With the majority of weddings I had scheduled through July postponing, this spring has been a whole lot more quiet than usual. That said, it’s been really fun knocking out some (safe and socially distanced) engagement sessions during this time. Engagement sessions are one of my favorite parts of the whole experience I create for couples, and I’ve been reminiscing on some of my all time favorite locations near the Portland area.
This post was incredibly hard to write, because we’re blessed with myriad gorgeous areas here in the PNW, and particularly in Oregon. However, I limited myself to spots within a few hours of Portland that I’ve already done photo shoots at (not just hiked) to help narrow things down. Also, I reserve the right to create a V2.0 of this at some point in the future, as I’ve got a long list of locations I’ll be shooting at the next few months, and even more that I hope to shoot over the course of the next year or so.
So, here we go! Version 1.0 of my top 10 favorite locations for engagement photo shoots in the Portland area!
1. Cathedral Park – St. John’s neighborhood, N Portland
Cathedral Park is located in North Portland, just across the Willamette River from NW Portland and several trailheads for Forest Park. I love this location for a number of reasons, including the fact that it’s a great spot to get a mix of greenery and urban feels. From the deeply satisfying symmetrical columns of the St. John’s Bridge, to big open grassy areas, to cozy shaded patches under trees and rhododendron bushes, there’s so much to choose from. There’s even a very small beach area where you can get a few images with the water, if you really want (though I do *not* recommend getting in the water here). Overall, Cathedral Park has a lot of variety for backdrops, and when in doubt, you can never fail with some shots under the bridge in the alcove at the uppermost part of the park. Just watch out for events – there’s often weddings, small concerts, and other events happening at this location.
There’s also the option of walking or driving just a little further up the hill from the park to downtown St. John’s, which has some decently cute streets and buildings, including the St. John’s Twin Cinemas. Or, take a quick jaunt over the bridge for quick and easy access to Forest Park trails.
Feel: Park/garden + urban
Notable Features: St. John’s Bridge, willow trees, rhododendrons, Willamette River, close to downtown St. John’s and Forest Park.
Parking: One small lot + street. Free in most places.
Accessibility: Sidewalks all around, some steep inclines, some staircases.
Hiking difficulty: N/A
2. Hoyt Arboretum – SW Portland
The Hoyt Arboretum is located just west of downtown Portland (about ten minutes from the waterfront) and is an excellent option for a forest feel without having to go far from the city. This is probably the most popular request I get for engagement photos, and there’s good reason for it. Hoyt Arboretum is home to 12 miles of hiking trails and almost 200 acres of trees and shrubs. There are over 2,000 tree and shrub species, from spruce to magnolia to bamboo. There’s also a few beautiful structures, including the well-known Redwood Observation Deck and Stevens Pavilion Picnic Shelter. I love that Hoyt has something for everyone, whether a couple wants to make a few hours of it and hike a few trails, or stick to a closer area to minimize walking distance. Everywhere you turn at this spot, there’s something gorgeous to view and capture.
Feel: Forest + garden
Notable Features: 12 miles of trails, Redwood Deck, Stevens Pavilion, so many trees!
Parking: Multiple parking lots as it’s part of Washington Park. I always use the one specific to the Arboretum on Fairview Blvd. Cost is $2/hour or $8/day.
Accessibility: Trails are mostly unpaved, with some staircases in spots.
Hiking difficulty: Easy. Not technical at all and very few steep inclines.
3. Short Sand Beach – Northern Oregon Coast
Short Sand Beach (or “Short Sands”) is a popular surfing location on the Oregon Coast, south of Cannon Beach near Manzanita. It’s about 1.5 hours from Portland proper, and the drive is well worth it. I friggin’ love this spot. To be fair, the entire Oregon Coast is chock full of beautiful beaches, but this one is something special. For one, walking to the beach from the main parking lot takes you through a small forest, which means we get more bang for our buck in terms of location variety. Torn on whether you want trees and rivers over sand and ocean? This place has both! Plus, once you’re on the beach, with a bit of walking you’ll get access to a waterfall and caves. Doesn’t get much better than that.
Feel: Ocean + little bit of forest
Notable Features: Wide open sandy beaches, waterfall, caves.
Parking: Lot available, but be warned: it gets busy in the summer. No parking pass required.
Accessibility: Trail from parking lot is paved. Beach access is mostly flat.
Hiking difficulty: Easy. If you want to get to the waterfall and/or cave areas, you’ll need to do a decent bit of walking though. Note tides as well; access to some areas may be limited depending on tide levels.
This one’s a new discovery, and if I had written this blog post just a few days earlier, it wouldn’t have been on this list. But omg, y’all, after this session with these two beautiful people and their doggo, Seaside is one of my new favorite spots on the coast.
I’m most familiar with the north end of the Promenade and Seltzer Park at this location. But I know the rest of the beach is also stunning, and it’s 100% worth the 1.5 hour drive from Portland. Seaside beach gave us beautiful beach grasses and dunes, which you can’t beat at sunrise (or sunset). At low tide, you’ll get magnificent reflective areas close to the water, and the area is so large, that I found it was very easy to keep our distance from other visitors. In the summertime, Seaside definitely picks up in traffic, so if you’re looking for fewer crowds, your best bet is likely going to be early morning/sunrise, or the off season.
Just a quick 5 minute drive from the main Seaside beach is Seltzer Park, or The Cove. This spot attracts some surfers and has a much more rocky beach feel. You’ll have to time it with the tides here; low tide is pretty much a must, as the beach becomes pretty inaccessible at high tide. There are a few small tide pools, and barnacles, seaweed, and other critters. It’s a wonderful way to mix things up a little bit without having to go far from Seaside itself and still maintaining the ocean backdrop.
Another bonus of this spot: If you’re looking to make a day of it, the town of Seaside has tons to do. So, when your session is over, head into town and get something to eat, go to the aquarium, and then relax on the beach by the end of the Lewis and Clark Trail.
Notable Features: Beach grasses, wide open sand, rocks + tide pools at Seltzer Park.
Accessibility: Path from parking lot for Seaside beach is paved and there’s a ramp. Path from street parking to beach at Seltzer Park is all loose rock and a little tricky to navigate. Be careful not to twist an ankle here.
Hiking difficulty: Easy walk from parking to beaches, if a little bit technical at Seltzer Park because of loose rock.
5. Latourell Falls – Columbia River Gorge, Oregon side
Latourell Falls is a glorious waterfall just under an hour from Portland heading east, on the way to Cascade Locks and the gorge. This is a visually stunning falls with easy access via well-maintained trails. As such, it does tend to get busy, so plan to get there really early, go in the off season, or come prepared with loads of patience in order to work around people. Despite it’s popularity, I really do love this spot. The basalt rock, the towering height of the falls, and the surrounding rocks and greenery make it a dramatic backdrop. If we’re lucky enough to get a truly cold winter, sometimes the falls will freeze, and that’s quite a spectacle! Add in some snow, and you’ve got pure magic.
Feel: Waterfall + some forest
Notable Features: 224 foot waterfall, basalt columns.
Parking: There’s a lot right next to the trailhead, and it’s free.
Accessibility: Parking lot is paved, but the trail to the falls is not. It’s well-maintained, but there are some short steep spots and it can be slippery after rain.
Hiking difficulty: Easy, but be careful after rain; the trail can get loose and slippery.
6. Fairy Falls – Columbia River Gorge, Oregon side