Story updated April 4 to reflect updated construction timeline for nature play areas.
Big changes are coming to Metro's Oxbow Regional Park this summer.
Improvements at the 1,000-acre park will include a new welcome center, a pair of nature-based playgrounds, 17 more campsites and continued efforts to restore salmon habitats in the Sandy River.
Officials say the projects will improve the experience for visitors to Oxbow, a beloved destination in the region that saw some 195,000 park-goers last year.
"We'll be able to provide visitors with a very memorable and unique experience and understanding of the natural world at Oxbow," head park ranger Monty Woods said.
The total cost of the projects will be about $3.2 million. Funding comes from grants, a bond and the parks levy that voters passed in 2013.
"We are so excited to make these improvements to one of the crown jewels in our system," said Lisa Goorjian, Metro's parks planning and operations director. "To be able to see voter-approved investments on the ground on this site are just really exciting."
The new welcome center will serve as a gateway to the park. Woods said it is much needed, not only because the park rangers have outgrown their 1960s-era building, but it will be a great way to educate the public about the park and everything it has to offer.
Goorjian said the aim is to create an experience that's less transactional and more welcoming and informative – both for first-time visitors and those who visit the park regularly but want to explore new areas.
The existing 481-square-foot ranger station will be demolished and the 2,600-square-foot center built in its place. The building will house the park operations team (five rangers and one administrative staff member) and contain interpretative displays and materials about the park.
"There's a lot of ground to cover so if you're new to the park and want to get the rundown on what we offer, I think it'll be one-stop shopping for that information," Woods said. "People can feel confident and understand the lay of the land before they head in."
Construction is starting this month and is expected to be complete in the fall.
Campsites and nature play areas
Oxbow is also expanding the number of campsites from 67 to 74*.
In 2012, high waters on the Sandy River eroded part of the campground area and forced Metro to shut down 10 campsites.
The 17 sites will be built on a new access road, and the area will be reconfigured to create a "cleaner entry," Woods said. The new entry will also help relieve traffic near the day-use and boat launch area.
The children's play areas are getting an upgrade with designs that will promote the natural environment and be more inclusive for all kids.
Parks officials said there was a need to invest in the play areas. Some equipment had to be removed for safety reasons and an existing playground close to the banks will eventually be threatened by the encroaching river and have to be removed.
One play area will be located in the forested area near the day-use and boat launch area and the other will be between the Beaver and Coho picnic shelters.
Metro worked with landscape architect firm Learning Landscapes to create two experiences that will help tell the story of Oxbow: a sand and water area and an adventure camp area.
"Nature play is much more about getting kids to interact with natural elements, so instead of just manufactured metal play equipment that are installed in very carefully engineered play environments," said Mary Rose Navarro, a Metro grants coordinator. “It ends up with much more focused play and interactive play.”
In the sand and water area, kids can climb and hop between tree stumps. These mimic the forest that was buried by the last volcanic eruption on Mount Hood in 1781, parts of which have recently been unearthed by erosion along the Sandy River. Other features will include a wheelchair-accessible drift boat with oars, a turf area and water pumps and sand that allows kids to create their own lahars, a volcanic mudflow like the one that created the land Oxbow is built on.
In the adventure camp area, kids will be able to find shelter in tents, "cook" in a makeshift kitchen, practice making a bear bag, build forts from logs and sticks and tell stories around a fire pit.
A trail will connect the two areas and both will have a "base camp" kiosk to provide families with information and ideas about how to explore the rest of the park.
Navarro added that Metro is also being intentional in making sure the park can be enjoyed by kids in wheelchairs as well as those with cochlear implants and on the autism spectrum.
Construction is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
"I hope they'll feel really immersed in their play and in their experience and that it will spark curiosity in the natural world and inspire them to continue to explore and create memories that will lead them into a whole life of feeling comfortable in nature," Navarro said.
This summer, Metro and the Portland Water Bureau are working on separate but related restoration projects along the banks of the Sandy River at Oxbow Regional Park.
The work, part of a multi-year project, is being done to improve water quality and restore habitat for native fish, including salmon and steelhead.
Two side channels and an alcove will be restored to create deep, slow-moving pools for fish; and hundreds of logs and boulders will be added to provide them with resting and hiding spots.
“Think about a baby fish and when the river gets high and murky and the water’s moving really fast in the winter. Those fish need a place so they don’t just get washed out of the system,” said Brian Vaughn, a senior natural resource scientist with Metro. “They go to these areas on the sides of the river where the velocity is much lower.”
The restored channels also provide cold water refuge in the summer when warmer temperatures in the main-stem river become lethal for fish, Vaughn said.
Next fall and winter, crews will plant native trees, shrubs and grasses along the river to restore the shoreline after construction.
Vaughn says the city and Metro's ongoing habitat restoration work in the Sandy is just one part of a Sandy River watershed-wide partnership effort that is finding success.
"It takes multiple people in multiple places to restore habitat that the fish need at various life cycles," Vaughn said.
*Due to an editing error, a previous version of the story stated an incorrect number of campsites. The 74 campsites will include 10 that replace campsites lost to erosion plus seven new sites.