Portland’s Washington Park: International Rose Test Garden


Upon arriving in Portland, I was determined not to start this trip as I do most others, by cramming too much into a day already filled with hours of flying.  I decided I would immediately head out of town and out to Cannon Beach, then spend the remaining hours lounging on the rocky beach, absorbing a beautiful sunset, then driving back to the city.  On the way out, however, I was sidetracked by one of Portland’s most beautiful attractions, Washington Park, and its unique centerpiece, the International Rose Test Garden.


You can drive to Washington Park from downtown Portland, but it will involve navigating one city street after another (SW Salmon to SW King to SW Park).  An easier way to access the park is to hop onto US 26 westbound, head through the tunnel, then take the Zoo exit.  Or, you can make use of the city’s excellent commuter rail service.  The Washington Park station is the deepest underground subway station in North America.

My Visit

Before stepping foot in the International Rose Test Garden, I assumed roses came in just a few flavors: red, pink, white, and maybe yellow (but only in Texas).  What a shock!  There arehundreds of different kinds of roses growing here, in the most amazing array of colors–some striped with several different colors.

Walking through the colorful rows of roses isn’t just a sensory delight for your eyes.  Your nose will also know it’s in a remarkable place.  Imagine the aroma from several thousand separate plants all blending together in the fresh northwest air.  It’s the kind of experience that would be impossible to recreate.

According to the City of Portland’s website, there are more than 6,800 rose bushes growing in the International Rose Test Garden, representing 557 varieties. 

Even someone with very little formal appreciation of buds and blooms (like me) will end up examining one plant after another, up close.  The variety goes far beyond color.  Some roses barely have an aroma, while others are almost sickeningly sweet.  I found a few that offered the perfect balance.  The blooms also vary widely: some have just a few petals, others are tightly wound.  And yes, a few looked exactly like the ones you’d find on your grandmother’s birthday cake.

The International Rose Test Garden is divided into several smaller gardens, stretching in tiers down the side of the hill.  Some areas spotlight new varieties, while others focus on award-winning types, miniatures, and those honored with Shakespearian names.

Most remarkably, the International Rose Test Garden overlooks the Rose City, Portland.  The view is somewhat obstructed these days, by trees that have gained enough height to block the view.  It’s still a nice reminder, though, that you’re so near the heart of a bustling city, and yet so far away.

Portland is known as the “City of Roses” thanks to an effort (started around the turn of the 20th century) to line its streets with rose bushes.  The beautification plan was designed to draw attention to the city’s Lewis and Clark centennial celebration.

Just a short walk from the International Rose Test Garden is Portland’s Japanese Garden.  I didn’t have enough time to visit on the first day of my trip, and on the final day, when I returned, it had already closed.  I was also a little disappointed that it charges a fairly hefty admission ($8 for adults).  Pictures I’ve seen show that it’s quite beautiful, though, so you can visit its website and judge for yourself.

I re-visited the International Rose Test Garden in 2011, so check out that page, too!

Note: This trip was first published in 2006.  Much of the same area was covered in the Big Sky trip in 2014.

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