Washington Park is just about half the size of New York City’s Central Park, but it has a lot more to offer! Located in the southwest corner of the city, Washington Park has a zoo, forestry museum, amphitheaters, plenty of hiking trails, and many other recreation spaces. It is a total of 410 acres, which gives it enough space to hold an arboretum with more than 2,000 species of plants and trees, a children’s museum, and forestry center, and – most famously – the International Rose Test Garden and Portland Japanese Garden.
It was started in 1871 and since has expanded over 10x to become the present-day Washington Park.
Visit the relevant websites here:
- Washington Park
- Hoty Arboretum
- International Rose Test Garden
- Oregon Zoo
- Portland Children’s Museum
- Portland Japanese Garden
- World Forestry Center
Most attractions are open at 9 am or 9:30, but the Japanese Garden doesn’t open until 10 am (noon on Mondays!).
[Recommended Read: The Ultimate Portland Bucket List]
While you can get there by hiking or biking, the most common transportation method is driving or public transportation. The most direct route is to go on Highway 26, and taking exit 72. However, on weekends it tends to draw crowds. When I was there, I probably spent 20 minutes waiting in afternoon traffic on a section of the road that I could have walked in 5! You will also have to pay a parking fee (year round!), but that fee goes directly to help fund park maintenance.
One way to get around paid parking is to park at the Sunset Transit Center nearby, which is just one light rail stop away from Washington Park.
The best way to go is via TriMet MAX – the Portland Light Rail! Two lines, the Blue and Red, will take you directly to the Washington Park station. It’s underground, but you will be able to take a large elevator to the ground floor. This will take you to the south of the park, where the Oregon Zoo, Children’s Museum, and World Forestry Center are. These three attractions surround the parking lot and are very walkable.
The Free Park Shuttle
If you don’t want to move your car every time you visit a new place or didn’t drive, you can take the free shuttle! It runs every 15 minutes from 9 am to 7 pm every day from May to September. In April and October, it runs on weekends (it also ends at 5 pm in October). It will take you to all the points of interest, and you can visit this website to get an estimate of when the next shuttle will arrive.
Pro Travel Tips
Want to make the most of your visit? Do these things:
- Grab a map! Pamphlets with a map of Washington Park and information about all the attractions and the shuttle are available at the entrance of any attraction, and at the entrance of the MAX station. They’re super helpful!
- If you take the shuttle, make sure you pay attention to the sequence of stops. Go to the Hoyt Arboretum before the Holocaust Memorial, before stopping to smell the roses or testing your patience with your travel mates at the archery range. The shuttle goes only one way! Missing a stop means you have to take it another 30 minutes in a full loop or walk to it.
- Bring a picnic. The food there is expensive, but there are plenty of places to sit and eat!
- Avoid the Rose and Japanese Gardens in the middle of days on weekends. They will be crowded and the traffic can be very unpleasant.
Visit the Rose Garden in early summer (May and June) to get full bloom! By early July, when I visited, many petals were already on the floor.
- Take pictures in the Rose Garden, but go early to avoid people. It doesn’t close, so dawn is great for extensive photoshoots!
- Take your time in the Japanese Garden if it’s hot out. Trees and shade cover almost the entire garden!
- Visit the free arboretum if you want to hike amongst trees, or the ticketed World Forestry Center if you would rather stay indoors to learn about trees. If you don’t care for tree science (aka dendrology!) you can skip these altogether.
- Plan for a visit of at least half a day to see both the Rose and Japanese Gardens. To see just one, you might need 1.5 hours if you take public transportation (the shuttle), or a full day to hit all the attractions including the memorials, public art projects, and archery range.
[Recommended Read: Review of The Best of Portland, Portland Walking Tour]
International Rose Test Garden at Washington Park (FREE!)
When you step off the free shuttle, you should see the Rose Garden Store in front of you, and the rose garden on the left. Refer to a small board with information about several of the special species in the garden, usually ones that have been newly bred or have recently won prizes.
This is the reason that Portland is nicknamed the City of Roses! It came about because of fears during the first World War that some European rose species might be destroyed in the fighting. Thousands of species were gathered and brought to Portland in 1917! This garden is the oldest official, continuously operated public rose test garden in the US.
There are over 7,000 rose bushes in the garden, and you can walk freely (pun intended) among them all. Although most of the flowers are the traditional red, pink, and white, there are also many other interesting colors!
Portland Japanese Garden
Right across from the roses is the entrance to the Japanese Garden. When I visited on the first weekend in July, I had to wait in line for about 20 minutes just to buy tickets!
The entrance of the garden is pretty steep, requiring you to climb up a hill. If you are not willing or able to make this climb, ask about the shuttle up and down the hill and save your legs!
At the top is the Umami Cafe and Tsubo-Niwa (small gallery of Japanese art) and a Bonsai Terrace. The cafe is apparently an authentic Japanese Tea House, though it was under renovation during my visit. It boasts several traditional Japanese teas and snacks.
After that, take a stroll through the Arts Learning Center for artistic gems.
If you want to learn all about the intentions of the creators of the Japanese Garden, take their free tours! When I was there on a weekend in July, the tours ran on the hour between 10 and 2. You can call them to verify the tour times!
The term bonsai refers to the Japanese art of cultivating tiny trees, neatly trimmed to make specific shapes. Most gardens have full-size trees that fit this description as well!
Portland Japanese Garden at Washington Park Attractions
Don’t miss out on these!
Mt. Hood is one of the most iconic views in Portland! About 2.5 hours away from downtown, it is a beautiful volcano that you can go climb. If you’re not a hiker, the views of the snowy peak – even in July – are gorgeous from the viewpoint at the Portland Japanese Garden! Take pictures here on a clear day.
The Sand and Stone Garden
Probably the most iconic parts of any Japanese garden is the zen garden part of it. It looks like one of those mini sand pits with the little rake, and even patterns drawn in the sand. Though you aren’t able to sit or walk in it, the view is still very peaceful to be around. Take a seat under the shade and find your zen!
The Strolling Pond Garden
This picture shows a weeping willow. While these types of trees are associated with sadness and heartbreak in American culture, they represent luck in Eastern cultures! The beautiful drooping branches along with the calm of the water make for a great picture.
The two-part pond, connected with a stream, is drop-dead gorgeous! See the Moon Bridge in the upper pond, and walk along the Zig-Zag Bridge on the lower pond. They have amazing views of the water. The blues of the pond perfectly complement the bright oranges and whites of the koi fish – and the splashing sounds of the Heavenly Falls waterfall.
The Natural Garden
This small trail links the Strolling Pond Garden and the Sand and Stone Garden. Covered completely in shrubbery, it has traditional garden lanterns and plenty of benches for you to take a rest.
[Recommended Read: The Ultimate Portland Bucket List]
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