Elk Rock Island Hike offers a great introduction to hiking for children or those with limited time. The trail begins at a small play structure followed by a brief descent through a wooded area of cedar and Douglas fir trees. The wooded area is a rehabilitated wilderness and also home to patches of poison oak, so it is important for children and animals to stay on the trail. The trail leads to the Willamette River, and during the non-rainy seasons the river is low enough for hikers to dryly cross over to Elk Rock Island. On Elk Rock Island you can walk around, exploring the river and the small island’s volcanic rock formations. There are several jagged rock formations and small coves along the river. Elk Rock Island Trail is close enough to connect to the Milwaukie Old Town Loop Hike or Milwaukie’s Trolley Trail.
The trailhead for the Elk Rock Island Hike is at SE 19th Ave and SE Sparrow Street in Milwaukie. This is an urban area, so you may need to find parking on a neighboring block; there is space for a small number of cars right next to the park. The trail begins at Spring Park, which features a small playground for children and doggie bags for pet owners (dogs must be leashed on the trail). From here a paved path slightly descends to the Willamette River, with undergrowth including cottonwood, willow, and a few surviving patches of poison oak.
Once at the river you will see Elk Rock Island. During most of the year, the Willamette is low enough to cross over to the island. There are walking paths along the outer edge of the small island, with many crossing paths to explore the inner part. The northwest section of the island is just one of a few opportunities for simple scrambles down to the shoreline. Canada geese often congregate at the island’s south end, and a substantial waterfall can be seen from here. There is a small bay and beach on the island’s western side. The City of Milwaukie boasts that the area includes seven habitats, including: Willamette River Floodplain, Emergent Wetland, Mesic Upland Forest, Riparian Forest, Cliff Face, Xeric Upland Forest, and Willamette Valley Grassland. Considering the short distance of the hike, this is quite a rewarding abundance of nature to take in.
Elk Rock Island itself was formed by lava flows from an ancient volcano. It is estimated that the rock island was formed 40 million years ago, forming the jagged rocky area. These basalts, volcanic formed rock structures, predate the basalts of the Columbia River which formed 10 to 25 million years ago.
Native Americans used the area as hunting grounds for elk before European settlers took control of the area. By the middle of the 19th century, settlers from the Oregon Trail controlled the Milwaukie area. After being included in Milwaukie’s original land claim of the 1860s by Lot Whitcomb, the island was purchased by a successful Portland businessman named Peter Kerr in 1904. Kerr built a famous dance club on the island, The Friar’s Club, but the club burned down in 1916.
In 2016 the city of Milwaukie regained ownership of Rock Island from Portland. Milwaukie added 13.6 acres of natural area and rehabilitated the wilderness area. Elk Rock Island and its area near the Willamette River now includes seven different habitats, with the City of Milwaukie’s website boasting there are more than 50 species of plants on the island!