Scaling the Columbia Gorge on a fine June day

We all know that the Columbia Gorge forms much of the border between Oregon and Washington, stretching over 80 miles and forming the only near-sea-level passage through the Cascades.  Wikipedia lists the height of the gorge to be “as much as 4000 feet.”  On a recent bluebird Friday, three stalwart hiking gals from the Mountaineers took on the challenge of climbing every one of those feet and then some, scaling the gorge from the Starvation Creek rest area up to Mt Defiance, some 4980 feet in less than six miles.  Thanks to some good work by trail crews, the trail was in great shape and delivered epic views from all directions, plus a diverse range of ecologies and an up-close-and-personal look at some of the dramatic geology underlying the gorge terrain.  A trip with much to recommend it for those with the legs and lungs to take it on.

Emerging back into views northeast along the gorge

The Starvation Creek rest area (just off exit 55 from I84) fronts one of the dramatic bluffs that is representative of much of the Oregon side of the gorge.  The first part of the trail has its own man-made history, a narrow old Model-T highway just behind the jersey barrier from the bustling freeway, shaded by overhanging bigleaf maples and conifers, and dappled with early morning sunshine.  Within a mile we had passed two of the omnipresent gorge waterfalls, tumbling from Lancaster and Warren creeks, smaller cousins of the great Multnomah and Bridal Veil Falls further west.  The falls of Warren Creek turn out to be man-made, bursting forth from a hole blasted in the rock when the early highway was built, thus named “Hole in the Wall Falls.”

Hole in the Wall Falls

Along the old highway we could also read the story of the violent forces that shaped the geology of the area, compressed into the bluffs and skeletons of exposed rock around us.  The bluffs rising steeply above us are remnants of the great Eocene mudflows and Miocene lava flows which built up much of the region thousands of feet deep, first in layers of sandy-colored ash, boulders and cobbles, and later with the basalt knobs, thumbs and columnar postpiles. These formed when unusual volcanoes that geologists have termed “basalt floods” erupted from cracks in the earth’s crust, several miles long, pouring out floods of liquid molten rock. Between 12 and 17 million years ago, over 40 thousand cubic miles of lava spread to cover large parts of Oregon and Washington, and in the Gorge they formed layers of rock up to 2,000 feet (600 meters) deep.  When the basalt cooled slowly, it formed the stacks of precisely multi-sided columns 6 to 18 inches across that we could see through the trees, some leaning away, some straight up, some tumbled into bits at the base of the cliffs like some stonemason’s work left half done. When the Cascades began to uplift between 1 and 2 million years ago, the Columbia began its slow inexorable work of carving the gorge and exposing the layers of rock that had been buried in sediment and organic matter over the intervening eons.  Then, in a series of almost unimaginable bursts of power, over the period 14 to 16 thousand years ago during the last glaciation, a 2000-foot high ice dam repeatedly formed across the valley of the Clark Fork in Idaho and periodically burst, releasing 600 cubic miles of water over periods of days and scouring the land along the nascent river valley up to a height of 650 feet (source: USGS/Cascades Volcano Observatory, Vancouver, WA). The cliffs we walked under, the broad valleys around knobby basalt thumbs, postpiles and mudflow hills, the gravel bars we could see as we climbed, all held their own piece of the geologic story for those interested in the reading.

Interesting geology plates and postpiles

Choosing the Mt Defiance trail with some trepidation, we switchbacked steeply up the bluff face starting shortly after Warren Falls, gaining altitude and views in equal measure both east, west and north along the Columbia.  Open scrubby trees mixed with grass and forbs here, paintbrush and daisies nodding at the welcome breeze. Very soon we could see the massive destructive hand of a recent windstorm, the hillside west of us spiked with the tan of broken trees, continuing around us with trees large and small having been wrenched over from the earth and their tops snapped to rest across the trail and all around us.  The tumult was enough to have disrupted the earth requiring the trail to be rerouted up and over stumps and around pits. Crews with chainsaws had been busy in the not-too-distant past, and sliced faces of tree stems with closely packed growth rings told the story of a hundred years or more of meager growing seasons.

But soon we had passed through the devastation and the trail dispensed with the nonsense of switchbacking, transitioning into a steep straight passage going south-southwest along the ridge.  Here we transitioned quickly into dense Douglas-fir forest, crowns way above and dead limbs laddering all the way to the ground with a thick festooning of dark lichen. The dryness continuing on from the bluff face combined with the thickness of the forest cover led to a nearly total absence of vegetation under the thick canopy.  But the seemingly never-ending steepness of the trail winding upward left us with little attention span for observation…one step after the other, our inner rhythms keeping us moving forward.

Then, suddenly the dense Douglas-fir forest shifted to stubby true firs and white pines with boulders underfoot and views re-opening from a much higher vantage. Turning a corner we gained our first views of the Defiance summit and its metal tower, to the south across a wide field of lichen-spotted boulders, to the north, east and west along the gorge, through scattered weather-battered trees. Just barely in view in the distance, the snowy bases of Mt St Helens and Mt Adams with cloud caps covering most of their height; and in the foreground, Dog Mountain, Windy Mountain, Beacon Rock, and the furry green expanse of the southern Washington Cascades.

Suddenly break out of fir forest into alpine views

The view of our objective pushing new energy into our limbs, and the trail winding less steeply now, we soon passed our return trail signed to Warren Lake and turned right at the unsigned Defiance Cutoff trail to the right, marked with two impressive cairns.  The Cutoff wound through the boulder fields to the west and south of the peak, granting us our first views of Mt Hood and the broad and verdant Hood River valley before easing us up the last hundred feet to the summit.  Tumbled rocks formed a good lunch spot in front of the towers with nice views to Hood and parts east.

Not being ones to linger long in the chilly breeze, we soon picked our way across the grassy summit knob to the ring of scrubby trees on the north side, and found our trail nearly obscured to the northeast, heading steeply down. From this point we crossed the service road twice and met the only three other hikers of the day. They were coming up from Starvation Ridge the other way after having been put off by reports of the blowdown on the Defiance trail.  We were able to make quick work of the path to the Warren Lake cutoff and down to the lake itself, a nice-sized forested pool with a cliff behind and a lovely campsite just adjacent. Less than a mile beyond Warren Lake, we moved back into forest and took the Starvation Ridge trail at a junction with a lovely thick carpet of new, lime-green forbs and flowers under the trees.  The recent melting of snow in the vicinity was evident by the lupine that was still only showing buds and new leaves.

Icicle plant

As with the Defiance trail on the next ridge west, the trail down Starvation Ridge wasted little time with switchbacks. Our poles came in quite handy as the trail steepened through the trees.  The forest here was impressive, stems two feet in diameter and larger, but with much more vegetation beneath.  In particular, the brilliant white flowers of beargrass, Xerophylum tenax, glittered profusely among the vegetation all around us. As the trees gave way to the scrubby bluff vegetation we moved through individual trees and then small groves of Garry oak, Quercus garryana, gnarled and spreading with lichen-cloaked stems. Before we knew it, the trail seemed to dump us out on a nose of earth under a power line, looming over the gorge with nowhere to go in the absence of wings. But there, straight down the side wound our trail, pea-gravel and the distraction of profuse flowers and poison oak, making our footing treacherous. We made short work of the last mile down the bluff, right on the Starvation Ridge cutoff trail, and back to the old road along the freeway to the rest area.

Vine maple flowers – delicate and lovely

Beargrass profuse on the descent

Poison oak everywhere

Warren Lake on the descent

A fine day, an excellent workout, a wonderful lesson in woodland ecology and geology of this very unique area of the Northwest.

Small scattered groves of white oak

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