May 22-24, 2023.
Tom McCall Preserve
6 miles | 1330’ ele. gain |3.5 hr.
After dropping Aaron off at the airport for a work trip, I pointed the van north and drove towards the Columbia River Gorge. I’d spent countless hours there when I lived in Portland, so I was excited to revisit an old friend. I parked at the Rowena viewpoint, where I could go on two short hikes. I started on the trail that ambled along the edge of the plateau above the Columbia. The wind blew ferociously. I remembered how bad the wind could get here, but this seemed even a bit much for the gorge. I cinched up the hood on my wind shell and began walking.
It was evident from the beginning that I missed the peak balsamroot blooms; the withering yellow flowers looked battered and sad. But there was plenty other things to see: arrowleaf buckwheat, lupine, yarrow, onion, peas. And my old pal poison oak!
I was ready for poison oak now. I could see it from a mile away. Instead of comfy shorts and sandals, I wore long pants, socks and trail shoes. I would no longer brush off poison oak as no big deal. Now on day 2 of steroids after 8 painful, itchy days of a vicious poison oak attack, I gave that heinous plant a wide berth.
The sign at the trailhead implores visitors to stay on trail, but it’s not well-marked and user trails braided this way and that. I did my best to follow the main route plus the side loop, but somehow I veered off onto another path. If you want to keep hikers in line, you gotta let them know where to be!
Back at the parking lot, I reset my trip odometer and headed uphill towards Tom McCall Point. This trail was much more my style, switchbacking uphill through blooming meadows and pockets of shady forest. Here, I saw large-flower triteleia, paintbrush, bedstraw, wild roses, white-stem frasera and the star of the show: sticky penstemon. These gigantic purple flowers stopped me in my tracks as they stood tall and vibrant in the upper meadows. Stunners!
After that hike, I’d pretty much had it with the wind. I drove to nearby Memaloose State Park to find a campsite and relax. I knew I had an early wake-up the next day.
7 miles | 3075’ ele. gain | 5:50 hr
I met up with my friend Greg just after 6 am at the Dog Mountain Trailhead. I remembered this place being popular, and I know I’d hiked it a few times before. But its popularity had grown since I lived in Portland. Plus, the flowers were peaking and people lose their minds over this trail. I’d never actually gone for the wildflowers before so this would be a new experience. All of this to say: the 6 am start time would be crucial for enjoying this hike!
A few short steps up the trail and I realized that I’d met my match for photo-taking. It was nice to be able to take our time, identify every little flower, and try to document as much of the interesting flora that we could on the way. We had all day, in fact, so why rush?
Before getting remotely close to the famous yellow blooms, we saw so much: ookow, inside-out flower, spotted coralroot, Columbia anemone, to name a few. Every time I stopped to look at one thing I discovered three more things. The cool, dark forest was resplendent with a staggering diversity of plant life. I know there are plenty more flowers I don’t even have photos of, mostly because I’ve already got a zillion (I’m looking at you, woodland stars).
The famed balsamroot meadows were, in fact, spectacular. And even though I’ve seen the same damn image more times than I can count on social media, it was still really cool to be standing among thousands of cheery, yellow blooms swaying in the incessant wind.
Although the wind was not nearly as bad as the previous day, the sky was overcast and the air was cool. Despite my layers I was chilled to the bone. These conditions did not stop Greg from taking many, many photos. So at one point I headed up to the summit to wait for him as he captured every last thing that needed capturing. I gladly found myself a coniferous La-Z-Boy, downed some food and savored being out of the wind.
Eventually, Greg joined me at the top and he got to take his break as well. It was too cold for me to paint today, and I had other people to see in the afternoon, so we headed back down. We took a slightly different route that detoured into a light and beautiful forest filled with new wildflower treats. Fendler’s waterleaf, vine maple, Hooker’s fairybells, Oregon grape and the very last of the Dutchman’s breeches were on display. In addition, there were more checker lilies than I’d ever seen on a hike before, wow!
Each section of trail had its own joys and surprises. Among the shadows of the darkest parts of the forest, Phantom orchids sprouted in the hundreds. They were not quite in bloom yet, but they were getting ready to put on a good show.
But alas, I had to leave that to Greg for a future hike. Back at the parking lot, I spied a familiar face en route to the trailhead. “Is that Linda?” I cried.
Yes, it was. I had a nice time catching up with one of my old climbing buddies from Portland and remembered that this was my home for a while. I’ve got roots here. And I spent the rest of the afternoon visiting a few more old friends, watering the roots so to speak, and preparing for the next leg of the journey.
14.5 mi | 1080’ ele. gain | 6:20 hr.
The last stop on my top Gorge hikes tour came on Greg’s recommendation: Eagle Creek. Again, my only preconceived notions/memories of this hike were something like: this is really popular and ten million people are going to be tripping over each other on this trail. Again, I showed up early, and there were only three cars in the parking lot.
I started at the Fish Hatchery and did the short road walk to the actual trailhead, where I immediately stopped to take a bunch of photos of the wildflowers growing on the vertical walls along the trail. Water seeped down the steep rock and moss, creating a perfect growing environment for arnica (probably), monkeyflower, maidenhair ferns and a new one to me: Oregon bolandra. I knew I had a 14 mile day ahead but I didn’t care. Nature made me stop.
The last time I hiked Eagle Creek, it was during a blizzard that shut down the highway in the Gorge just hours after we drove back towards Portland. I had only a vague memory of this trail, with its narrow passageways and bolted cables. As I hiked, I tried to imagine the work it took to create this trail on the side of a canyon, with vertical basalt walls, numerous waterfalls, inlet creeks and a host of other natural barriers. It must have taken a grand effort to make this come to life.
And how grateful was I at that moment that this trail existed! Every stretch had its own special beauty, despite the fire that ripped through mere years ago. Wildflowers blossomed and stretched up towards the sunlight. Shrubs and tiny trees sprang to life. Among the burned and scarred corpses of trees, many others grew lush and tall. After spending years hiking through the massive burn scars across Central Oregon, this landscape did not feel jarring at all. In fact, it was much livelier and robust than I’d imagined from what I’d read.
After hiking several miles, I finally began to hear the roar of Tunnel Falls. I appreciate a well-named entity, be it a waterfall, wildflower or mountain. The trail literally enters a tunnel behind the waterfall, making for a rather exciting experience. The anticipation grew as the sound got louder and the waterfall spray filled the air. I rounded a corner, walked into the belly of the beast, and emerged on the other side, surrounded by white shooting star and a carpet of vertical green vegetation. The trail was barely wide enough for me to stand, with a precipitous drop down to a pool of churning water. I could see how a fear of heights would paralyze any visitor here.
From there, I wasn’t sure how much further to go. I knew the Eagle Creek trail went on for many more miles. But there seemed to be some more waterfall commotion up ahead. Plus, I wanted to find a nice spot to sit and have a snack. Those opportunities were few and far between on this narrow trail! I was glad to have only seen two other people so far on my walk.
At this point, the dramatic trail paralleled a narrow, rocky gorge. Happy green plants sprung from every crack and crevice, seemingly reaching for the suspended droplets of water from the rambunctious creek.
To my surprise and delight, I came to the also-well-named Twister Falls. It took my breath away. I thought that I must have come here before, but after looking back at my hiking spreadsheet it appears this was my first time.
Occasionally, when out in nature, I am overcome by a feeling that must be described as “awe,” although I find it impossible to truthfully describe. It is a visceral feeling that takes over some part of my body. In this case I could feel a kind of expansion and warmth in my chest. I stood there at the falls, surrendering to this unusual but overwhelmingly positive sensation, as I felt a deep connection to this place at this time.
Once the feeling had passed, I sat down in a small gravel bar near the top of the falls and ate some food. The warmth of the day had begun to set in, and I still had a seven mile walk back to the car, so I didn’t linger long. Plus, I wanted to do some painting. I had scouted a good spot near one of the bridges about halfway back, which would serve as a good painting and secondary snack break.
I opted for a quicker pace on the way back, since I’d stopped for seemingly every wildflower and riffle of water on the way up. But, that did not stop me from discovering a few more flowers and scenic viewpoints that I’d missed on the way in.
Yes, the Gorge hikes are crowded. I did pass a bunch of people hiking in while I was motoring out. But, there are many reasons why these hikes attract so many visitors. I felt privileged to be able to return to the Gorge this week and hike three classics in near peak condition without feeling suffocated by weekend crowds.
But, if the only time you can get out there is on a summer weekend, I say go anyway. Go early or late in the day if you can, and either way brace yourself for an absolute mob scene. These trails are there to be enjoyed. And most normal people don’t abhor crowds as much as I do. Right now, the flowers are absolutely popping!