Originally published May 2009 by Phyllis Irene Radford
My husband and I have always considered the Columbia River Gorge from The Dalles, Oregon through Hood River, around Cascade Locks, and past numerous majestic waterfalls, as part of our back yard, even if we live 50 miles away. We love it ice shrouded in winter, vibrant green with a myriad of wildflowers in spring, parched and sauna hot in summer, or glorious with red and gold leaves in autumn. Clear blue skies, mysterious mist rising from the river or leaden clouds determined to dump buckets of rain, no two trips are ever the same, and never are we disappointed.
We’ve taken serious hikes with day packs and lunches. He has backpacked deep into the side ravines to find hidden lakes. On short spontaneous trips we stroll along paved paths barely stressing our muscles.
I’m not going to bore you with a lot of statistics. I just want to share my favorite places on Earth. I84, modern freeway, stays close to river level. We prefer to take the scenic highway that winds around, up and down, blending in and becoming a nearly natural extension of the landscape. Sam Hill designed the first road to connect the Portland area with central Oregon in 1913 to be beautiful. He didn’t want to scar nature’s wonder.
We’ll start toward the west at Crown Point. This high promontory sticks out into the gorge above Rooster Rock State Park which is right on the Columbia River. There’s an historic stone visitor center, gift shop, and gallery with observation posts on the roof of Crown Point. Lots of breathtaking views. And breath stealing wind. It’s not unusual to sit in your car while the wind shakes you like an angry Windago. We’ve endure 75 MPH winds there. If you aren’t a weather freak or adrenaline junky, save this visit for a calmer day.
The old scenic highway winds downhill from Crown Point past numerous little rivulets and cascades. A lot of them are temporary winter creations. A stone balustrade defines the edge of the cliff in many places. The original rockwork, left over from initial construction in 1913 has been faithfully recreated when repairs are necessary.
My next stop is usually Latourelle Falls. This single fall is recessed away from the highway. You can walk up a steep 100 feet or so to an overlook, or wind down about ¼ mile to the base of the falls. Standing on the edge of the pavement listening to the water pound and splash in the pool reminds you of the power of these falls. Plan on getting wet from the spray. And say hi to my friend, the guardian of the falls. You can find him hiding in a fallen log on the creek just after it leaves the pool. I set part of “The Loneliest Magician, the Dragon Nimbus #3” by Irene Radford by a waterfall a lot like this. If you look carefully, you can almost see a tiny dragonet peering out from behind the broken rocks.
A little further along the road is Shepherd’s Dell. slow down or you’ll miss it. The actual falls are tucked back in a crevice and not fully visible from the road headed east. Shepherd was an engineer on the highway and donated the land to the state after his wife died. She set up a family altar in this little dell. A sense of peace and wonder linger. The falls twist and change angles several times in their quest to subdue the basalt. Deep inside this ravine the tumult that created the gorge is most evident. Massive floods with the river running a 100+ foot wall of water, volcanic upthrust, the shift and tilt of earthquakes, created uneven layers of rock differing in density and texture. Now the water pounds it, caresses it, jumps over it. It dives into deep pockets and bounces back up. The rock compresses it until it twists free and spews out in a broad veil across the cliff face. All aspects of a waterfall are embodied in Shepherd’s Dell.
Keep going along the old highway another mile or so to Bridal Veil State Park. The upper loop trail is only ½ mile long and wanders along a plateau among tall Douglas firs, and low growing berries. Around May 1 there is a two week window when the camas lily blooms. This is one of the largest wild preserves of the wonder plant. The local tribes roasted the bulbs for a basic food staple. The pretty blue flower is charming. But beware of the white camas. It’s deadly if eaten. The lower trail goes down to Bridal Veil Falls. This is the only place this falls is truly visible. It spreads out over the rock face like a lacy veil trailing behind a eager bride. The trail is newly renovated and easy if a bit steep.
Once you pass the freeway access at the hamlet of Bridal Veil you get into the more heavily trafficked area of Wakena Falls, Multnomah Falls (the tallest year round double falls in the lower 48) with a restaurant and gift shop in an historic lodge. Lots and lots of photo ops here. Easy access from the freeway. And lastly Horsetail Falls. It looks like the long white tail of a showy horse’s hind end prancing in the arena.
Longer hikes and short excursions branch off from every wide place in the road. You can make your hikes short and easy, or as long and intense as you wish. Just remember the local motto, take only memories, leave only footprints.
My memories of the gorge are imprinted in my mind forever.