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Rocky Butte Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

Mt. Hood from James Wood Hill Park, Rocky Butte (bobcat)
Mt. St. Helens from Rocky Butte (bobcat)
End of the Tunnel Trail, Rocky Butte (bobcat)
Servite Monastery, Upper Level Gardens, The Grotto (bobcat)
Trail and road walk on Rocky Butte (not a GPS track) (bobcat) Courtesy: Google Maps
  • Start point: The Grotto TrailheadRoad.JPG
  • End point: Rocky Butte
  • Hike Type: In and out
  • Distance: 3.2 miles
  • Elevation gain: 480 feet
  • High Point: 612 feet
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Seasons: All
  • Family Friendly: Yes
  • Backpackable: No
  • Crowded: No, except at summit area


Hike Description

Rocky Butte, one of Portland's Boring volcanoes, lay in the direct path of the Bretz or Missoula Floods, some of the largest known on the planet, which blasted down the Columbia Gorge from what is now Montana over a period of about 2,000 years until about 13,000 B.C. The eastern face of the cinder cone was extensively eroded as the Portland area went under 400 feet of water. The west side of Rocky Butte, now known as the Alameda Ridge, became a collection of debris from hundreds of miles away. The northeast side of the butte also hosted a rock quarry, which gave rise to its current name; previous to this, it was known as Wiberg Butte. Stone from the quarry was used in the construction of the former Multnomah County Jail, located nearby and demolished to make way for the freeway. Cliff faces on the northeast side of the butte hold over 100 climbing routes, and bouldering practice can be enjoyed on the stone walls at the summit. The trail route described below crosses public lands belonging to state and city parks and the Oregon Department of Transportation.

Head out the exit to The Grotto parking lot and turn right on Skidmore Street, which parallels The Grotto. Pass the chapel, which sits atop administrative offices. Then pass the Skidmore Pump Station on your right. As the street rises from a depression scoured by swirling Bretz floodwaters, find a path that goes off into the woods of the freeway right-of-way. The Douglas-firs here are draped with ivy. Also common are big-leaf maple, cherry-laurel, holly and some western hemlock. Trails left lead back to Skidmore via a mountain bike jump course. Cliffs to the right were quarried for the blocks that shored the Rocky Butte Road and Hill Park in addition to the County Jail. Large mossy boulders lie jumbled among the maples. Come to the I-205 freeway sight barrier and go right, gently ascending with views of the busy freeway to the left and rocky, wooded cliffs to the right. Reach a junction. A trail makes a sharp right up the slope. This is the one you should take although there is another junction ten yards further on, with the left trail leading down to run along the freeway and the right trail leading up to the Schwingus - a climber's wall. (Be aware that these woods also provide shelter for a few transient human "campers.") Ascend below moss-covered, licorice-ferned buttresses, passing a #8 on a tree, the lovely scene unfortunately marred by the roar of traffic. Come to a tunnel under Rocky Butte Road. You can bypass this and join the road a few yards later.

Across the way is the campus of the City Bible Church, with its domed retreat building. Climbers usually access the quarried cliffs from below the Bible Church using top-rope anchors. To reach the summit, you have to walk up the road about 3/4 mile, passing under power lines and more buildings on the CBC campus. Reach a junction for the loop around Joseph Wood Hill Park, with its layered retaining walls, decommissioned airway beacon (from the days when pilots navigated by sight at night) and red cinder gravel. You can see north to the airport, the river, and Mount Saint Helens; the Columbia Gorge is to the east and there is a splendid view of Mount Hood, especially at sunset. You'll have to try harder to get a glimpse of Mount Jefferson. The buildings of downtown are visible, too, and then the West Hills. The park is named after the man who founded the Hill Military Academy, some of whose buildings still form part of the City Bible Church complex.

On the west side of the park, where Rocky Butte Drive descends on its western route (eventually through a switchback tunnel), stop to look at the WPA (Work Progress Administration) wall near the junction. A climber’s trail descends on both sides of this wall; you can reach the tunnel using this trail, heading down through leafy woods with forest wildflowers blooming in the spring. To return to The Grotto Trailhead, it's much better to retrace your steps the way you came rather than attempt a circuitous loop route along city streets.

The Grotto: Walk past the gift shop under a Douglas-fir canopy below wooded cliffs. You can see a trail map of The Grotto (National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother) showing a short trail below in the Douglas-fir woods and the shady Upper Gardens are reached by an elevator up the cliff (There is a $5 fee to use the elevator/enter the gardens). Up top, there is a modern meditation chapel/clifftop overlook with commanding views, the Servite Monastery (no public entry), the small, colorful Chapel of St. Anne, and a loop walkway under tall Douglas-firs and past shrub gardens with numerous shrines and statues. There are frequent bench stops, where you can sit and contemplate in this lovely space.

From Thanksgiving to the end of December, The Grotto will be all strung up for its Christmas Lights Festival (admission fee), so some pathways might be blocked off. The grotto itself contains a marble replica of Michelangelo’s Pietà. Farther back, there’s a visitor center (where you can purchase tickets for the elevator) and a chapel.

Fees, Regulations, etc.

  • Rocky Butte trails open from dawn to dusk.
  • Pets not permitted in The Grotto; on leash on Rocky Butte
  • The Grotto grounds open 9:00 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. daily: $5 to take the elevator to the Upper Gardens
  • Do not leave valuables in vehicle


Trip Reports

Related Discussions / Q&A

Guidebooks that cover this hike

  • Portland Hill Walks by Laura O. Foster
  • Peaceful Places: Portland by Paul Gerald
  • Best Trail Runs: Portland, Oregon by Adam W. Chase, Nancy Hobbs, and Yassine Dibboun
  • Portland Step-by-Step by Joe Bianco (The Grotto only)

More Links


Oregon Hikers Field Guide is built as a collaborative effort by its user community. While we make every effort to fact-check, information found here should be considered anecdotal. You should cross-check against other references before planning a hike. Trail routing and conditions are subject to change. Please contact us if you notice errors on this page.

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