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Hike of the Month: Balch Canyon Loop

Explore a natural area rich in Portland history

A bridge spans a shaded grassy area with a person walking across the top.

The Northwest Thurman Street Bridge Rehabilitation Project was completed in 2014.

Photo by @benmcbee

Table of Contents

Nestled in a quiet corner of Northwest Portland, Balch Creekone of Portland’s main sources of water prior to the use Bull Run in 1895 — flows out of the nearby hills. It is a place of contrasts. You’ll venture among steep canyon walls on gradually sloping paths; there is stunning natural beauty, but beneath the layers of time, also a dark history.

Whether you’re trying to warm up on a chilly December day (like we were) or simply find the sound of rushing water to be calming, this route offers a quick escape into Forest Park.

Quick facts

  • Starting point: Lower Macleay Park, 2960 NW Upshur St., Portland
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Distance: 2.1 miles
  • Route type: Loop
  • Elevation gain: 350 ft
  • Trail surface: Asphalt, dirt, and rock
  • Wheelchair accessible: Partially, at the beginning
  • Open: 5 a.m.-10 p.m., year-round
  • Dog friendly: Yes, leashed
A long flight of stairs painted rainbow climbs a hill beside a bridge

If you make it to red, you get a breather.

Photo by @benmcbeephoto

Brief overview

From the small parking lot at Lower Macleay Park, venture beneath the Balch Gulch Bridge, AKA the Thruman Street Bridge. This pin-connected steel deck truss was built in 1905 as part of the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition and World’s Trade Fair and is the oldest intact bridge in the state. You’ll also pass red geometric sculptures and elaborate gates that keep debris out of local infrastructure.

At the historic Stone House, you’ll turn right onto the Wildwood Trail, hiking all the way to the Aspen Trailhead. From the sidewalk, take the public staircase nestled between homes to Northwest Thurman Street, cross the bridge, and descend the 101 rainbow steps back to the start.

Why you should try it

Fresh air and an impressive view of Mount St. Helens, what more could you need? Plus, you can cross The Witch’s Castle off your weird Portland bucket list.

An old stone ruin covered in moss and spray paint

Until a 1962 storm damaged it, the structure was used as a park ranger station and restroom for hikers.

Photo by @benmcbeephoto

Pro tips

Just a short distance beyond where the creekside fence ends, be sure to look up. You’ll find heritage tree No. 143, a 243-ft-tall Douglas fir that is thought to be Portland’s tallest tree.

Let us know

Did you try this hike? Do you know of one we should check out? Send us your thoughts and recommendations.

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