Washington’s public state lands opened back up for day use on Tuesday. Except the ones that didn’t. My favorite hiking is national public lands, and they aren’t open, including best early season hiking spots in the Olympics, St. Helens, and parts of the Gifford Pinchot NF. The gate to Paradise is closed, can’t even go look at the snow. My favorite hiking is in Skamania County (St. Helens & the GPNF)—it really has it going on—and even state land there is still closed.
Except for Weldon Wagon Trail in the Columbia River Gorge; the only open trail in the Gorge, and literally the only trail of 54 on my Washington Trails Association unhiked wish list that is open. It’s a long drive to the Gorge, and not my favorite hiking, but it’s been such a long winter.
Remember back when the biggest excitement was the impeachment trials? And then there was the near record-breaking rainy January here in Washington. And wasn’t it February that was the longest month in history? Until March and April.
I was going to go somewhere on gorgeous sunny Friday, and it looked like a little five-mile hike in the Gorge was it.
The parking lot at the trail only holds 12 cars, according to the WTA. If it’s the only trail open and the first week anything has been open and hikers are not to crowd the trails, I figure I had best get there early. Did I mention a three-hour drive?
I leave the house at 4:45 and head to I-5. I hate to do it, but my plan is to hit the Starbucks a few miles south when it opens. I arrive at 5 on the dot. The barrista greets me at the window in a mask and gloves, but her eyes smile. The credit card machine is on the window sill, I don’t have to touch it. She hands me my paper-cupped latte sitting in a ceramic mug; perhaps so our fingers don’t touch? I’m confused for a second.
The adaptable interstate signs in Washington all say “Staying home is saving lives. Keep it up WA.” Amber alerts and DUI patrol warnings are not part of life these days. I pass signs on Hwy. 14, along the river, pointing out that “Skamania County parks and hiking are closed due to Covid-19.” I hope the wagon trail really is the exception.
But fishing opened Tuesday and I cross a causeway between the river and a lake that is lined with vehicles and boat trailers, parking area overflow. There are so many boats on the tiny lake, I’m not sure there’s room for line between them. The fish must be wondering what the hell? Months with nary a hook in sight and now all they can see is boat bottoms.
Three hours from home, I make the last turn onto a gravel road to the trailhead. A saran-wrap covered rain-faded sign is tacked to the Weldon Wagon Trail sign: “closed to hiking.” I keep going, hoping it just didn’t get removed. There are no cars at the trailhead, and no signs. Phew.
I nature pee, lace up my boots, and I’m off up the bit of gated gravel road to the trail.
It’s a sweet ramble up through pine trees to the side of a ridge covered in Oregon White Oak, Washington’s only native oak, according to signage. This conservation area was established to protect them. They are sculptural. Even their bones are beautiful.
The wildflowers are a bit past prime—no one saw them at their peak, at least not legally—but still beautiful. I’m still learning names: Arrowleaf balsam root (the sunflower one), yellow desert parsley (the crazy starburst), Columbia desert parsley (under the sunflower, not quite at prime), lupine, manroot or wild cucumber (the white one), a couple of not good photos (star flower?), and the crazy pine tree bloom.
Mt. Hood comes into view, the valley stretches out below, blue sky above. God, it is good to be out. I’m really lucky to be living through a pandemic where I do, but I’ve missed these adventures to new trails this spring.
Marveling and taking photographs slows me down, but still I’m nearly back to the trailhead in under three hours. I’ve seen no one until now, when I pass (separately) two couples. We all put on masks when we spot each other approaching. I step aside, though they would have. Back on the bit of road, I meet a runner, no mask. Then a family with small children, no masks. I edge to the far side of the road and the dad seems to smirk as he greets me. In the parking lot are two men about to head to the trail that I’m quite sure would rather shoot me than put on a mask. The lot is nearly full; and my heart is full from my early sole ownership of the trail.
I decide to take a detour and go visit the Wind River Experiment Station, or at least that’s what it used to be called. It was my father’s first job and my parents’ first home in the PNW after the War. I’ve been there before, but suddenly I have an overwhelming desire to be there again. I’m not quite sure where it is, as it turns out.
I turn off Hwy 14 at Carson and drive past the sign indicating the Hemlock-Stabler community that was quite a stunning discovery the first time I was here, when my mother asked if I saw it, remembering it. But I don’t find the old houses and work station where they lived. I’m disappointed.
I filled up with gas in Carson and decide to just keep going up through the Gifford Pinchot, avoiding the Vancouver interstate exchanges. Several routes up here are not kept cleared in the winter, but this one is dotted with Sno-Parks, so it at least should be open year-round. I pass snow patches in the ditches. Sure enough, the cut off to Randle is still closed, and the one to Lewis River Falls. But this one to I-5 at Woodland, past views of off-limit Mt. St. Helens is beautiful.
I pass restaurants with “temporarily closed” signs on them. Churches advertising online worship. Businesses with yellow caution tape across the parking lot entrances. We live in interesting times.
It is a lovely four mountain day: St. Helens, Hood, Adams, and a glimpse of Rainier from the interstate.
I love where I live.