Field Trip: Portland Aerial Tram

My husband and I moved to Portland almost 10 years ago now. Like many new-to-Portlanders, the first time we saw the futuristic Portland Aerial Tram, we wondered what it was. That was followed quickly by wondering when we could fit in our first trip.

Well, enter work, three kids, cloudy days, [insert next excuse], and it wasn’t until this year that I — with my kids plus an extra in tow — finally went on a ride. It was worth the wait. Here’s what you need to know.


The cost
Perhaps because I was juggling four kids solo for this trip (first rule of playdates: don’t lose the kid who’s not related to you), I was a bit confused by the pay station. I guessed and paid for myself and the two 7-year-olds, but didn’t get tickets for my 5- and 3-year-olds. That was the right guess. Children 6 and under ride free, while 7 and up pay the standard fare of $5.10.

We took the Orange Line down to the tram (it’s about a five-minute walk from the South Waterfront station), so didn’t have to worry about finding parking. The streetcar and numerous buses also stop nearby. If you drive, there is metered parking — if you can find it — just south of the tram.

What to expect
You won’t need to wait long for a tram to arrive. With two tram cars going at all times, the wait is usually about six minutes between cars. The ride itself lasts between three and four minutes, traveling 3,300 linear feet and rising 500 feet during the brief ride at speeds of 22 miles per hour.

If you like to be surprised, don’t read this paragraph. On our trip up, all was going smoothly, when suddenly, the whole car did a slow but thorough rock. It wasn’t strong enough that anyone lost their balance, but it was strong enough that everyone in the car oohed and laughed a bit. On the ride back down, an automatic message came on warning us to expect some rocking when we got to the support tower. Not sure why we didn’t get that message on the way up!

Boost me up, Mom! While the 5-and-older contingent could see just fine out the tram’s windows, my youngest (age 3) couldn’t quite get a clear view. There is limited seating by the windows. We ended up scoring one, which he knelt on (with support from me) to be able to see. Be prepared to hold your kiddo up for the length of the ride if you can’t get a seat.


Don’t wait for a perfect day
I was hoping for a glorious sunny day so we could see pristine views as we soared our way up to Oregon Health and Science University’s main campus, but we ended up going on a partly cloudy day. Even so, the view was spectacular. We could see Mt. Saint Helens, Mt. Hood, downtown Portland, and bridge after bridge. Plus no worries about squinting from the sun.

With the short ride, you may wish for more time to see the sights. There is a viewing area with an outdoor patio to the right when you exit. Or make your way to the enclosed sky bridge — the largest in North America — to see even more.

The Details

Location: 3303 SW Bond Ave.


Weekdays: 5:30am to 9:30pm

Saturday: 9am to 5pm

Sunday: 1pm to 5pm (Summer hours)

Avoid the commuter crowd by going on the weekend, or weekdays 10 am to 3 pm or 6 pm to 9 pm.

Cost: $5.10 for ages 7 and up; children 6 and under: free!

Make a day of it!

The tram ride itself is only about four minutes, but you can plan a whole day’s worth of adventures around it. Here are some ideas.

Get a Bite. There are lots of new restaurants and cafes popping up near the tram. Get a bite to eat at kid-friendly favorites Pizzicato or Cha! Cha! Cha!, just outside the base of the tram, or juice at Greenleaf. A short walk away toward Elizabeth Caruthers Park, you’ll find the newest branch of What’s the Scoop? ice cream parlor. Bourbon toffee ice cream? Um, yes please.

Check out Elizabeth Caruthers Park. Seasonally, you can also head to Elizabeth Caruthers Park for the South Waterfront Farmers Market on Thursdays. Elizabeth Caruthers Park is awesome in the summer, with a perfect, child-sized hill to roll down and a small but spectacular splash pad. Even if you go in the off season when the fountains aren’t turned on yet, the lilypad-like jets are perfect for leaping from one to the next. (See how few jumps it takes to get from one side to the other — our record was five.)

Explore the South Waterfront Greenway. Head a few blocks east toward the river to the South Waterfront Greenway. It’s just a short stretch — a few city blocks in total — but you’ll get a fabulous view of Ross Island, and see some cool, natural and nautical-inspired installation art. If you’re looking for a longer adventure, take your bikes and head a few blocks farther north toward the Willamette Greenway Trail. There you’ll find a beautifully paved waterfront path that will take you just past the Sellwood Bridge. (Unfortunately there’s about a block break between where the South Waterfront Greenway ends and the Willamette Greenway Trail picks up. Eventually the city plans to connect the two trails. Right now, you can connect to the longer trail right behind the Spaghetti Factory.)

Do the 4T Trail. Once you’ve taken the tram, you’re already a quarter of the way there! The 4T trail consists of tram, train, trail (about 2.5 miles of walking all together), and trolley, and will take you and your little adventurers through downtown Portland, the zoo and the waterfront.

Ali Wilkinson
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