Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Graham Oaks Nature Park (Part 1): Restoring Oak Woodlands in Wilsonville

Just outside the city limits of Wilsonville (the southernmost suburb of Portland) and only one and a half miles from busy Interstate 5, you can find 250 acres of beautiful open space to explore in relative solitude.  Graham Oaks Nature Park is an effort to restore a piece of our native oak woodlands.  The park features three miles of trails through several types of habitat - in addition to oak woodland - including savanna, conifer forest and wetland areas.

Graham Oaks is the newest natural area purchased and restored by Metro using funds from two voter-approved bond measures.  The park facilities utilize many sustainable materials and practices and look very similar to the facilities at some of Metro's other parks, like Cooper Mountain in Beaverton, and Mount Talbert in Clackamas.  Lots of great interpretive signs as well as nature-themed art installations enrich the outdoor experience.  

One of the first signs you'll see as you approach the park's Gateway Plaza will be of particular interest to all the dog owners out there.  Because of the sensitive habitats and ongoing restoration, canine friends are only allowed limited access - if any - to all of Metro's nature parks.  Dogs are allowed on the central, paved trail at Graham Oaks, but to fully enjoy this park and all it has to offer, you'll probably want to leave your four-legged buddy at home.

You can read all about the park's features, history, and other specific information on Metro's website, but right now, come along as I retrace my first exploration of the park through the photos below. 

Entrance to Gateway Plaza
Leaving the small-ish parking lot and heading in to Gateway Plaza, you'll pass storm water swales neatly planted with native species, beautiful rock walls made from Columbia River basaslt, and a picnic shelter with an ecoroof.

Pacific Madrone near Gateway Plaza
Although the park is attempting to restore the oak woodlands, you'll immediately see that they've planted a wide variety of native trees, shrubs, grasses and other plants.  I saw one of my favorite NW trees right away, the Pacific Madrone.

Watch for details like these "animal tracks" in the cement walkway.

Arriving at Gateway Plaza, you find yourself surrounded by a trellis made from sustainably harvested wood, highlighted by recycled metal artwork. 

The many informative signs here tell all about the park's history, the effort to restore the land to a natural state, and the wildlife that's expected to benefit.

From Gateway Plaza, the paved trail leads to Acorn Plaza, which boasts one very large acorn.

I mentioned before that Metro has planted more than just oak trees here in the park.  In fact, they've planted over 150,000 native trees and shrubs of many kinds, as well as more than a hundred million wildflower and grass seeds.  As you leave Acorn Plaza and enter the more open, natural areas of the park, you'll begin to see some of these young plants growing in little groupings throughout the grassland.  Some of the non-oak plant species I noticed were Ponderosa Pine, Western Red Cedar, Grand fir, Douglas fir, Oregon Grape, Snowberry, and - I believe - Black Gooseberry (Ribes lacustre)I'm sure there are many others, too.  Which ones have you seen at Graham Oaks?
Mount Hood and the Elder Oak

From most of the open area in the park, you can see the park's crown jewel - the Elder Oak.  Estimated to be between 150 and 200 years old, the tree is surrounded by a low fence to protect the soil and roots.  Benches provide a great spot to take a break, and listen to the quiet wisdom the Elder has to offer. 

The route I took lead me into the conifer forest before circling around to the ancient oak.  This is the Legacy Creek Trail as it enters the woods.

Legacy Creek overlook

Legacy Creek is one of 5 creeks that run through (or from) the property.  In the 1950's there was an effort to drain the wetlands on the site, by installing a pipe to divert the water.  The restoration has restored some of the natural flow and once again expanded the wetland.

Judging from how lush the understory is in this section of forest, you would think that the area had been spared the invasion of English ivy by which so many of our parks are threatened.  It turns out that this forest was in fact once choked by that fiendish plant, but a six-year effort by volunteers has really paid off.  I haven't seen a more complete recovery anywhere in the Portland area.  The forest floor is thick with native plants like sword fern, Oregon grape, Indian Plum and many others.

Coming up in Part 2 of this post, we get back out in the open savanna to see a few birds - including a raptor.  Also, a wetland bird blind that will do more to help the fledgling bird enthusiast than just hiding them from the birds.  Be sure to read on for that and more!

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