The past few weeks I’ve been rekindling my love affair with the Columbia River Gorge. Sure, I’ll travel out to the coast with my partner every few months, and I’m planning an overnight trip with a friend to the East Oregon desert later this month. I love exploring new trails in the area, and I can’t wait until the snow’s melted enough around Mt. Hood that I can revisit some of my favorite places there. But the Gorge has always been my first love here, and it’s there that I continually return, year after year. I’m especially fond of the Oregon side, west of the Cascades. I never get tired of the basalt cliffs covered in Douglas fir and Western hemlock, the red-tinted ground bursting with wood sorrel and sword ferns, and the air filled with the spring sounds of Steller’s jays, winter wrens, and Northern flickers, among many others. Still, the eastern deserts, and all along the Washington side, I find more and more places to explore and appreciate.I’ve been there three times in the past two weeks. First, I headed up the historical Eagle Creek trail, one of the earliest modern hiking trails in the Gorge. It’s one of the busiest trails in the area, and I must have seen close to twenty other hikers even though it was the middle of the week. I’m especially cautious as there are some narrow points; one stretch in particular overlooks a sheer drop, and there’s only a steel cable set into the rock on the inside of the trail to hang onto. I tend to only go on dry days; there have been deaths from people falling when the trail was slick with rain and ice. Still, if you can handle the vertigo it’s an absolutely stunning hike up into Eagle Creek’s canyon. This time I only went as far as Lower Punch Bowl Falls, where I watched a water ouzel splashing and diving in the water for a bit before turning back.
A lot of hikes I just spend stomping around, exploring the terrain and maybe taking a couple of cell phone pictures. However, this time I took my good camera with me, and got some nice shots here and there. The one I chose to share isn’t one of the best; it’s out of focus further back. But it was the only one I got with the sunlight streaming through the trees, and I was quite grateful for the change from winter’s rains. Apparently everyone else there was, too, since the birds were singing up a storm, and the trilliums were just opening their white and purple petals. I could still see snow in the upper parts of the mountains around me, but with sun and the temperature near 70, I could feel myself warming up and drying out.
Speaking of warm and dry, last week I headed out to Catherine Creek on the Washington side of the river, starting to get into more dry, deserty terrain. This is the best time of year to go there, as the meadows are packed full of wildflowers, over 80 species thereof. My visits to Catherine Creek have historically been adventurous. The first time I had to run a couple of miles back to the car as one of the few thunderstorms I’ve seen in the Northwest came rolling in from the south. And then when I went with my partner the following week, we ended up getting horribly lost and had to bushwhack our way down the slope to get back to the parking lot, avoiding poison oak and thorns all the way.This time was thankfully uneventful, at least in that regard. Once again I decided to be my amateur photographer self, trying to get better shots of the flowers than I had last year. So I didn’t make it more than a couple of miles in a loop, but I did have a lot of fun snapping shots of the flora (and occasional microfauna). Again, the birds were out in force–juncos, swallows, scrub jays going “VWEET! VWEET!”, and even a hairy woodpecker tapping away at a pine tree. The flowers might get all the attention here, but the little flying dinosaurs are nothing to sneeze at.
I will admit that I was a bit disappointed there were no storms this time. I used to be absolutely terrified of storms when I grew up in the Midwest because we were always told at school to watch out for tornadoes. Since I moved to the west side of the Cascades in 2006, though, I can count on one hand the number of wind and thunder storms I’ve gotten to see–two in the desert, and one on the coast. I always manage to be out of town when the rare storm hits Portland, too. Still, I was grateful for the warm and sun again, even if I did bring a plastic bag to stash the camera in if the rain managed to make it across the mountains.
Yesterday I spent the afternoon back in Oregon. When I’d gone to Eagle Creek, I noticed there was another trail across a suspension bridge while I walked from the parking lot to the Eagle Creek trailhead. I’d made note of it and decided to check back another time, and yesterday was the day! Turns out the bridge connects with Gorge Trail #400, which parallels (and in some places replaces pieces of) the historic Columbia River Highway, the first highway through the Gorge to Portland. The sign pointed to Tanner Creek three miles ahead, so I decided that’d be my turnaround point. I’d left the camera at home this time since I wanted to do some serious trail-stomping, but since it was already almost 2pm by the time I arrived, I figured six miles would be about right. (Admittedly I did take a few wildflower pictures with my phone, like the one to the left.)This was a fairly relaxed hike; other than a few steep spots and switchbacks it was relatively level. The only downside was the noise–since the Columbia River Highway has been joined by Interstate 84, the traffic noise is much more significant. The only time I mostly couldn’t hear the noise was whenever I’d be right next to one stream or another, and even then the passing semis were loud enough to be heard. Still, the beauty of the trail more than made up for it, and it was surprisingly lonely out there. The only times I ran into other people were at trailheads–for other trails. Maybe people just don’t like the traffic, but I think I’ll be spending more time on 400 myself.
I did get some really good wildlife sightings. As I was sitting for a late lunch, a pair of juvenile bald eagles flew overhead low enough that I could hear the wind woosh through their feathers as they banked, and their appearance sparked alarms from wrens and a large pileated woodpecker above me. I got to see another ouzel bouncing along through Tanner Creek when I rested there before turning back, and there were robins fighting like crazy over little bits of territory. I think the highlight of my day, though, was when I was walking back in the late afternoon, almost to the trailhead again, and I stopped next to a slope of small moss-covered boulders to get a good view of the Columbia. As I did, I heard the call of a pika amid the rocks. I really love pikas. I think they’re adorable, like little furry squeak toys. I also get the sense that they’d be very indignant if they knew I thought about them that way.
Stomping around all those trails got me to doing some research on the area. I found out, much to my delight, that the Eagle Creek trail connects to Wahtum Lake, which is at the foot of Chinedere Mountain, one of my very favorite places (here’s a write-up I did of my last backpacking trip there this past August). It’s about 26 miles round-trip, so about a four-day time commitment since there are some steep spots, and it apparently has some fantastic waterfalls along the way. I’d love to spend the summer conditioning myself and then do a late summer backpacking trip (anyone interested in joining me?)
I think I may revisit Catherine Creek next week; there are some parts of the trails I haven’t been to yet, and it’s one of those places where the wildflower show up in stages so there’s always something new. And then, of course, out to the desert, where I’ll be in good company visiting the John Day Fossil Beds which I’ve been meaning to get to for AGES. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a few more pictures from the past couple of weeks (as with all the pictures on this blog, you can click them to make them bigger.)