Hike of the Month: Oxbow Loop

Explore 12 miles of trails through towering old-growth forest and the glacier-fed Sandy River just minutes from Portland.

By Isabel Lemus Kristensen February 14, 2023

Oxbow Regional Park sits along the Sandy River near Troutdale, Oregon.

In the late 18th-century, Mount Hood’s decade-long “Old Maid” eruptive period transported large flows of volcanic ash and sand down its slopes, transforming what is now Oxbow Regional Park. Today, those visiting the 1,000-acre park are literally walking on top of a buried forest.

Oxbow sits along the banks of the Sandy River—which was designated a National Wild and Scenic River in 1988—where Chinook salmon return to spawn after swimming upstream through the Columbia River from the Pacific Ocean. Sacred to the Indigenous people of the Columbia River basin, salmon are celebrated each fall at Oxbow during a two-day “Salmon Homecoming” festival as they return to their ancestral spawning grounds.  

In the colder months, fishers stand thigh-deep in the river in pursuit of winter steelhead. While hiking along the riverside trail, I rarely encountered another person. But I did spot a number of fishers braving the frigid waters in early February.

Besides fishing, the park is also a popular spot for swimming or floating through the river’s rapids during the summertime, hiking up to 12 miles of trails, and watching diverse wildlife, including beavers, bald eagles, osprey, and Roosevelt elk.

I started my hike at trail marker “C” by the Happy Creek trailhead, a little past the visitor center. Because there is no cell service at the park, I recommend downloading the park map before you visit, or take a photo of the map by the visitor center or Happy Creek. Except for periodic lettered markers at trail junctions, there is no signage once you start hiking, making it confusing to navigate at times. Perhaps you can think of it as an opportunity to choose your own adventure and make your own loop—I sure did!

The Oxbow Loop Hike traverses a total of 7.9 miles, winding through towering old-growth forest, past a bend in the river like the U-shaped wooden oxbow used on oxen—from where the park gets its name—and the Elk Meadow, where it’s possible you might spot elk, but I’ve heard it’s more likely that you’ll discover black-tailed deer. I regrettably did not see either.

Oxbow's hiking trails pass through lush old-growth forest.

I hiked a 4.2-mile loop—first crossing a footbridge at Happy Creek—along the Sandy River and through 700-year-old trees in the park’s “Ancient Forest” area. When I reached the boat launch, the trail broke off abruptly. At this point it was helpful to refer to the park map to find where the trail resumes. I ended up hiking through the campground (which is open year-round!) and down the road before rejoining the trail at marker “F.” I meandered along the Ancient Forest trail and exited at marker “D.”

It rained the day before, and cold mist hung over the park for most of my hike, so I made sure to layer appropriately and wear a pair of sturdy boots. That said, the trails are gently graded, very well-maintained, and not too muddy at the park, which is managed by Metro regional government. I even discovered plenty of side trails down to the beach, including one with a slightly faded interpretive sign about the life cycle of salmon. Did you know Chinook in the Sandy can weight up to 40 pounds? Though, historically, they have been reported to grow much larger, according to the sign.

Oxbow offers a glimpse of the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest—and it’s only a 30-minute drive from downtown Portland. Sheltered by the forest and the rushing river—not to mention a lack of cell service—I found I was able to disconnect from the hustle and bustle of the city and take a moment to breath in the fresh air, while occasionally reconnecting with my phone to consult the park map.

Drive time: About 30 minutes from Portland // Distance: 7.9 miles // Difficulty: Easy // Type: Loop // Fee: $5 day-use pass or $40 annual Metro parks parking pass (Watch for free days at Metro parks: for 2023 parking is free on Jan 1, 16 & 19; Feb 16 and 20; March 16; April 20; May 18; June 15 & 19; July 20; Aug 17; Sept 21; Oct 9 & 19; Nov 11, 16 & 24; and Dec 15.)