Saturday, March 28, 2020

Before the Flowers

Let's transport ourselves back to the beginning of this month.  A time when Coronavirus was still a far-away illness on the other side of the world.  Back when we could still hike the local trails. 

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.

Sweeping panorama

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?

Rocky road

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.

Heading back

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.

Happy hiker

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.


  1., what a transformation! It's amazing how the landscape is able to change. Thanks for sharing, take care.

  2. Thanks for the beautiful pics of your hike in the mountains. Let's hope it won't be too long before you can go again,the scenery is amazing and you are lucky to have been able to see it. Thanks for sharing. Take care.

  3. Hello, wow the views are just fabulous. Awesome seeing Mt Hood on a clear day and the river views are beautiful. Another great hike and lovely photos. Wishing you a happy healthy new week!

  4. Such wide open spaces compared to your often heavily forested hikes! I think it's really neat to see our hiking spaces at all different times of the year!

  5. Sorry about missing the early wildflowers this year, but you still got a beautiful hike. And the views... amazing. Ever since you first posted wildflower photos from Dallas Mountain Ranch, I've wanted to go there in April. Sigh... maybe in 2021.

  6. That looks like a good place for a trail run.

  7. Real Western landscapes - I can imagine the Lone Ranger and Tonto galloping through! For a while I used to lead walks in the hills of England and Wales, it was always interesting to see the same walks at different seasons and in different weather conditions. It will do the trails no harm to have a summer to recover from the hiking traffic.

  8. Your not the only one in the same boat, I stuck at home and cannot visit churches I love to do. My Tuesday Blog last week was from around my garden. I love the pictures from the walk scenery is so bleak and beautiful. Looks like it was cold too. Stay safe

  9. A tad chilly looking but what marvellous view of the Columbia.
    Sad for you re spring and the Dalles Mountain Ranch. Alas we are all in the same boat.

  10. Thanks for sharing your photos of your hike with friends! So nice as always, Linda, even though before flowers. My friend from GA messaged me a photo of me and Phil when we were at Crater Lake years ago. Cannot go there or anywhere right now. We did go on a walk in the sunshine this afternoon then I repotted a few plants outdoors. I am off work for awhile. Hope to go back to work mid-late April. GW Hardware is still open but now only 8 hours, 9-5, seven days a week. I pray all is well with you and hubby. Tulip festival cancelled...sad that i can't take photos there. i enjoyed out time together there a few years ago. Take care!!

  11. Such a pretty hike! Even without the wildflowers! Stay safe...:)

  12. In the scheme of things I know one lost summer won't matter, but I am mourning. I hope this doesn't last all summer but trying to mentally prepare.

  13. That is so different to the wild flower season, arid grasslands to lush colours. Our mountains are closed here too so I'm discovering my inner cyclist to stay fit.

  14. Who would have thought things could change so completely? I hear the blue bells are in bloom... must go see. Exercise is allowed so far.


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