A favorite trail is like an old friend. You've hiked it so many times you remember all it's junctions, steep climbs, panoramic viewpoints, and secret lunch spots. You know exactly when the wildflowers bloom each year. Each visit evokes memories of past trips (the spot where I saw the grouse, the year it was so muddy I almost slid down the trail, the time I was nearly blown off the summit...)
|Balsamroot good morning
Dog Mountain is one of those trails. Located in Washington State on the Gorge's eastern fringe, each spring it's steep slopes erupt in a massive riot of wildflowers. Truly a spectacular sight, people flock here in droves.
|Two trail choices
Dog Mountain holds the record as my most often-hiked trail. Starting in 1996, climbing it's steep slopes to view the flower show has been a spring tradition.
However, for reasons I don't remember, last spring I missed the annual Dog Mountain trip, Not wanting to make it two in a row, this year I was bound and determined to get up there during the bloom. Busted rib or not!
|Looking ahead to the summit
On a Friday off in early May, I left my house super-early, headed for Dog Mountain's trailhead. The large parking lot, often packed to capacity during flower season, was totally empty when I arrived. (It really does pay to wake up with the birds.)
The trail, although short, is notoriously steep. Rising almost 3000 feet in a mere 3 miles, it's a lung-busting trudge.
|Gorge selfie at Puppy Point
But mentally I was prepared. After babying my rib for the past three weeks, I was more than ready for a workout. Beginning in a dense forest, the trail rises steeply from the very beginning. It didn't take long before I was huffing and puffing.
|The spectacular upper meadows
Exiting my car in the parking lot, I noticed the wind was really blowing. Hmmmm......not a great sign. If it was strong down low, that didn't bode well for the summit. At the last minute, I grabbed a pair of mittens that just happened to be in my car and shoved them in my backpack. Later, I'd be thankful I did.
|Looking towards Wind Mountain
Hikers have a choice of three trails to reach Dog Mountain's upper slopes. There are two older trails, dubbed the "scenic" and the "steep" (I love the sign at their junction that gives hikers the choice of "more difficult" or "less difficult"). There's also the Augspurger Mountain Trail, a longer, but more gentle path. I prefer to travel the scenic trail uphill, and take Augspurger for my descent.
The "scenic" trail takes visitors through a lovely forest of fir and oak. Undergrowth grows thickly, accented by colorful flowers. After climbing for 1.5 miles, the path suddenly emerges at a treeless knob offering fantastic views up and down the Columbia River Gorge. This halfway stop has been dubbed "Puppy Point" by the locals.
|Colorful flower fields
It was here I encountered the first of the massive balsamroot fields. Their cheery yellow blooms carpeted the adjacent slopes. Time to break out the camera!
The only drawback - gusty winds had followed me from the parking lot, and had only gained in their intensity. Sweat cooling, I quickly donned my jacket.
|The upper meadow winds through a yellow carpet
After many attempts to capture these fields of color, the cold wind got the best of me. Time to dive back into the woods, and head for Dog Mountain's summit. The dense trees provided a welcome windbreak as I continued my trek to the top.
|More flower fields
The final mile to the summit viewpoint is murderously steep. Not for the faint of heart or weak of knees. I kept putting on foot in front of the other, maintaining a pace that was turtle-slow. But finally spying a clearing ahead, I knew it meant just one thing - Dog Mountain's wondrous upper meadows.
|Wonderful views from on top
I'd hit the balsamroot at prime bloom. The high meadows of Dog Mountain were one large carpet of yellow. As I wandered out into the open taking in the spectacle, a large wind gust hit full force.
Nearly losing my hat, I quickly zipped up and pulled a hood over my head. Then I slowly meandered along the upper trail, trying my best to capture this truly amazing sight.
But the strong winds buffeted the flowers around, making close up shots all but impossible. I tried to wait for a break in the gusts, but holding my camera for this extended time only gave me very cold hands. Body chilling fast, and rib starting to hurt, I retreated to a small wooded area just off the main trail. This quick windbreak gave me a chance to find those mittens I'd stashed earlier, and take an ibuprofen or two.
|Gorge overlook from Augspurger Trail
Hands now covered, and pain reliever coursing through my body, I made a second attempt at photographing the flower show. But the wind was downright miserable. I followed the trail, climbing through its treeless summit meadows, admiring the prolific blooms. But the cold nasty gusts forced me to keep moving. A short distance from the summit proper I came upon a junction for the Augspurger Trail. Deciding this was not a good day to visit the very top, I opted to cut my visit short, and duck down this path.
|One final Gorge view
The Augspurger Trail wound gently downhill, providing one last beautiful glimpse of the Gorge panorama and a classic view of Wind Mountain. After a mile, it ducked back into the windbreak of thick woods - a welcome relief.
My return trip was uneventful, save for meeting many groups of hikers slowly trudging uphill. It seemed the world had woke up, and by the time I reached my car, the parking lot was plumb full. The early morning start meant I was back to my car by noon, just in time for a trip to the nearby town of Stevenson to enjoy a well-earned burger and fries.
Dog Mountain, it was great to see you again, my friend. Until next year...
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