Saturday, March 11, 2023

A Winter Hike in the Gorge

It had been too long between hikes!  A trip home, lots of ski days, and a bout with the Covid monster, meant hiking had taken a back seat for much of February.  But the promise of a sunny day later that month had me texting friends and making plans.  Although the Portland area had just been clobbered by a surprise snowstorm, the Columbia River Gorge had somehow escaped the bad weather.  With it's trails relatively snow-free, the plan was to head east.

Mt. Hood anchors a sunny sky

So I rallied friends Young and John, and they in turn invited mutual friend Steve for a trek up the Labyrinth Trail on the Washington side of the Gorge.  After braving the icy Portland freeways, I survived my white-knuckle drive across town to rendezvous with Young and John.  From east Portland, we carpooled to the trailhead, where Steve was waiting.

Partially frozen waterfall near the trailhead

The entire Coyote Wall-Labyrinth-Catherine Creek area of the eastern Washington gorge is a year-round hiker's paradise.  Shared with mountain bikers, this network of trails leads users through some unique geology.  Wildflowers begin blooming in early spring and the high plateaus boast spectacular sweeping views.


Close up of the icicles

My friends and I started down an old road that led to the Labyrinth trailhead.  A short distance down this road a waterfall spilled down the side of adjacent cliffs.  The extra bonus for today was that the cold weather had created icicles on the rocky cliff walls and an icy coating on the area below.  I'm a big fan of frozen waterfalls, so it was already a good day.

Frozen creek and another small waterfall

Arriving at the Labyrinth trailhead, our climbing began.  My hiking companions and I wound through interesting rock formations as we trudged uphill.  An icy creek snaked through a low spot between the landscape, creating another waterfall that churned over a small cliff.  

Rough country of the Labyrinth

Lucky for us, the morning temperatures were low enough to freeze the mud on the trail tread.  But with the sun's rays starting to warm things up, we knew this easy walking wouldn't last.  There was only a small dusting of snow in the shady areas, and we were grateful for that.  But sadly the recent inclimate weather had stunted much of the grass widow flowers, for we saw dozens of wilted blooms.  Hopefully when temperatures warm the flowers will rally.

The day's hiking compadres

Although bundled up for the cold weather, our steep climb up the Labyrinth got everyone warm quickly, and clothing layers began to shed.

Lone oak tree

After a mile or so of climbing, I pointed out a side trail that took hikers over to the Catherine Creek area.  Having hiked this way before, I convinced my friends to try this alternate path.

Snowy grove

We sauntered downhill, over wide-open ridges with lovely views and then hiked through a grove of barren oak trees, snow settled beneath their branches.

Lunch with a view

One open area had views so inviting, we decided to make it our lunch spot.  I think you can see why.

Approaching the Catherine Creek cliffs

Bellies full, my friends and I continued our downhill trek.  The high cliffs of the Catherine Creek area soon came into view.  The scenery here was absolutely gorgeous - it's one of my favorite parts of this trail.

Hiking up through the talus slope

The trail took us to the very base of the cliffs.  We then navigated a steep path through a talus slope to the top of a large plateau overlooking the Columbia River and Catherine Creek area.

Top of the cliffs

Our climbing wasn't done yet - far from it!  The trail continued uphill along the clifftops.  Although a lung-busting slog, the fabulous views more than made up for the effort.

My friends trudging uphill

The higher we climbed, the smaller the mighty Columbia River shrank below.  It's waters gleamed bright blue in the midday sun.  A few snow-covered hills rose up from both sides further east.  With such stunning views, I was especially thankful for this clear, sunny day to fully enjoy them.

The views had Young smiling!

Finally after much huffing and puffing we all reached the top, which was our trail's intersection with an old road known as Atwood Road.  Another mile tromp westward on this road would lead us back to the Upper Labyrinth trail, our return route.

Almost to the top

Atwood Road was much more level than our past climb, but it did roller-coaster up and down a couple of heavily-forested drainages.  It was here in the shade of the trees that we encountered the most snow.  But it wasn't difficult to traverse and I found these snowy forests quite lovely.

The shaded areas were very snowy

The sunshine and rising temperatures had finally melted the ice holding the trail's soil in place.  Instead of firm dirt, my friends and I now encountered thick, slippery mud.  It quickly caked our boots and pant legs.  Some places got so bad we ended up walking beside the actual tread.

Hiking back down the Upper Labyrinth trail

The Upper Labyrinth Trail provided more photo-worthy views, and I lagged behind the group most of the way down, frequently pulling out my camera.  The constant in and out of my camera bag finally broke it's zipper, forcing me into an over-the-shoulder camera carry for the hike's final mile.

Bare trees in the afternoon light

In addition to such wonderful views, the late afternoon sunlight illuminated the eastern gorge wonderfully.  Maybe it was a good thing I had my camera so handy!

Looking east down the Columbia River Gorge

Such a great day for a hike!  It was totally worth braving the city's icy roads and the Labyrinth's muddy trails for scenery this stunning.


  1. It looks like full on spring for the majority of your hike and sounds like it too with words you used such as "slippery mud"! After a long stretch of not hiking, this one must have felt very rewarding, the views are so pretty and so are your photos!

  2. A wonderful hike with friends, Linda and such vast scenery views! The ice walls remind me of views we saw along the Million Dollar Highway between Ouray and Silverton in SW Colorado.

  3. A gorgeous area. And it looks like a beautiful day, too.

  4. Oh, Linda, what an absolutely beautiful day for hiking with the magnificent panoramic views of the Columbia River and Gorge.

  5. What pretty views of the river!


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