How to visit the Portland Japanese Gardens at peak Fall color

How to visit the Portland Japanese Gardens at peak Fall color

A few years ago, I finished a major project at work and they gave our entire wing of the company a day in October of our own choosing to take off as a reward for the extra hours and long nights. I picked a random Thursday in the middle of October and spent the day hiking around the various parks in Portland.

I hadn't been to the Portland Japanese Gardens in years, but when I saw I was a five minute walk away from it, I got a ticket and went in. The garden is extremely calm and quiet but I noticed a bit of a commotion at one end of the gardens, and walked towards it.

I turned the corner to see half a dozen photographers with tripods fighting to take photos of a single small tree. I waited off to the side for a bit until a few of them left, reached my long arms in, and took some shots that were some of my favorite ever of any tree with Fall color.

Some quick history

Portland's Japanese Gardens opened around 1967 and the famous maple tree was planted a year later, and thought to be about 20 years old at the time. In 2012, a photo of the tree in full Fall glory won a photo contest at National Geographic, and apparently it became a hotspot every autumn ever since for local photographers. I had no idea, but the day I visited a few years back was around its peak and it happened to be at the best part of the day when photographers fight over the small space at the base of the tree.

How to replicate a good Fall tree photo in the future there

Weather is variable, and it took me three visits to hit the absolute peak this year. I usually look for mid-to-late October weather reports, figure out when there's a sunny day in between several days of rain, and start visiting the gardens.

As of 2023, a one day ticket into the gardens is $22, but a year pass of unlimited visits is only $70 for one person or $90 for you and a spouse. I think it's a bargain and would strongly suggest getting an annual pass.

When you visit, try and get there between 1pm and 3pm, and I strongly suggest going on a weekday when it will be less crowded. They've also implemented a 15 minute maximum on the pro photographers hogging the spot, and during peak color someone from the gardens will be standing nearby to remind them to take a break and let others take a photo.

The tree is actually kind of a smallish bush, only about five or six feet tall. You have to sit on the ground, legs crossed apple sauce, to get a low enough angle up into the tree. Around 2pm, the sun will be behind the tree and light up the colors within. The shot above is what it looked like on a slow weekday when I took the photo at the top of this post. I felt lucky as a week or two before, there were half a dozen photographers hogging the space below.

The gardens hit peak Fall color a week or two after most of Portland, I believe because it's in a weird little shady canyon that doesn't get much sun. If you are there a week early or late, not to worry, you'll still get great shots and there will be many Japanese Maple trees showing great color.

Here's a smattering of photos of Fall color at the Japanese Garden over the past few years I've taken.