The Ride: Climbing Portland’s iconic Council Crest

Posted by on February 10th, 2015 at 5:06 pm

Iconic Council Crest-downtown loop-7

Mere minutes from downtown Portland. The view of
Washington County from SW Fairmount Blvd.
(Photos by J. Maus/BikePortland)

This post is part of our SW Portland Week.

Council Crest: If you live in Portland and like to ride bikes, chances are you’ve heard of this legendary destination. When I first heard about it, I recall how it garnered mythical status — as if its summit would rise above downtown Portland like a snow-capped Himalayan peak.

While it pales in stature to the major summits of the world, its status to locals is undeniable. At 1,071 feet, it’s the tallest peak in the vaunted West Hills stretching north-south above Portland and the Willamette River on one side, and towering over the vast rural lands of Washington County on the other.

It’s certainly not the hardest climb, nor the most beautiful, but there are many reasons why Council Crest is such a popular destination: It’s proximity to downtown and inner neighborhoods, it’s quirky history (a streetcar line used to take city folk to an amusement park at the summit), the views from the top, and the wonderful road that wraps around it just to name a few. In the past few years I too have become one of its biggest fans. From my office downtown, I’ve learned several different ways to incorporate it into my weekly riding habit.

Since it’s SW Portland Week, I figured this would be a great excuse to showcase the route and share it with those of you who haven’t checked it out yet.

Learn more and download the route on RideWithGPS.com.

Hop on SW Broadway and head south. You’ll get a glimpse of the protected bike lanes near Portland State University before connecting to SW Terwilliger. That’s one thing I love about this ride. In just a few minutes from the stress of downtown, you can escape into the open road. Terwilliger is far from a quiet country road, but with SW Barbur and I-5 running parallel to it, it tends to have only moderate traffic as it winds through Marquam Nature Park.

Iconic Council Crest-downtown loop-1

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View south toward Lake Oswego.
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SW Terwilliger.

A few miles on Terwilliger and then the real fun starts. Hang a right on SW Westwood Drive and enjoy two miles and about 450 of climbing on cobbled and bumpy narrow roads. Once the climb is done (for now), SW Fairmount Blvd beckons with its smooth curves and million-dollar views around every one of them.

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Sharrow on Westwood climb.
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Watch those bumps and cracks — especially if you have skinny tires.
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Fairmount doing what it does.

You’ll want to leave a little in the tank when you hang a hard right on SW Talbot Terrace and begin the ascent up to Council Crest Park. Wind up to the very top, take a look at the views, and then come careening back down.

Iconic Council Crest-downtown loop-8

Almost there!
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Worth it.

At this point, you could just drop right back into downtown Portland via SW Vista Ave and SW Montgomery. But if I can spare a few more minutes, I like to head north after the summit and make my way onto SW Hewett Blvd. Hewett will drop you out at Sylvan and Highway 26. You’ll have to use sidewalks to get to SW Skyline and you’ll soon be pointed upward again. This section of Skyline is narrow and has relatively high traffic. Fortunately you’ll only be on it for 0.8 miles before turning onto SW Fairview Blvd.

Now the final descent begins. Take Fairview to SW Knights, then hang a hard right onto Kingston. Watch for potholes here and there as you zoom downward through the forest, passing Oregon Zoo habitats, an archery range, and the Rose Garden. Hop onto SW Sherwood and continue your descent and you’ll pop out at a water reservoir. Now you’ve got to watch your route closely to find the secret path that will lead you to W Burnside (I think Zoobombers call this section of path “bobsled”.)

Iconic Council Crest-downtown loop-10

“Secret” path to W Burnside.

Once on Burnside, enjoy a bit of high-traffic, urban riding (it’s fun with the right attitude) and then hang a soft right on the big green lane on SW Stark to complete the loop. This is such a great ride, and with good fitness you can do it in well under two hours.

Check out the route via RideWithGPS.com.

We’ll be here in Southwest all week! And join us Friday afternoon for a BikePortland Get Together and social hour at the Lucky Labrador Public House in Multnomah Village (7675 SW Capitol Hwy) from 4:00 – 6:30pm.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

47 Comments
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    Jeff smith February 10, 2015 at 6:02 pm

    A slightly different version than Jonathan’s, using Montgomery instead of Terwilliger. And while you’re up there take at least one circuit of Fairmount, if only to give yourself a breather.

    Click on Ride #4:
    http://www.portlandoregon.gov/transportation/article/339920

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    Jeff smith February 10, 2015 at 6:21 pm

    And, I was remiss in omitting: great narrative, Jonathan. To my mind there is simply no better close-in Portland ride.

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    caesar February 10, 2015 at 6:34 pm

    I drive up and down W Burnside almost every day. My fellow drivers are (mostly) frothing at the mouth with their tailgating and dangerous passing maneuvers as they jockey for position to be the first to enter the tunnels on the way up or stop at the red light near Zupans on the way down. Absolute madness.

    I ain’t got the cojones to ride a bike on that street.

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      Kyle February 10, 2015 at 7:27 pm

      I used to ride down W Burnside from the “Washington Park light” on to the river on a regular basis – it’s easy to hit 30-40mph on a bike and cruise along taking the lane with traffic. Congestion has gotten a lot worse in the past several months with long backups at the light, however, so I’ve mostly abandoned the route in favour of coming down NW 23rd and Everett or Overton.

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      Alan 1.0 February 11, 2015 at 10:05 am

      No argument about upper Burnside, I’m in about the same boat as you, but you do see that this route only covers Burnside below the 24th Place traffic light, yeah? The speed limit is 25, there are lights every block…it’s normal city riding. There’s even a sidewalk if it came to that (legal to ride carefully down to 13th Ave).

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        caesar February 11, 2015 at 11:18 am

        Yep, I figured that out “on the fly” when I rode the route just now – Burnside was not an issue because I rode down Everett instead. Overall a challenging route on my modified (and heavy) steel MTB, but the view from the top (four volcanos visible) was worth the exertion. Only gripe: no place to take a leak – I was expecting a restroom at the top, but only the dogs are allowed to relieve themselves up there. Can’t wait until my nice road bike arrives to try this one again.

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    Kyle February 10, 2015 at 7:28 pm

    This is one of my favourite rides! I start over here in inner SE and I usually do it in the opposite direction. Sometimes if I haven’t quite gotten my fix I pop up to Mt Tabor at the end for a solid 30-32 mile ride.

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    Tim February 10, 2015 at 9:03 pm

    It’s a great route. Going up (or down) the south side of the hill between Terwilliger and Council Crest, I like to include SW Northwood Ave for a really great view looking east over the city (Northwood and Hessler) and a quarter mile of singletrack through the woods.

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    Eric February 10, 2015 at 9:43 pm

    Did you know in the early 1900’s there used to be an amusement park on Council Crest, and street car used to go up there? Crazy, I know. But, awesome.

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    Scott Kocher February 10, 2015 at 11:06 pm

    Secret Path to W Burnside–uniquely direct, lit, and nonetheless, unmaintained and usually littered with “biobags” – y’know those black net bags of wood chips that gremlins put in bike lanes, walking paths, wherever someone from a different silo (water quality) thinks (right or wrong) they belong. Grr.

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    Spiffy February 11, 2015 at 7:23 am

    any hills while cycling are the bane of my ecosystem…

    of the people I know that like to ride bikes none of them look forward to hills… possibly because none of them ride the racing bikes that are so popular for urban commuting…

    I consider hills to be an obstacle to increased ridership…

    the title of this article made me laugh…

    if most SW cyclists like riding up Council Crest then we’ve got some big obstacles to overcome…

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      wsbob February 11, 2015 at 10:02 am

      Sorry to hear you aren’t able to enjoy climbing hills. For people that don’t like climbing, most likely there’s a variety of reasons they don’, some of which may be possible to easily address. I wouldn’t want to only climb, with no level and downhill terrain to give variety, but climbing can be one of the best experiences of biking.

      Doing it well, is just a nice, rhythmic, consistent turn of the pedals at a rate suited well for each individual. Different muscles are involved than in riding level terrain, so once the person riding has built them up and warmed them up, they can just go and go and go. No wind noise. Listen to the birds singing, something that can’t be done well streaming along at 20 mph and faster.

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      Pete February 11, 2015 at 11:58 am

      Huh. Most of the people I know get up at 5 AM so they can ride hills before going to work.

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      Fred February 11, 2015 at 12:31 pm

      Not all of us ride racing bikes. My bike has a basket on the front where I carry my clothes and lunch for the day as I climb over the hill. I just enjoy the quiet, lack of traffic and the views. It’s a different and more relaxing experience from the days that I ride Terwilliger.

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        wsbob February 12, 2015 at 7:55 am

        “Not all of us ride racing bikes. …” Fred

        I’ve never ridden, for example, a cruiser type bike up a hill like Council Crest, from the valley below. I’m sure it can be done, but bikes with drop bars allowing three or four different hand positions on the bars, and accordingly different positions on the bike, make climbing much more efficient and enjoyable. Drop bars allow getting up off the seat once in awhile, to be much more practical and useful to energy transfer than typically single hand position cruiser bars can be. I think these are some of the ‘secrets’ to having climbing be a good experience.

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      soren February 11, 2015 at 1:10 pm

      Council crest is part of the cycling ecosystem for endorphin-seeking enthusiasts but not so much for the average utility cyclist, IMO.

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        don arambula February 12, 2015 at 7:51 am

        Not only for the strong and fearless. You would be surprised how many commuters ride daily up to Council Crest and beyond. Personally, I ride slowly up and down daily on my commuter bike with full panniers. Nothing better after a stressful work day- pure bliss.

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          soren February 12, 2015 at 11:36 am

          When I ride up to council crest on my way to work I only very rarely see other cyclists. However, when I ride to work via Terwilliger I pass or follow other commuters just about every day. And on the extremely rare occasion that I take the tram to work I often pass *many* cyclists on the moody mup-cycletrack.

          PS: I object to being characterized as “fearless”. I may be a strong but I am hardly fearless.

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      Trikeguy February 11, 2015 at 2:16 pm

      Climbing hills is great, just enjoy the burn and remind yourself: For every climb there is an equal and opposite descent :GRIN:

      I’ve never figured out why people like Kingston and don’t take Fairview all the way down – smooth pavement, curves and fast 🙂

      BTW – if I can haul a 35lb trike with a bunch of extra commuting gear over the hills, no excuses from you 2-wheeled guys!

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        Jeff Smith February 11, 2015 at 3:39 pm

        “I’ve never figured out why people like Kingston and don’t take Fairview all the way down…” – for me, it’s part no sidestreets or driveways (>safety), and part the sylvan surroundings. But yes, the pavement is beat in some sections –

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      abomb February 11, 2015 at 2:37 pm

      Without hills riding would be a huge bore. That’s one reason I live on the westside.

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      Dan M. February 12, 2015 at 10:23 am

      I ride a single speed and I love hills. Your perspective is ****.

      ****Dan, please don’t be mean to other commenters. Everyone’s perspective is valued here. Thanks – Jonathan****

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        El Biciclero February 12, 2015 at 11:42 am

        Which perspective? That hills are a bane, or that if current cyclists all enjoy hills, then we have a bigger-than-imagined barrier to getting new cyclists to try it?

        Both perspectives are valid. Some people like hills, some don’t. For those that don’t (and who would know unless they already ride?), if enjoying hills is a prerequisite to using a bike for transportation, they will opt for other modes, which does indeed create a barrier to increasing the cycling population.

        I ride a cross bike with 10 lbs. of junk in my panniers up over Sylvan/Council Crest-ish just about every day I get to ride to work, but I usually see a bike or two heading to or from the train when I pass through the Sunset TC; hill avoidance?

        I’m glad you are young enough and/or have had your bike fitted well enough to avoid the knee problems that can arise from climbing in a too-high single gear; enjoy the hills!

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    Lynne February 11, 2015 at 7:51 am

    I shall have to hunt for the “secret path”. I cross over Burnside from the north, and ride up the trail. Switchbacks, not lit. Kind of fun, but if there is something more direct and lit…

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      rick February 11, 2015 at 5:35 pm

      The Wildwood trail?

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      Jeff smith February 12, 2015 at 6:30 pm

      I think that is the “secret path” you’re riding on…

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    Dave February 11, 2015 at 8:36 am

    There’s more primo climbs to explore–my own favorite is NW Thompson from Cornell to Skyline. Check it out if you haven’t.

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    Brian February 11, 2015 at 9:10 am

    Love that climb. It makes for a great start to a long ride, and one heck of a beatdown at the end of the de Ronde. When Spring rolls around I will start to incorporate it into my commute home for some additional miles and views. Great post.

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    Rob February 11, 2015 at 10:04 am

    Any news about the Ronde this year?

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      nuovorecord February 11, 2015 at 12:51 pm

      I’m sure it’s officially not happening. Again.

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        Rob February 11, 2015 at 7:14 pm

        Would it be officially not happening on April 4?

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    wsbob February 11, 2015 at 10:16 am

    It’s got the view over the city and the valley below, but despite that, I rarely climb to Council Crest. I love riding Fairmount Blvd, the road that circles the hill atop which CC is located, but the park atop the hill is not compelling.

    Something more interesting should be happening there, than that blah-blah patch of lawn.

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      rick February 11, 2015 at 5:34 pm

      Then plant trees there.

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    Jim Labbe February 11, 2015 at 10:32 am

    Nice piece. Makes me a little nostalgic for SW Portland.

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    Fred February 11, 2015 at 12:26 pm

    For a good butt-kicker, take SW Hall > SW 16th > SW Hawthorne Terrace > SW Ravensview > SW Greenway up to Council Crest. The view at the switch back at SW Hall/SW 16th of downtown at night is awesome!

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    Paul Souders February 11, 2015 at 1:48 pm

    The first time I rode up to Council Crest was on my beater mountain bike. I had to stop twice for water breaks and because I thought maybe I was dying? But I went back a week later and only had to stop once. And then the week after that I rode straight to the top.

    In the intervening 15 years I have become addicted to this hill. (see the link under my name above.) I most often ride up there on my solid-steel commuter/utility bike on the way to or from work, schlepping my laptop + all my work crap. Sometimes with kids in tow.

    Is it a big hill? Yes, you climb about 1000′ from downtown. Is it challenging? For most people, sure. Is it a skeeeery IMPOSSIBLE hill that only wild-eyed adrenaline junkies would like? I dunno, but that’s not me. What it is, is a lovely ride up quiet streets through the trees, with the reward of a view of the city and four volcanoes (on a clear day). If that doesn’t sound like your kind of thing, I can dig it. Climbing is a very specific kind of “fun.”

    But please don’t scare off those who haven’t tried it. A reasonably fit person can ride to Council Crest on any nearly any bike. And the more you do it, the easier it gets.

    “Don’t buy upgrades, ride up grades”

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      soren February 11, 2015 at 5:06 pm

      “A reasonable fit person can ride council crest on nearly any bike.”

      My partner struggles on far more modest climbs and I’m fairly certain that council crest is not and will never be the center of her SW PDX riding ecosystem. If someone wants an athletic challenge then council crest is a nice ride but it’s most definitely not the most accessible or efficient route to SW PDX. The vast majority of people riding from downtown to Hillsdale would be much, much happier starting out on Terwilliger than Vista or Broadway.

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        rick February 11, 2015 at 5:33 pm

        Terwilliger sometimes has speeding diesels driving there, though.

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          soren February 12, 2015 at 8:19 am

          Terwilliger also has a shared bike/ped facility.

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        wsbob February 12, 2015 at 8:09 am

        Terwilliger is good for biking, though as I’ve said elsewhere, character of motor vehicle use on that road diminishes what it otherwise could be. If it wasn’t for intense OHSU related traffic, it’s possible the situation on this road would be far better for biking and general touring and sightseeing.

        Not sure what could be done to improve conditions on the road while still living with the OHSU traffic, but the city should be making more efforts in that direction. Views over the city from this road make it perhaps ‘the’ scenic route into the city. It’s a shame to allow excessive motor vehicle use to reduce it to a stress filled utility road up to the hospitals.

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    danny February 11, 2015 at 2:06 pm

    On the Ronde a couple of years ago I saw a guy nearing the Council Crest summit riding a cargo bike with an amazing Thomas the Tank Engine front end and two kids as his “engineers.” It was awesome. Proof indeed that any reasonably fit person can get to the top.

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    rachel b February 11, 2015 at 2:27 pm

    I ride to Council Crest on a tank of a commuter bike, and while I wouldn’t say I LIKE going up up up uphill, I do like the challenge. 🙂 Thanks for the route tips, JM–very handy!

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    Allison February 11, 2015 at 3:17 pm

    I do this ride a lot–it’s close and one of my favorites. But I’ve found instead of going back up that stretch of Skyline to SW Fairview, I cut up the sidewalk at the Sylvan Zoo House and Starbucks to the path which drops you onto Canyon Ct along 26. You can take this to the Zoo but I prefer the steeper, but pretty and quieter, SW Highland Rd. It takes you straight to Fairview and you probably won’t see a single car on that stretch.

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      rick February 11, 2015 at 5:32 pm

      I’ve noticed an increase of bikes on the path by U.S. 26 lately.

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    Ricky J. February 11, 2015 at 5:22 pm

    Going up to council crest can be quite difficult if you start the climb by following the lions up college. Some urban riders enjoy climbing and ride metal bikes

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    rick February 11, 2015 at 5:31 pm

    SW Trails is one the reasons why SW Seymour Street has active transportation access.

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    John T. August 23, 2015 at 3:07 pm

    Thinking about doing the Lucky Lab Big Dog ride which includes the Council Crest rout. I ride about 100 miles a week which includes rolling hills but only a few short, steep climbs. Riding a steel road bike with a compact drive. 40 lbs overweight. Average speed 15mph on 40 mile rides. Should I do the Big Dog? Thanks!

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