Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Rocky Butte a.k.a. Weathertop

ramparts, rocky butte

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Some pics of Rocky Butte [map], up in far NE Portland next to I-205, just south of the airport. I was going to start this post by saying Rocky Butte needed no introduction, since (unlike Kelly Butte) everyone knows about the place already, and there's lots of useful stuff about it on the net.. Everyone takes their out-of-town tourist friends there to snap a few quick photos. Everyone goes there in the summer to watch the sunset with a loaf of bread (legal, I think), a jug of wine (technically illegal), and that special(ish) someone (legal, up to a point). Everyone went there when they were 17 to slam down a 40 of Old E (illegal), attempt some crude graffiti (way illegal), attempt to set stuff on fire (illegal, duh), and engage in some juvenile fumbling with that special(ish) someone (possibly illegal). Not that I would know anything about any of that, of course. No, really, I mean it.

(Btw, if Google sent you here and you're really looking for info on Kelly Butte -- which actually happens a lot -- you've come to almost the right place. The post you're really looking for is here. If you aren't sure which Portland-area butte you're looking for, you can just wander through the posts tagged "mini-volcano" and see if I've covered the one you're interested in.)

moss & stone, rocky butte

I really thought everyone knew about Rocky Butte already, which would've saved me the trouble of writing, doing research, etc., but I was talking to my mom today and she'd never even heard of the place. "Is that the place with the jail?" she asked. Anyone over a certain age who doesn't know about the park is bound to ask the same question. So yes, there used to be a jail around here until the Justice Center opened back in 1983. I'm not sure where, exactly, but I think it was down by the base of the hill, near, or possibly under where I-205 is now. There used to be signs on the freeway long ago ordering you not to stop or even slow down for any reason whatsoever on this stretch of the freeway, and fer chrissakes don't pick up any hitchhikers, especially ones dressed like male dental assistants in bondage gear. I could be a bit hazy on the precise wording of those signs. It was a long time ago.

sun & clouds, rocky butte

Besides the old jail, the place's other big claim to fame is the Grotto, the Catholic theme park, er, sanctuary on the north slope of the butte. These photos are not from the Grotto, though, since religious stuff always creeps me out, plus they're still running one of those crowd-drawing holiday festival-of-lights extravaganzas, and I'm not into that very much either.

So what you're looking at in the photos is not the old jail, all appearances aside, and it's not the Grotto. It's also not related to the uber-scary old military school / megachurch on the north side of the butte (more about that later). This is the weird castle-like structure on the very top of the butte, which is a public park open to all and sundry. The city calls this "Joseph Wood Hill Park", and the steep forested slopes surrounding it are the "Rocky Butte Natural Area" which I think exists just to preserve the view from the top. The "fortress" was built as a WPA project back in the 30's, around the same time Timberline Lodge went up, and I think you can kind of see a resemblance in the stonework. It was basically built to give tourists a reason to stop and spend money in the neighborhood around 82nd & Sandy, in the rural olden days of yore back before "lingerie modeling" was invented.

The place does provide one useful service, actually. Right in the center of the flat area atop the battlements, there's a fenced-off area with a metal tower, and atop the tower is a rotating beacon for the airport, located due north of here. I don't have any pictures of that tower. It's not very photogenic, and I'd probably get a visit from a nice (ok, not very nice) man in black from Homeland Security if I had any and posted them here, and I don't want that. So no pictures of the tower. It's not the prominent radio tower on the south side of the butte, which you'll drive right past on the way down. That's just a regular radio tower, as far as I know.

Updated 2/9/2011: It turns out that I was completely wrong about the beacon, and there's an entirely non-waterboardy explanation for it. The beacon dates all the way back to 1931 (when the main Portland Airport was still located at Swan Island), and it was an important navigational aid back in the days before LORAN and GPS, basically functioning as a sort of lighthouse for airplanes. It was officially put out to pasture back in the 60s, and is now part of the National Register of Historic Places. No, really. The National Park Service's set of guidelines for aviation-related Historic Places specifically mentions the beacon. There's more about the beacon, and Rocky Butte generally, in Laura O. Foster's Portland Hill Walks (a book I've recommended here more than once).

north from rocky butte

There are a couple of cool winding roads up to the top. The way I've always taken is to turn onto NE Fremont going east off 82nd. Just stay on the main road as it winds up the hill and changes names a couple of times, and soon you'll get to the aforementioned religious mega-complex I mentioned, which is quite large. It features a couple of huge brownish domes and an array of smaller, older, and very military-looking buildings. I don't know exactly where they stand, theology-wise, but looking at these buildings I suspect the "Left Behind" series is required reading, and people pray to Dubya in the hope he'll intercede with God on their behalf. That's my guess, anyway. I could be wrong. It started out as Hill Military Academy long ago, and only became a religious institution much later, so they were stuck with the existing buildings. Maybe they're a sect of pacifists, and they cringe at the sight of the military buildings, for all I know. But I kind of doubt that. Anyway, if you keep driving eventually you'll pass the thing and continue on up the hill. There'll be stone retaining walls on your right most of the way up the hill; these were also part of the WPA project. Here and there you'll see a smattering of recent surburban-style houses. Nearly all look like they were built after the old jail closed, which I guess is understandable. When you get to the top, there's a loop road around the base of the fortress, and you can take the other road to the bottom. If anything, the other road is even cooler, although both have recently been defiled with speedbumps. At one point on the way down there's a tight hairpin turn inside a freakin' tunnel, if you can believe that. Yeehaw! Our fair city's legions of Zoobombers would absolutely love this place, if only there was a quick and easy way up to the top, the lazy bastards. I don't have any photos of the road or the tunnel, since I was busy driving and all.

eastern sky, rocky butte

So what's there to do here? Other than the aforementioned, mostly illegal activities, I mean. There aren't any hiking trails that I can see. If you want to go downhill from here, you don't so much "hike" as "plummet". So it's pretty much the viewpoint at the top, and that's about all. If it's cloudy, there isn't even that. Whatever the weather, I suppose you could imagine you're on Weathertop, fending off besieging ringwraiths, if you're into that sort of thing, or orcs if you don't mind bending the canon a little. You have to admit the place sort of looks the part. Ok, besides that, in the summer it's a popular spot to tie the knot with that special(ish) someone (legal, if you have a $97.50 permit from the city). And you can watch planes coming and going at the airport, if you're into that sort of thing. When I was little I was often dragged along on plane-spotting outings, and at one time I could identify most or all of the airlines and airliners that flew in and out of Sea-Tac, up in Seattle. That was a while ago, though. If the subject interested me, I could probably get up to speed again, but really what would be the point of that?

As for the view: The best things to see here are the mountains: Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens, and bits of Mt. Rainier and Mt. Jefferson off in the distance. There's also the Columbia River and the entrance to the Gorge. Sunsets over the West HIlls, and I suppose sunrises if you're weird and deliberately get up that early. This is not the best place for pics of downtown Portland, though. Rocky Butte really is pretty far east from downtown, and the buildings are little more than specks off in the distance. You could go buy an expensive telephoto lens and a tripod, but it's much cheaper to just go somewhere else closer to downtown, like the Eastbank Esplanade, for example. Looking north there's also the I-205 bridge and the airport. Looking east, if you know what to look for, there's the tiny burg of Maywood Park, a town of a few hundred people just on the far side of 205, entirely surrounded by the city of Portland. The town was incorporated in an attempt to prevent 205 from going through, which obviously wasn't very successful. I understand that now the residents prefer to remain independent because their city taxes are vastly lower than in adjacent parts of Portland.

Even if the place is completely fogbound, there's always the fortress itself and its stonework to look at. It's the usual high quality WPA workmanship, stuff you couldn't duplicate today with any amount of money. I sure do miss FDR. The guy died many decades before I was born, but I still miss the guy. Of course, I could go off on a pet tangent of mine, which is that societies that devote a lot of effort to building enduring monuments to themselves are usually in serious trouble. Sometimes it's the Depression, others it's barbarian hordes from the deserts (Egypt, China), or globalization (France), etc. It's a pop sociology notion I play around with sometimes, often after reading about yet another new war memorial or worshipful presidential monument going up in DC.

ramparts, rocky butte

So anyway, what else is there to say about the place...
  • Like basically all the other hills in town, Rocky Butte is a small, extinct (we hope) volcano. The US Geological Survey has the dirt about that here. Apparently it's one of at least 95 known or suspected volcanic features in the Portland area. Jeepers!
  • The butte is a popular climbing destination, for people who like to go climb a rock wall to unwind after work, although opinions about the place are decidedly mixed, what with the litter, car breakins, and other urban problems.
  • The link about the military academy (above) mentioned something about a 1930s incident where an academy student died while exploring a cave close to the school. So apparently there are caves here. Not a huge surprise really -- where there's lava, there's often lava tubes. But still, it's fun to know for a fact that they're up there somewhere, because caves are the best. Yay, caves.
  • Besides the city park at the top of the hill, Metro owns another 5 acres on the butte, and there's supposedly a "Rocky Butte State Park" around here somewhere too, according to most maps. I can't find any sign of it on the ground, but I think it's part of the steep eastern slope of the butte, right next to the freeway. Maybe it's what's left of the jail grounds, I'm not sure. I didn't search that extensively, since I wasn't up for poking around in the brush next to the freeway, right around sunset on a cold December day. Maybe I'll look for it again when the weather improves, if I can find out anything more about the place and it seems like a worthwhile destination.
  • Elsewhere on the interwebs, posts about Rocky Butte at the Dirt Cheap Guide to PDX, the Zinester's Guide, iExplore, Home & Abroad, PortlandBridges, SITO, & Klaas Acts, the last calling the place "the park in the sky".
  • Oh, and as mentioned in the comments below, this humble post now has interweb linkage. Check out the post over at Goldfishcake. The photos over there are better, too.


Anonymous said...

Your explanation of Rocky Butte really lacks a lot of the "fun" stuff we all use to go up there for. Like the rock climbing and the caves. There is a lot to see along the road on the drive up.
The jail use to have convicts escaping regularly - I can remember the police searching our block several times for escaped cons. and a couple chases. The jail use to sit at the base across 84

Unknown said...

Great blog & thanks for the smiles. I did most of my somewhat illegal stuff up there in the early 80's and you brought back some good memories.

I was looking for proof that it really was a jail, I was sure I heard that it was.

Caves? Where are caves?

brx0 said...

I'd just like to point out, in my defense, that my post does in fact mention rock climbing and caves. It's toward the bottom, in the bullet-point list.

Thx. Mgmt.

Btw, I still don't know where the caves are, though. Probably just as well. The city would put locked grates over them or dynamite them or something if word got out, to ensure nobody could possibly hurt themselves in any imaginable way, or otherwise have a good time of any kind.

alien man?! said...

There are caves?

Linking you on my blog entry about Rocky Butte b/c your blog seems to be the best compilation of info and photos about it. Thanks.

Kevin Rust said...

Hey. There are trails, and quite a lot of them. I hike them almost daily, and they're really fun. One starts about a third the way up Cadet street, and winding all the way up, passing the exit of the tunnel. And another one going up, on the Bible College side, starting at the top, winding down from the 'X' painted on the roadway, winding down. It forks twice, the first: right takes you to the College road, and left continues down. Then another right will take you into the old military part of the campus, and right will go all the way down to the end of Cadet street.
And yet another trail. It starts in many places, all f which are in the direct vicinity of the college. My favorite is where you are driving up the road, and the stone wall starts on your right, the entrance is just before that on the right. It has a tunnel to go under the street, and continues down right of the tunnel's exit. Goes quite a way down, along the brim of the cliff (a lot of neat viewpoints) and forks. Right will scraggle along the edge of the freeway and and somewhere near Sacramento street and even to the meeting of I-205 and I-84. Left; you go all the way back to the Grotto, where there are a lot of cool dirt jumps for bikes.
And the caves: Please add me on Facebook, or email me at if you know or have an idea of where they are. Or any other cool stuff.

Boogie Nightz said...

I really loved the read, great work and effort. I think the cave(s) if any, were probably sealed off long ago.

Gordon said...

A 9 minute video of a guy getting booked into the old Rocky Butte Jail.

Anonymous said...

There are two domes about half way up that hill. I went to elementary and part of high school there.

BroughtBackMemories said...

You can find the caves or they used to be called the neo nazi caves back then. Stupid idiots tagged nazi symbols in the 40 foot hole that access the caves. The entrance is in the corner and you corkscrew down to the first chamber. It's a tight fit and I was 20 or so when I did this 20 years or more ago. There is also the small cave that is flooded above the rock pile scramble. I have never went past the crawl where it gets wet.