Exploring Leif Erikson Trail in Northwest Portland
There are a multitude of trails throughout the Pacific Northwest that are ready to be explored by runners of all experience levels. However, for those that live in or around Portland, Oregon they only need to look as far as their own backyard. Nestled in the west hills of the city lies acre upon acre of the unexplored Forest Park. With hundreds of trails and potential run routes, we tackled one of its most accessible and most popular, Leif Erikson.
Finding the trailhead to Leif Erikson is very simple and it’s very well marked. You merely take NW Thurman Rd. and head into the hills until it dead ends at the front gate. Depending on the time of day, parking can be a nightmare, so we recommend earlier runs which not only make it more accessible, but also give you that “one with nature” vibe, so its a little more meditative. As the day continues, more walkers, cyclists, and other runners will start flooding the trail so fair warning.
Leif is a retired fire road, no longer accessible to vehicles, that over the years has been eaten by nature. This means however it is a nice wide trail with little to no obstacles to worry about except for the occasional exuberant protruding rock or mudslides. It is most definitely accessible to runners of every skill level given its lack of technical requirements. The trail itself is marked with signposts at every quarter-mile increment making it very easy to judge your distance and determine your turnaround point. The entire trail end to end is 11 miles making the entire out and back a full 22 mile experience. It has plenty of rolling hills throughout and while it only climbs a little over a thousand feet across the entire 22 miles there are times when it definitely taxes your legs. This past weekend, to give you the full experience, we ran the entire 22 mile round trip and wanted to share the experience.
After parking the car and getting geared up, you pass the metal barrier and are on the trail. It starts out on a slight uphill and the ground at this point is a mix of the old destroyed concrete fire road mixed with years of soil and rocks . It’s not especially fun to run on at this point given it’s a little sketchy and it lacks the predictability of a trail or regular road. That being said it’s nice and wide and for those newcomers will get you acquainted with running on the trail without breaking your neck. About a quarter to half mile in, there is a porta-potty and you should definitely make use of it because it’s the last option for 11 miles and there are not a lot of hidden places to pull off if you know what I mean.
From here on out, the trail winds in and out along the hillside tracing its way northwest. Through the trees on your right you’ll be able to make out the Willamette river and you can mark your progress as you pass the bridges headed north. As I said, the route itself is very well marked and every quarter-mile is called out by a white signpost. The only complication comes at multi-direction junctions and the easiest to miss is right around 6 miles when you hit a four-way junction. At this spot, the hard left will take you up to Saltzman Road which is another good run, but only lasts a few more miles and is basically a straight climb. The next route to the right is your continuation on Leif Erikson. There is a picnic table here which makes it a great starting point for those looking to grab a snack, turn around, or even have lunch if you’re just hiking.
Continuing from here, you start a slight decline for the next mile or so and then continue again alternating between slight rolling hills, sneaking in and out from the hillside, Until you see another porta-potty at mile marker 13.5. When you see this, you know you are now very close to the end and the next half-mile is a straight downhill shot to the opposite gate. At this point, you can grab another snack, and then make your way back in the opposite direction retracing your steps along the way.
Overall, Leif Erikson is a great running spot for those new to the trails or for those looking to add just a little bit of variation to their road routine. Due to the lack of vegetation and growth on the trail itself, you can choose to wear either road or trail shoes although we always opt for trail because conditions can become a bit muddy. The other great thing about Leif is that it has a plethora of offshoots. In this, I mean there are countless trails that junction off of the main Leif Erikson path and you can even connect it with Wildwood, another one of the more famous and longest running routes in Forest Park. We will cover that trail in an upcoming segment.
So if you have the time and you’re looking for a little adventure, then consider a trip and leave early in the morning so you can enjoy it. Or consider grabbing some friends and hit it during the day and then drive five minutes back into Northwest Portland and hit one of the great eating spots nearby.