Hiking the Columbia Gorge
Searching for wildflowers, fabulous views and no snow in April, May or June? Look no further than the Columbia River Gorge!
This area is no secret to hikers from Portland, but for most Washingtonians it's just far enough away to drop off the radar screen. It shouldn't. And nor should hikers think that the Gorge is simply about waterfalls. Wildflowers, particularly on the south-facing Washington side, start blooming as early as March and include several species only found in this region. Views are easily attained - the wide ribbon of the Columbia River providing a constant back-drop. And there is something for everyone, from flat ADA-accessible trails to vertical ascents that will challenge the hardiest of hikers.
Now hikers have a new resource for hiking the Columbia River Gorge. Craig Romano of Mountaineers Books has penned a guidebook that fully explores this diverse and spectacular region. Day Hiking Columbia River Gorge was published in April 2011 and is the first guidebook to give equal weight to both the Washington and Oregon sides of the Gorge.
The book covers one hundred hikes from the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge north of Vancouver to Hat Rock east of The Dalles. It goes beyond the national scenic area boundaries to incorporate urban hikes around Portland and Vancouver, as well as trails in the Silver Star and Trapper Creek Wildernesses. You can read WTA's review here.
We asked author Craig Romano for his Columbia Gorge recommendations - how he would spend a weekend if he had to choose one hike from Washington and one from Oregon. He has some great suggestions, which we tease below. To get full details on the hikes, however, you'll need to buy the book. All book purchases give 1% back to trails and can be purchased at most booksellers, including Amazon and others.
Trails for Wildflowers
Washington: Dog Mountain - 7.3 miles, 2900' gain
Oregon: Tom McCall Preserve - 3.2 miles, 1000' gain
The first flower that comes to mind for these two hikes is balsamroot. In May and June these yellow flowers dance across the open slopes, bring smiles to hikers' faces and brightening photographs with their prolific blooms. But look more closely and you'll see that balsamroot is not the only flower showcased on these trails. At any given time, hikers will be able to spot a dozen species, including larkspur, Columbia desert parsley, prairie star, phlox, glacier lilies, paintbrush and lupine to name just a few.
And don't forget the views! The Tom McCall Preserve boasts impressive view of Mount Adams and Hood and Dog Mountain hikers can see Mount Saint Helen's and Mount Hood, as well as dazzling views of the river. One note of caution: Dog Mountain, in particular, is extremely popular. Go midweek or expect crowds, and please stay on the trail.
>> Dog Mountain is Hike #37 in Day Hiking Columbia River Gorge by Craig Romano (Mountaineers Books).
>> Tom McCall Preserve is Hike #97.
Trails for Views
Washington: Cape Horn - 7 miles, 1350' gain
Oregon: Nesmith Point - 10 miles, 3750' gain
Dog Mountain and the Tom McCall Preserve have fantastic views, but these two trails are just as impressive! No trail showcases the Columbia River like the Cape Horn trail. What's more, it's a loop trail (at least from July to December), so hikers never have to retrace their steps. Most of the trail is volunteer-built, and it is one of WTA's signature trail work projects for 2011 as we work to build a new bridge and construct an ADA trail.
Nesmith Point is one of the most prominent outcrops on the Oregon side. It is the long-gone site of an old fire lookout that today is a well-deserved destination to a challenging vertical hike. Along the way, take in views of Mount St. Helens, Table and Hamilton Mountains and more, while at the top view Archer, Silver Star and more.
>> Cape Horn is Hike #17 in Day Hiking Columbia River Gorge by Craig Romano (Mountaineers Books).
>> Nesmith Point is Hike #75.
Trails to Waterfalls
Washington: Hardy and Rodney Falls - 2.5 miles, 600' gain
Oregon: Eagle Creek - 12 miles, 1100' gain
The Washington side of the Gorge is not known for its waterfalls, but there are actually a few gems in our state. Hardy and Rodney Falls can be found along the Hamilton Mountain trail in Beacon Rock State Park and are destination in and of themselves. Enjoy the 50-foot cascades and then determine whether you want to continue along the trail for the views from Hamilton Mountain.
Across the river is a waterfall paradise, and Eagle Creek stands out from the pack. Hikers will stumble upon not one, but five, towering waterfalls in six miles. From picturesque 35-foot Punch Bowl Falls to the thrilling 160-foot Tunnel Falls, this trail is inspiring. It's also an impressive engineering feat and not for those unsure of their step.
Trails for Families
Washington: Steigerwald Lake NWR - 2.8 miles, no elevation gain
Oregon: Wahclella Falls - 1.8 miles, 350' gain
The Columbia River Gorge is one of the most family-friendly hiking destinations in the Northwest. Craig Romano has marked 45 of the trails in his guidebook as "kid-friendly," so there are plenty to choose from.
Two that he flagged for WTA are Steigerwald Lake, a pleasant wildlife refuge at the mouth of the Gorge, and Wahclella Falls, a pretty and impressive waterfall near the Bonneville Dam. The first offers birdsong and wetlands along a enjoyable and flat loop trail. And Wahclella Falls is among the easiest and most popular waterfall treks in Oregon. Doing both over the course of a weekend exposes kids to the diversity of the Columbia River Gorge.
>> Steigerwald Lake is Hike #16 in Day Hiking Columbia River Gorge by Craig Romano (Mountaineers Books).
>> Wahclella Falls is Hike #77.
Washington: Klickitat Rail Trail
Oregon: Deschutes River
Two rail-to-trail conversions stand out as great hiking destinations on the eastern side of the Columbia River Gorge. The Klickitat Rail Trail is a 31-mile old road bed with two distinct and different hiking options: a 10.5 mile stretch along the officially designated Wild and Scenic Klickitat River, and a quiet 11.4 mile creek and canyon stroll along Swale Canyon.
On the Oregon side of the Columbia, the Wild and Scenic Deschutes River boasts a 16-mile stretch of converted railway. A number of loop options exist for hikers, including a 4.6 mile loop that climbs a nearby bluff with sweeping views.
Washington: Catherine Creek Labyrinth - 4.3 miles, 780' gain
Oregon: Nick Eaton Ridge - 8.8 miles, 2900' gain
These two loop hikes - one easy, one challenging - exceeded Craig Romano's expectations during his year of hiking in the Columbia River Gorge. He calls Catherine Creek "one of the jewels of the Columbia Gorge." The Labyrinth area boasts open hillsides, amazing flowers, oak woodlands and even a waterfall.
Oregon's Nick Eaton Ridge is decidedly different, with old growth forest, steep terrain and views from rocky ledges. It starts from a popular trailhead that gives hikers five distinct options, including the Pacific Crest Trail.
>> Catherine Creek is Hike #43 in Day Hiking Columbia River Gorge by Craig Romano (Mountaineers Books).
>> Nick Eaton Ridge is Hike #86.
Trails that Provide a Workout
Washington: Table Mountain - 9 miles, 3425' gain
Oregon: Mount Defiance - 12.9 miles, 4890' gain
Because many of the hikes in the Gorge start near sea level, hikers can get some excellent conditioning in by tackling the peaks in the area. Craig calls Table Mountain "one of the toughest hikes in this book - and one of the most rewarding." Catch your breath on the summit while you soak in views in every direction.
Mount Defiance is the highest peak in the Gorge at 4960 feet, with two trails to the top. Those looking for a vertical challenge will opt for the 12.9 mile hike with 4890 feet of gain. Others may choose the significantly shorter and more moderate way to the summit via the Bear Lake Trail. But what would be the fun in that?
>> Table Mountain is Hike #23 in Day Hiking Columbia River Gorge by Craig Romano (Mountaineers Books).
>> Mount Defiance is Hike #88 and the Bear Lake Trail is Hike #94.
Trails for Solitude
Washington: Augspurger Mountain - 13.8 miles, 4180' gain
Oregon: Bell Creek - 15.3 miles, 3400' gain
Solitude is not the first thing many people think about when they talk about the Columbia River Gorge, but there are plenty of places that are off-the-beaten-path. While Ausgpurger Mountain shares a trailhead with the very popular Dog Mountain trail, it's length and elevation gain deter would-be hikers. But as Craig Romano noted to WTA, "You get all of the views and the wildflowers that you get over at Dog Mountain, all by yourself. You’ll stand on the top of Augspurger, overlook Dog, and you can see 100 people on there."
Romano calls the Bell Creek trail "perhaps the loneliest trail on the Oregon side" of the Gorge. It's a long lollypop loop trail with impressive untouched old growth forest and few people - and an excellent choice for a weekend backpacking trip.
>> Augspurger Mountain #38 in Day Hiking Columbia River Gorge by Craig Romano (Mountaineers Books).
>> Bell Creek is Hike #74.