Best Local Nature Guidebooks

The Portland area is incredibly rich in glorious natural areas.  It's definitely worthwhile just to get out and experience them.  Why bother to use guidebooks?  Because you'll learn a whole lot more if you take curiosity to the next level by finding out something about what you are seeing.

Many adults believe that kids best explore nature through their own vivid imaginations.  Imagination is an astonishing and wonderful thing.  But in the absence of real information, both kids and adults tend to ascribe human emotions and motivations to other living things.  This does nothing to help us discover the interconnectedness of all life.  We cannot simply rip the fabric of life apart to suit the convenience of humans and expect nature to be just as adaptable as we are.  The notion that drilling in the arctic is fine because the caribou can just find some other place to go, is based on that kind of ignorance.  A little knowledge will help you find the endangered wildflowers in the botanical preserve and the endangered butterfly that depends on them, the common edible weed that you can gather for dinner, and the invasive wildflower you can pick for a bouquet.  It will help you discover which threatened frogs are breeding in a local pond, where you can root for their survival, and which ponds are full of invasive bullfrog tadpoles that would make great permanent pets.  A little knowledge is useful.

My personal strategy is to leave most of the guides at home when we're out exploring.  I don't want us staring at books or screens when we're outside, and I also don't want to worry about the extra weight or the devastating effects of leaky water bottles.  Instead we bring cameras, get close up and take photos. Then we look up what we've seen at home. Here are brief reviews of the guidebooks that have been most helpful to us.

Helping You Get There
Wild in the City: Exploring the Intertwine: The Portland-Vancouver Region's Network of Parks, Trails, and Natural Areas is a detailed guide to natural areas that are right in the Portland metro area.  Some of the metro area's natural areas are small and a bit obscure, and this book will likely fill you in. No other book will do such a great job! My only issue is that this book is so celebratory of natural areas within the concrete jungle, it can be difficult to tell which spots are truly spectacular enough to justify a trip across town.

One City's Wilderness: Portland's Forest Park is the book to have on hand if you want to explore Forest Park.  It's the only urban wilderness city park in the US, and it's full of beauty.  But it's a bit intimidating to just dive in and wander, since you can't yet get a map that shows all the trails together, and trails within the park can be poorly marked.  This book is the key to this piece of green Eden. It will guide you properly, and tell you just what to expect from different hikes in terms of terrain, distance, sights, etc.  The author, Marcy Houle, leads guided hikes fairly often through the Forest Park Conservancy.

For quick, searchable databases that will help you track down thousands of great hikes, check Oregon Hikers and Washington Trails Association. There are so many, many guidebooks to great hikes in the Pacific Northwest, including quite a few that are specifically for hiking with children, that it's impossible to pick out favorites.  My advice is to whip out your library card and get ready for a bonanza of good advice. 

More often you will see signs of mammals than the mammals themselves, so a book focused on Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest: Tracking and Identifying Mammals, Birds, Reptiles, Amphibians, and Invertebrates   by David Moskowitz is a superb guide.  It devotes a few pages to other kinds of critters, but it's really all about the mammals.
identifying tracks will often serve you well.

For a pocket sized guide, Scats and Tracks of the Pacific Coast by James Halfpenny is good, with the benefit of descriptions of scat; and Animal Tracks of Washington and Oregon  by Ian Sheldon is also good, with the benefit that it includes excellent descriptions of each species.  Bonus points for including sasquatch! Pocket guides to animal signs are great because these are the guides I find most worth bringing along on a hike.  It's hard to remember just what clues I'll need to use to make a track ID, and my photos sometimes don't show all the important details. However both of these books ignore nutria.  Hey, they may be invasive, but they are here to stay.

Amphibians and Reptiles
There's no better guide to local amphibians than Amphibians of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia by Charlotte Corkran and Chris Thoms. It includes lots of information on each species and how to identify them at every life stage from egg to adult.  I have the 2006 edition.

For reptiles, I love Reptiles of the Northwest by Alan St. John. Aside from the ubiquitous garter snake, which loves to chow on our plentiful amphibians, the Portland area doesn't provide a lot of excellent habitat for reptiles like Eastern Oregon does.  So my book doesn't see a ton of use, but I'm always glad it's around when I need it.

Pond Life  by George K. Reid is a great little book for identifying the bizarre creepy crawlies you find in ponds and streams.     (In the same series,  Spiders and Their Kin  by Herbert W. Levi is also pretty neat.)  But if you are truly intrigued by macroinvertebrates, the guide you've gotta have is "Stream Insects of the Pacific Northwest" by Prof. Patrick Edwards of PSU. More info here: Dragonflies have many passionate fans, and Dragonflies and Damselflies of Oregon: A Field Guide by Cary Kerst and Steve Gordon is an excellent guide. Butterflies through Binoculars: The West  by Jeffrey Glassberg has so many wonderful photographs you will be truly amazed. Two terrific online guides are Bug Guide and What's That Bug?, both of which have searchable databases and take identification requests (be sure to have excellent photos and detailed info about where you found it and anything your critter may have been eating).  If you are intrigued by freshwater mussels, possibly one of the most endangered animals in North America, check out Freshwater Mussels of the Pacific Northwest from the Xerces Society, which is available as a free .pdf:

The easy choice for beginners is Birds of the Willamette Valley Region  by Harry Nehls. (He's been known to teach classes at Portland Audubon so check them out!) When I can't find a bird in there, I check the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds site: Their website also has the advantage of having clear recordings of vocalizations.  (If you can't identify a duck or goose no matter how long you search, it's quite possible it's a domestic breed or a domestic/mallard cross. When people misguidedly release domestic ducks, they usually starve to death, but some do survive and breed.)

The definitive guide to all things avian is the Sibley Guide to Birds, just revised in 2014, and the Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, both  by David Allen Sibley. They are superbly illustrated and fun to read. Sibley's Birding Basics is an outstanding guide for anyone wanting to take an interest in birds a bit more seriously.  If you're interested in learning to bird by ear, Bird Songs of the Pacific Northwest by Geoffrey A. Keller is a definitive audio guide. While it's intimidating to imagine learning the bazillion songs on these CDs, setting a goal of learning just a few each month is much more manageable.  

If you want to know where to go tidepooling on the Oregon coast, this guide will help:   I've never found a better guide to identifying tidepool critters than Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest by Andy Lamb and Bernard P. Hanby. The photographs are superb and it's quite thorough.  But if what you really want is a book of a size and weight to carry with you, Beachcomber's Guide to Seashore Life in the Pacific Northwest by J. Duane Sept is excellent too.

Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods From Dirt To Plate by Dr. John Kallas is a very good guide, and we are supremely lucky to have the author here in Portland where he gives fantastic workshops. This is an area where it really helps to have someone show you up close and in person exactly what a plant looks, feels and tastes like so you can eliminate guesswork from foraging.

When identifying wildfowers, I most often reach for Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest by Phyllis Gustafson and Mark Turner . Wildflowers are identified by color and then by shape. If that's most of what I know about a wildflower, this is the quickest way to find it.   If I already know it belongs to a particular botanical family, I'm definitely better off looking in Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast  by Jim Pojar (which also includes lots of nonflowering plants, a big plus, as well as interesting ethnobotany info). Wildflowers of the Columbia River Gorge by Russ Jolley is a must for those who are passionate about the Gorge. Under each flower is given a likely spot to find it.  There's also a list of prime locations and what flowers you'll see there, and a list by date with suggested locations to visit to catch wildflowers at their peak.  


Trees reveal a great deal about their homes. Trees alone will tip you off to the climate and terrain, and what kinds of birds, insects, mammals and fungi you're likely to find nearby. No self respecting mushroom forager attempts to get by without knowing anything about trees. If you are in a natural area where you'd expect the trees to be natives, Trees to Know in Oregon by Edward C. Jensen is a great guide.  

The definitive guide is Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora, a tome that would easily intimidate any beginner. The same author's All That The Rain Promises And More is a pocket guide to mushrooms that's easy to take with you and includes most edible mushrooms.  If you are really interested in foraging for mushrooms, be sure to join the Oregon Mycological Society, which offers free field trips and a myriad of other resources.  Keep in mind that you don't have to be overwhelmed by the task of learning which mushrooms are safe to eat.  You can simply pick one or two edibles each season to learn thoroughly, and learn exactly what distinguishes them from their look alikes. Don't pick them unless the mushrooms you've found fit every single identification criteria and you can't go wrong.

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