One sunny, but chilly late winter's day, my friends Young and John invited me for a trek in the far eastern Columbia River Gorge.
|Immediate mountain views
Oftentimes when the western Gorge is rainy, driving a mere 60 miles further east produces radically different weather. Even when Portland weather is gray, the eastern Gorge has a reputation for perpetually sunny skies.
With that in mind, Young and John wanted to hike the trails at Washington's Columbia Hills State Park. Home of the Dalles Mountain Ranch, it's one of my favorite spring wildflower haunts. But, since flowers don't usually peak here until mid to late-April, I was surprised my friends wanted to hike in early March. Having never visited any other time of the year, I had my doubts. Would there be anything interesting to see right now?
But, desiring to get some hiking miles in and catch up with my friends, I accepted their invitation.
|Gnarled oak trees
Despite sunny skies, a chill wind blew as we stepped out of John's truck at the trailhead. He'd parked at the Crawford Oaks Trailhead off of State Route 14. All my previous visits to this park, I'd driven straight to the historic ranch buildings, three miles due north from here. So today I'd be traversing a "new to me" trail!
|Small creek cossing
The climbing started right off the bat, as my friends and I huffed and puffed up a steep, rocky abandoned road. But quickly warmed by our efforts, the rewards came quickly. We were treated to fabulous Mt Hood and Columbia River views after the first quarter mile. Tall basalt cliffs rose vertically from the river's edge.
|Huge transmission towers from the nearby dam
The first mile was a steep climb up and over those cliffs via an abandoned road. Then our track dived downhill to cross a tiny creek lined with gnarly oak trees.
|Crossing under the powerlines
Past the creek, trails branched out in both directions. One was a direct path to the famous ranch buildings and spring flower fields. However, the other featured a wide loop meandering through rolling hills, eventually connecting back to the ranch. Wanting to get maximum mileage for the day, my friends chose the longer loop.
|Late-blooming grass widow
More climbing! My friends and I ascended another steep slope through barren grasslands. Huge electrical transmission towers lined the top of the hills. Transporting power directly from the nearby Dalles Dam, these structures were impressive. Both Young and John are engineers who work for local power suppliers, so it was interesting to hear their "shop talk" about the powerlines.
|Last of the grass widows
Although the big wildflower season was still weeks away, I was delighted to spot a few straggler grass widows pushing up from the prairie. These delicate purple flowers have the distinction of being the first spring wildflowers in the Eastern Gorge. Although usually not prevalent until early March, a warmer-than-normal winter caused an especially early grass widow bloom this year, and their season was now already nearly over.
|On top of the plateau, views were fantastic
As we climbed, the views kept getting better. I'd stop to grab a photo, only to find a much better vantage point further up the trail and stop again. Progress was glacially slow. I finally had to pack the camera away and hoof it up the rest of the hill to catch up with my friends.
|Reading the plaque
At the very apex of the final hill was a stunning viewpoint. The Columbia River spread out in both directions, framed by stair-stepping basalt cliffs. A single plaque explained the geology of the region, stating the Gorge was created by massive floods from melting glaciers throughout the ice age.
|Mt Hood was our companion all day
Now our trail turned towards the ranch, contouring across rolling beige hills. Young mentioned these same hills would be covered in yellow balsamroot blooms by mid-April.
|Lone oak on the prairie
Although stark, the emptiness had a beauty all its own. I enjoyed walking through these wide-open spaces. They reminded me of the South Dakota prairies of my childhood.
|A massive old tree!
We came upon a familiar road and fence line. This was where I'd come for several years to photograph the wildflowers. Without the colorful blooms it looked like a totally different place.
|Fancy lunch accomodations
Young and John crossed the main ranch road, and hiked up a small hill to the main parking area with a restroom and picnic tables. Perfect place to stop for lunch! Normally used to sitting on the ground and eating lunch, my friends and I relished the luxury of having an actual table.
|Looking back at the Dalles Mtn Ranch
But oh, was the wind howling! It forced my friends and I to bundle up. Lucky for us we'd brought our thermoses of hot tea, which warmed our insides.
On our return trek, having not seen anyone except a couple of women all morning (who warned us vehemently about ticks) my friends and I ran into several hiking parties. We even saw two people on horseback from a distance.
|Winding down to the creek crossing
Even with the other hikers, the trails were still mighty empty out here in the Eastern Gorge. After braving the crowded trails around the Oregon Gorge waterfall corridor, it was a welcome change. Give it another month though - once the wildflowers start blooming, this place will be crawling with people.
|Basalt layers and the Columbia River
Well in a normal year it would have. Thanks to COVID-19, his state park, along with all the state parks in Oregon and Washington are now closed indefinitely. In light of current events, I'm glad I decided to join my friends on this hike when I did.
This year it looks like I'm going to miss the entire Columbia River Gorge wildflower bloom. Although I've had the privilege to photograph this special event for many years, I'm sad to miss one of my favorite seasons. Yes, I know it will be there next year and I can always look at past images to tide me over for now.
Want to see what this place looks like when the flowers bloom? Check out my post from 2016.