With so many people hopping on bikes these days, there’s a growing demand for fun and safe places to ride them. This is the first of a series of mini-guides that will introduce (or re-introduce) you to some of Portland’s best cycling destinations.
Swan Island. Sounds dreamy doesn’t it? Almost tropical. This little patch of land just two miles (as a crow flies) from the trendy shops on Northwest 23rd Avenue, is a study in contrasts: Beautiful natural sights next to behemoth industrial buildings; quiet, carfree bike paths next to loud highways full of huge trucks.
But don’t let that scare you! While Swan Island is woefully disconnected from our cycling route network and will never reach its potential until we build more safe cycling infrastructure, I still recommend putting it on your ride rotation — even if you have young kids in tow.
Read on for our bike-centric mini-guide to Swan Island.
What it is
Swan Island is part of the Overlook Neighborhood and sits along the Willamette River about 1.5 miles north of the Fremont Bridge. It was connected to the east bank of the river in the 1920s and was Portland’s first airport. Fun fact: Aviation legend Charles Lindbergh spoke at the airport’s opening and the main beach is named after him. Post-airport, Swan Island was converted into shipbuilding yards in the 1940s and has been a major hub of industrial businesses ever since. Among them are the national headquarters of Daimler Trucks North America and Vigor Industrial, whose employees use a fleet of cool cruisers and work bikes to get around their sprawling campus.
Swan Island used to be home to one of the region’s Transportation Management Associations (TMA), a state-sanctioned nonprofit tasked with boosting biking, walking and transit. Similar to TMAs in Lloyd and Washington County it had dedicated staff that advocated for safer infrastructure. Unfortunately funding dried up in 2015 or so and it’s no longer in service.
Swan Island could play a key role in the future North Portland Greenway path that’s been in development since 2006. Once completed the path will connect the Eastbank Esplanade to Cathedral Park in St. Johns along the Willamette River.
Where it is and how to get there
If you look at a Google map of Portland and turn on the “Bicycling” layer you’ll see a tantalizing strip of dark green lines that denote “trails” along Swan Island’s southern shore. That path (I prefer the word “path” over “trail”) affords beautiful views of the downtown skyline, Forest Park and the river.
Unfortunately Swan Island is completely cut off from the rest of our cycling network. It’s an island on an island.
The other big problem: North Going Street.
You probably know Going Street as the dreamy neighborhood greenway that runs through the Alberta and Cully neighborhoods. This is not that Going. Between I-5 and Swan Island, Going is a no-going zone for bike riders. It’s five wide lanes full of big trucks and fast drivers. Before you even think of exploring Swan Island you need to open up a map and know what you’re dealing with (it pains me to have to write that).
Swan Island has three access points, and only two of them are actually legit and legal.
From the north, you can get down there from Willamette Boulevard near University of Portland via the Waud Bluff Trail. Opened in 2013, this path isn’t much to get excited about from a cycling perspective. Yes it provides access to Swan Island, but it does so with a steep path and a big flight of stairs that you have to walk your bike down. That makes it very tough and/or unusable for people with disabilities and people with cargo bikes or trailers.
The Waud Bluff Trail dumps you onto North Basin Avenue which has no bike lane. From the end of the path you need to ride 1.5 miles south to the intersection with Going. Cross over onto Port Center Way and just past the McDonald’s you’ll find the entrance to the riverfront path on your right.
Our recommended route to Swan Island (see map above) is via the wide sidewalk along Going Street. You can get on this sidewalk from Interstate Avenue or via the North Concord neighborhood greenway. If coming from Concord, it’s only accessible on the north side of Going and you have to find the hidden little break in the soundwall just beyond the ramp up to the overpass.
Once on the sidewalk, your first challenge is to cross the ramp to North Greeley Avenue. Once safely across that, your next mission is to get across the slip-lane to Basin Avenue and use the signals to cross Going and head south on Port Center Way. Just past the McDonald’s you’ll find the entrance to the riverfront path on your right.
Then there’s the fabled “Cement Road” which offers access to Swan Island from the south. This road is patrolled and owned the railroads and Ash Grove Cement and is technically off-limits. However, many brave souls feel the sometimes harsh treatment of private security guards and rail tracks is worth it. There have been off-and-on talks over the years to formalize and improve public access on this road but it hasn’t happened yet.
Of these three options I prefer Going Street. Keep in mind that Swan Island is pretty quiet and dead on the weekends, so traffic hazards are greatly reduced.
You made it!
Once you get on the path, it’s quite nice. From end-to-end it’s about a mile long. For most of its length you’re right along a beautiful beach full of driftwood and nooks to explore. The northern end is right on the Daimler campus and there are several places to stop and have a picnic or just hang out and appreciate the trees and quiet.
Our friend Becky Jo took her kids there recently and posted about it on the Forums: “The beach is similar to Cathedral Park or Pier Park beach… fishy, a little trashy, industrial views of Port of Portland to Gunderson Marine, but we caught a skink and saw a dragonfly emerge from juvenile to adult, and there’s some real rabbits complete with fake coyote on the Daimler lawn.”
I was just down there a few weekends ago with my nine-year-old and we also had fun climbing on logs, exploring the beach, and taking our time on the path. We saw a few people living in beachfront tent homes, but they just kept to themselves and didn’t mind us hanging out nearby. If you head down there, see if you can spot the three coyotes that live on the Daimler campus.
If you have tips to share about biking to/on Swan Island, please share them in the comments. And stay tuned for more guides to local biking destinations.
View our recommended route to Swan Island via Ride With GPS.
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and firstname.lastname@example.org
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