Columbia Gorge

I’m an impatient hiker; I don’t care for the long wait till the snow melts and flowers bloom in the high country. When the first warm sunlight of spring breaks through the rain clouds of winter, I want to hit the trail, and not the dim forest paths to which I have been restricted throughout the winter. To get my fix of open air, wide views, flowers, falls and bright sunshine there is but one destination that beckons: the Columbia Gorge.

Columbia Gorge
The towering mass of the Coyote Wall as seen from the trailhead

The great flower gardens of the gorge begin with the imposing Coyote Wall, an immense palisade of black basalt. Despite its grim and impassable appearance, the ascent to the flower strewn prairies atop it is amazingly relaxed. From the clearly marked Coyote Wall trailhead located along Courtney road just off Highway 14 a few miles east of White Salmon, an abandoned stretch of the old highway rises above Look Lake where osprey fish to feed their offspring waiting on a nearby power pole. Hanging gardens and trees hide among the cliffs above as you navigate through fallen rocks and encroaching plants where nature is inexorably reclaiming the old road. The cliffs are eventually left behind and an open gate in an ancient, rusted fence line beckons you into the meadows. Now a dizzying array of trails confront you, tempting you at every junction. None are marked and no marking is needed; this is a landscape that encourages you to follow your feet without need for a definite destination.

Columbia GorgeThis is a country shaped by the wind. Atop the Coyote Wall, the trees are bent and twisted from the whistling gales that are funneled and concentrated to howling fury by the gorge. Below, parasailers skirt the water as the wind hurries them along. Above, birds of prey ride the updrafts that swirl from the pockets, folds and cliffs, swooping so low that you can almost reach out and touch them.

As you start up the trail, the Coyote Wall is to the left. To the right is the “Little Maui” trail, which ascends through fragrant gardens and small copses of oak and maple trees. Halfway up, it passes tiny Maui Falls after intersecting a path to the labyrinth. This is a less discernible trail, and is more difficult to reach, yet worth the effort as it winds its way through lumpy hills of volcanic debris.

These trails can loop together or can link further east to the Catherine Creek trail. Catherine Creek is perhaps a more well-known trailhead here, with an astonishing variety of spring wildflowers. On a weekend in May, the number of wild flowers may only be outdone by the number of people viewing them! An early morning start is practically a requirement. As with the Coyote Wall, Catherine Creek offers a similarly confounding trail system to the casual wayfarer, but no particular destination is needed. One trail may contain rock formations, such as a natural arch that is located in a canyon wall on the eastern side of the preserve. Another might display a greater variety of wildflowers, with dry meadows full of Balsamroot alternating with small bogs where Mimulus and Camas grow. A long 8 mile loop can be made connecting both Catherine Creek and the Coyote Wall.

Across the gorge from this desert Eden, the fir covered slopes hide their own dramatic and entrancing treasures – a seemingly endless string of waterfalls, each with their own personality.

Columbia Gorge
Wahkeena Falls
Columbia Gorge
Upper Oneonta Falls

Around the great torrent that is Multnomah Falls are found many miles of trails leading to high cliffs, hidden forests, round deep gorges and, of course, to the feet of the numerous falls that tumble from the plateau above. Like the flower trails to the north and east, many loops of varying lengths can be made here. Some of these falls are famous and familiar, such as Eagle Creek (east of Multnomah, near Cascade Locks), where crazy thrill seekers run up the cliffside trail with kayaks slung over their shoulders. I’m not so adventurous, so stopping at the overlook to watch kayakers tumble headfirst over the falls is exciting enough.

I even enjoy some of the most accessible and heavily traveled portions of the trails. The engineering of many of these pathways dates back to the CCC days. The stone buildings near the trailheads and the stone walls of the trails are impressive reminders of the glory days of trail building. Within a mile or so of Multnomah Falls, no less than ten cascades are found and numerous airy ledges and lofty peaks lend glimpses and panoramas of the Columbia River.

Columbia Gorge

If you spend a day at the falls and a day in the flowers, you’ll need a place to camp. The two closest campgrounds are the Eagle Creek Campground on the Oregon side and the Beacon Rock Campground on the Washington side. Both have hiking trails that lead right out of camp. About your only option for real backpacking in the Gorge is also in Eagle Creek. Though mostly unconnected by trail, it’s only a short drive from the Multnomah area. The best campsites (there are only a few enough along the trail, which is reasonable given the remarkable scarcity of anything resembling flat ground) are found near the final waterfall – the aptly named Tunnel Falls – which is bypassed by a trail running through a tunnel behind the falls.

With such a wealth and variety of natural riches available on either side of the river, it’s often difficult to decide just where to go in the Gorge.

Columbia Gorge
Little Maui Trail

For me, the weather may dictate my decision; a day of exceptionally strong wind, clouds and possible rain may be unpleasant to spend in the open fields of Catherine Creek and the Coyote Wall. Under the canopy of tall trees along Eagle Creek or about Multnomah Falls, bad weather is more bearable. On sunny days, it’s hard to choose the dark woods over the bright and open prairies. Wherever you hike in the Gorge, you will not be disappointed – just let your feet find the path and draw you onwards through the flowers, cliffs and waterfalls.

Columbia Gorge
Ponytail Falls
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