, a Catholic Shrine, with beautiful botanical gardens worth visiting. It truly is an oasis in this part of Portland. From the paved parking lot look for the wheelchair access sign for the most friendly route. The other route can be done if using a power wheelchair, have exceptional upper body strength, or have a willing able-body to push. The ground, plaza level consists of the gardens, The Grotto itself as well as other statues and the welcome center. Access to this ground level is free of charge but you may want to see the upper level.

To reach the upper level you will need to purchase a token at the welcome center-gift shop. Children under 6 are free. Once you have your token, head up the ramp in the back right corner to the elevator that brings guests to the upper level. A side gate must be open by a member of The Grotto, which they were vigilant to arrange. The elevators skims along the jagged cliff of The Grotto; it was very impressive!

The elevator opens up to the upper level of gardens with more Catholic shrines, chapels and statues. The Meditation Chapel is a place where you can quietly be. The building itself is a lovely example of modern architecture, equipped with a ramp but no automatic doors. The pathway that meanders through the Upper Grotto is paved and practically level everywhere. Many native plants and trees can be enjoyed here. The design of the gardens certainly creates a peaceful environment. A Japanese style garden with a pond is called the Peace Garden and nearby by a rose garden marks the entrance to a private Servite Friars Monastery. All and all it was beautiful.

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