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The 2014 Fittest City in America: Portland

In our nation’s Fittest City, 86% of the population gets regular exercise—but physical activity is just part of what makes Portland No. 1.


NO. 3: NATURE IS YOUR FRIEND

It’s no wonder Portlanders love to get fit outdoors. Set at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers and surrounded by mountain ranges and forests, the city is at the heart of a sprawling wilderness playground. In a 20-mile radius of downtown, 1,250 miles of bike and pedestrian trails traverse almost 40,000 acres of protected parklands. Within a 90-minute drive, Portlanders can choose from: hiking to a waterfall, riding epic singletrack, or windsurfing in the Columbia River Gorge; year-round skiing on 11,249-foot Mount Hood, whose snowy summit is visible all over town; whitewater rafting or kayaking on the roiling White Salmon, Klickitat, Wind, and Clackamas Rivers, all of which tumble down from the Cascades into the Columbia; surfing Pacific Ocean swells at Cannon Beach; and rock climbing at Broughton Bluff, or bouldering at Carver.

Slightly farther afield are Washington’s Olympic Mountains, Mount Rainier, and, to the southeast, the high desert of eastern Oregon. That’s where I head on Friday, eager to explore the Cascades’ rain shadow. 

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Fewer than three hours from Portland and slightly north of the adventure mecca of Bend, OR, the 550-foot-tall tuff-and-basalt cliffs of Smith Rock ply the lava plains like a wayward ship. A world-famous sport-climbing destination, the rock formation is wrapped in a turn of the Crooked River and protected by a 651-acre state park that’s crisscrossed by a tangle of hiking trails.

Under a warm autumn sun, I spend four or five hours rambling over nearly half of them. From the summit, I spot Mount Hood and, to the west, the volcanic Three Sisters. Down beside the Crooked River, I’m treated to a show by a family of six river otters, which swim against the slow-moving current, fishing their way upstream. Far above me, miniature climbers scale the impossibly sheer crags and overhangs of the Dihedrals and Morning Glory Wall.

Heading out, I spook a concealed bobcat, and it explodes from its hiding spot and bounds off through an outcropping of trees and out of sight. Even though this popular park attracts half a million visitors a year, right now it feels untamed and remote. I can’t help but think that, if I lived in Portland, I, too, would be outside almost every day exploring the region’s natural beauty, weather be damned.

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That soggy, mild weather seems to play an important role in the city’s fitness. Portland, for its rainy reputation, actually gets less precipitation than most East Coast cities. But it’s spread out into a lot of drizzly days, whereas New York (No. 19 overall) and Miami (No. 13) get isolated thunderstorms that can drop an inch or two at a time. As far as Portlanders are concerned, putting up with the mist is a small price to pay for snow-free winters and warm, dry, sun-splashed summers. It means they can bike and run and play outside year-round, and if the winter rains start bringing them down, they just strap on their skis up in the snowy Cascades.

And, like five more of our top-10 Fittest Cities—No. 2 San Francisco, No. 3 Seattle, No. 4 Denver, No. 8 San Diego, and No. 10 Oakland—Portland has a relatively mild climate where summers aren’t stiflingly hot or humid and winters feature little or no snow. It’s a recipe for year-round physical activity.

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