The Complete Guide to Portland Gardens

The complete guide to Portland gardens | The International Test Rose Garden

Little known fact is that Portland is home to spectacular gardens. The wet springs and mild climate are the perfect conditions to create stunning Spring color and lush green landscapes. The abundance of rain makes plants absolutely thrive here.

I have created the complete guide to Portland gardens to inspire you to find a little piece of paradise near you.

I’ll introduce you to 6 unique Portland gardens:

  • Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden
  • Portland Japanese Garden
  • International Test Rose Garden
  • Lan Su Chinese Garden
  • The Grotto
  • Leach Botanical Garden

I’ll also tell you where to find the bathrooms. Seems strange, I know, but inevitably someone has to use the bathroom. Especially if you have kids with you, and they’re not always easy to find when it’s urgent.

Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden

5801 SE 28th Avenue (map)

This spectacular Portland garden houses more than 25,000 rhododendrons, azaleas, and companion plants around Crystal Springs Lake. The lake and lush landscape attract many species of birds and waterfowl, which parade babies through the lake during the Spring blooming season.

Portland Gardens | Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden

Best Time to Visit

Blooming season is from mid-March through May and this is when the garden is most beautiful. Over the 7 acres, rare and hybrid rhododendrons and azaleas splash color across the landscape. You’ll stroll over two bridges and past three waterfalls as you meander through this vibrant and tranquil garden. It’s hard to imagine that you’re only minutes from downtown Portland.

To avoid the crowds during the blooming season, go in the morning. Not only is this the most beautiful time of day, you don’t have to pay an entrance fee before 10:00 am. Though at only $5.00, it’s not the primary reason to go early.


The wildlife activity is highest in the morning. This is when I’ve seen Blue Heron wading through the lake, bald eagles in the sky, and the most ducks swimming and calling to their ducklings. It’s not uncommon to see an Autobahn Society booth set up in the garden. The volunteers love to tell you about the birds that visit the garden.

Portland Gardens | Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden Wildlife

Kids love the wildlife and enjoy exploring the trails that meander through the garden. The trails lead through areas of the garden that take you close to waterfalls, across the lake, and through a forest of the largest rhododendrons I’ve ever seen. The canopy of leaves and flowers with an understory of unique hostas and ferns make it a wondrous experience.

The Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden is a beautiful example of what makes the Northwest unique. It is a must see, especially during the blooming season.

The Complete Guide to Portland Gardens | Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden

Bathrooms – There are three portable toilets in the parking lot. Do not use these! So gross. At the back of the garden, a little past the event hall, you’ll find a real bathroom.

Portland Japanese Garden

611 SW Kingston Ave, Portland (map)

Once you step into the Portland Japanese Garden, all your worries and stresses melt away. Nobuo Matsunaga, the former Ambassador of Japan, proclaimed it to be “the most beautiful and authentic Japanese garden in the world outside of Japan.”

Nestled in the West Hills, the 12-acre garden encompasses 8 distinct garden styles. After purchasing tickets, you’ll begin to see the beauty of the garden on the moderately steep climb up to the entrance gate. Shuttles are provided for those who want to avoid the climb.

Tour of the Gardens

At the top of the hill, you’ll enter into the Tateuchi Courtyard. Here you’ll find the cultural village and the bonsai terrace. The bonsai terrace is a beautiful display of love and patience. Some trees are over 100 years old. Imagine the dedication it takes to sculpt and care for these trees over a generation.

The Complete Guide to Portland Gardens | Portland Japanese Garden Bonsai Terrace

I’m amazed by how perfect the garden looks, in every season. The Flat Garden is a lake of raked white rocks surrounded by perfectly sculpted shrubs and trees. There is a stillness that invites you to sit down and soak in the beauty.

The Flat Garden is meant to be viewed from inside the Pavilion, framed by the sliding shoji doors. Be sure to see it from this vantage point.

The Complete Guide to Portland Gardens | Portland Japanese Garden Flat Garden

Continue to the largest garden, the Strolling Pond Garden. The plants are naturally shaped in this garden and they gracefully hang over the ponds and stream. A waterfall cascades over beautifully sculpted rocks and into a koi-filled pond.

I have never seen larger, more colorful koi. Follow the elevated wooden path and you’ll find these amazing fish near the surface of the water. Coen loves to watch the fish swim to the surface and open their large mouths.

Before leaving the Strolling Pond you’ll pass the moss-covered Tea Garden. It holds an authentic Japanese tea house that is used in traditional tea ceremonies.

The practice of tea ceremony is referred to as chadō: the Way of Tea. Tea is not just a drink, it’s an aesthetic, a spiritual practice, a mindset, a way of living. To me, this tea house is a reminder to slow down and appreciate the important things in life.

The Complete Guide to Portland Gardens | Portland Japanese Garden Natural Garden

I find a place of peace every time I visit. This is a reason I love the Japanese Garden. Everyone seems to feel the soothing energies radiating throughout the garden.

Best Time to Visit

Spring and Fall are my favorite times to visit the garden. Spring brings beautiful color from the azaleas and rhododendrons and the new green leaves are a beautiful contrast to the dark conifers.

In the Fall, the maple leaves turn magnificent reds and oranges that light up the landscape.

The Complete Guide to Portland Gardens | Portland Japanese Garden

Bathrooms – There are two to choose from. One is in the first building you see once you enter the garden. The other is to the right once you walk through the second gate, into the main gardens. For a mini experience, use the first one. It has a futuristic, nightclub feel with LED toilets and black tile walls.

International Rose Test Garden

400 SW Kingston Ave, Portland (map)

The complete guide to Portland gardens | The International Test Rose Garden

Roses have a deep history in Portland. In 1888, Georgiana Pittock was instrumental in founding the first American Rose Society in Portland. In 1907, the city officially adopted the nickname “The City of Roses” and the annual Portland Rose Festival was born.

The Rose Garden was established in 1917 and began receiving hybrid roses from Europe to be kept safe during World War I.

Best Time to Visit

Summer brings a symphony of color from 10,000 rose bushes that neatly line 4.5 acres of Washington Park. Fragrant, formal terraces overlook downtown, the Cascades, and Mt. Hood. This garden is truly spectacular when the roses are blooming. And this is coming from someone who doesn’t much care for roses.

The complete guide to Portland gardens | The International Test Rose Garden

This Portland garden is free to the public and wildly popular in the summer months. Parking is difficult at this time, so consider taking public transportation. There’s a seasonal free shuttle that runs from the Max stop, through Washington Park.

The complete guide to Portland gardens | The International Test Rose Garden

Roses are tested in the garden for two years before determining whether they should be sold to the public. The roses labeled with a number instead of a name are the varieties being tested and every year a winner is chosen by an official judge. The winning rose is then planted in the Gold Award Garden, below the Beach Memorial Fountain.

The Rose Garden is across the street from Portland Japanese Garden, so be sure to visit both. Also, two of my top 4 places for kids in Portland are nearby, so make a day of it.

Bathrooms – If you’re facing downtown, go to your right. It’s street level, just past the gift shop.

Bonus rose garden: Peninsula Park. In North Portland (map), this rose garden is older than the International Rose Test Garden by four years.

Lan Su Chinese Garden

239 NW Everett St, Portland (map)

The intimate beauty of Lan Su is a refreshing break from the bustle of downtown Portland. The walled-off garden encompasses a city block in Old Town Chinatown and is home to stunning architecture, a serene lake, and peaceful paths that wander through gardens and pavilions.

The Complete Guide to Portland Gardens | Lan Su Chinese Garden

The intricate details of the carved wood doors and window and the gracefully curved rooflines create a spectacular garden that transports you a million miles away to another time and place.

The Complete Guide to Portland Gardens | Lan Su Chinese Garden

Lan Su replicates the garden style of the wealthy during the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644). The goal of the classical Chinese garden is not to mimic nature but to create an idealized miniature landscape with water, rocks, trees, and plants. The gardens are carefully built to be viewed as you move through it, allowing only portions of the garden to be viewed at one time.

The Complete Guide to Portland Gardens | Lan Su Chinese Garden

Lan Su was constructed after city officials visited Suzhou, China, Portland’s sister city. They admired the gardens and spend the next 15 years planning and fundraising. In 1999, 65 craftspeople from Suzhou traveled to Portland and built the garden. The detailed architecture was crafted in China and shipped to Portland, along with 500 tons of specially selected rock.

Best Time to Visit

Spring at Lan Su brings flowers and new growth, which are beautiful. But because the architecture is as beautiful as the garden, it is worth visiting any time of the year.

When you visit Lan Su, be sure to take the free 45 minute guided tour. You’ll learn about the garden, the significance of the design features, and its history.

Bathrooms – You’ll find them in the tea house and at the entrance of the garden.

The Grotto

8840 NE Skidmore St, Portland (map)

The Grotto is a national Catholic shrine dedicated to Mary, Our Sorrowful Mother. The 62-acre garden provides a welcoming presence with its fir trees, colorful rhododendrons, and native plants.

The complete guide to Portland Gardens | The Grotto's Red Chapel

The garden is split into two sections, the plaza level, which is where you enter the garden, and the upper level. At the plaza level, you’ll find the Chapel of Mary and the Grotto cave. The Chapel was built in 1955 with local stone. Marble walls and sandstone floors adorn the interior, making it a beautiful space.

The Grotto cave is carved out of the cliffside and holds a replica of Michelangelo’s statue of the Virgin Mary. Service is held here when weather permits.

The complete guide to Portland Gardens | The Grotto's Red Chapel

The largest part of the garden is on the upper level, which is only accessible by an elevator to the top of the 110-foot cliff. Buy a token at the Visitor’s Center to ride the elevator. You don’t want to miss this opportunity.

The view from the top is magnificent. Before exploring the gardens, step into the Rose Moyer Chapel, where you’ll find a panoramic view of the Columbia River and Mt. St. Helens. It’s rumored that Mt. Rainier is visible on a clear day. One day I might be lucky enough to see it.

As you continue into the garden you’ll find shrines and statues with a backdrop of lush green trees, plants, and flowers. A rose garden sits in front of the Monastery, which was built with local stone in 1936.

The complete guide to Portland Gardens | The Grotto Monestary

Every year, the Grotto hosts the Christmas Festival of Lights. Beginning the day after Thanksgiving through December 30, the festival features more than 170 holiday concerts performed by many of the region’s school, church, and civic choirs.  It’s the largest Christmas choral festival in the world.

The landscape glows with thousands of colorful lights and they host a festive petting zoo, often with a camel.

The complete guide to Portland Gardens | The Grotto Christmas Festival of Lights

Best Time to Visit

The Christmas Festival is worth a trip in the Winter. For the highest likelihood of a spectacular view from the top, visit in the early summer when the sky is often free of dense clouds and wildfire smoke hasn’t cast a haze to the sky.

You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the Grotto. It’s a unique and welcoming garden.

Bathrooms – In the visitor’s center

Leach Botanical Garden

6704 SE 122nd Ave, Portland (map)

Leach Botanical Garden is a charming public garden in the outer reaches of Southeast Portland. Aside from the beautiful landscape, you’ll find a stone cottage that is straight out of the pages of a fairy tale, and the former home of John and Lilla Leach.

The 1930s house sits above Johnson Creek and now hosts weddings and events. You can walk through the lower level of the house and admire the architecture and views from the large windows.

The complete guide to Portland gardens. Leach Botanical Garden

In the house, you’ll be greeted by a friendly volunteer who will tell you about the history of the house, the land, and the Leach family. At the desk, they have a laminated scavenger hunt book and if you have kids with you, definitely borrow it. It is a lot of fun the follow the confusing directions and learn about special items throughout the garden.

The scavenger hunt took us down stone steps and across the creek to the small stone cottage that the John and Lilla lived in while their house was being built. It’s rare to see stone cottages in this part of the country, so it’s fascinating to see one up close. Some of the stones are petrified wood, so look closely and see if you can find it.

The complete guide to Portland gardens. Leach Botanical Garden stone cottage

The exterior is fascinating but I really wanted to see the inside. The cottage is opened every once in a while, but it was closed when we were there. I could only see a little while precariously peeking through the window. They post days that it will be open on their website.

If you have kids with you, be sure to hunt for the elusive blue dinosaur. I’m not going to tell you where it is, that would ruin the fun!

The complete guide to Portland gardens | The International Test Rose Garden

Best Time to Visit

Spring flowers hang gracefully from many of the plants and trees. Fall brings vibrant color from the changing leaves.

Bathrooms – Two locations: In the main house and in the Children’s Discovery Garden.

The complete guide to Portland gardens | The International Test Rose Garden

With so many Portland gardens, it’s hard to choose which to visit. My top two are the Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden and the Portland Japanese Garden.

The Rhody garden is stunning with its flowers and wildlife, and isn’t as popular with tourists, so the crowds are minimal. Except on Mother’s Day. I made that mistake (twice).

The Japanese garden is beautiful any time of the year. Fall is my favorite season to visit. Splashes of vibrant red and yellow leaves glow against the dark pine trees.

Do you need more Springtime flower joy? Then be sure to plan a visit to the Wooden Shoe Tulip Festival.

What is your favorite garden? Is there one you’ve been wanting to visit? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

You Might Also Like

No Comments

Leave a Reply