Adventure Log: The Gorgeous Gorge

April 23
6 miles (to date: 17 / 70)

I took my annual obligatory adventure to the Columbia River Gorge yesterday. It’s not that the Gorge isn’t beautiful, it is. But it’s not mountains, it’s a long interstate drive, the trails are within hearing distance of another interstate, it’s peopley. On the plus side, it’s snow-free in April.

I went on Saturday because, in April, you take good weather when it shows up. It’s not that I’m not happy for the working world that weekends have been the best days lately, I am! But it’s cramping my style, and I have little choice but to get a 5:00 start on the day.

I went to bed Friday night and suddenly remembered the coffee kiosk doesn’t open until six on Saturdays. Crap! On a whim, I check the other Avenue Espressos in the area on my phone, and discover the one at Sunbird’s, right on a perfectly good route to I-5 S, opens at five. I go to sleep relieved that I will be able to get my road latte.

Rising to the orange slice of a moon, I pull up to the kiosk at 5:10. Closed. Damn. They need to update their social media. I’ll have to break down and go to Starbucks on the other side of Chehalis. I pray it’s open. It is, and I’m mollified a bit by the sweet (but not annoyingly perky) voice through the speaker. She asks me my name, and when I get to the window she greets me with it. I’m impressed that a young person is so cheerful at 5:20 on Saturday morning, and I return to the interstate, warmed from within.

It looks more like a pale lemon in the photo.

There’s deep fog the first half of the drive, until finally breaking out as the sun begins to blush the clouds pink then edge the distant foothills around Mt. St. Helens in gold. This is a way better drive than I-5 N.

My destination is Triple Falls in the Oneonta Gorge on the Oregon side of the river, just beyond the Multnomah Falls tourist destination. There are already cars in the parking area at 7:15, and I have a fair amount of company on the 3.5 mile round trip trail. For a moment I think Oregonians must get up earlier than Washingtonians, then I remember it’s Saturday. It’s a decidedly younger crowd than I’m used to during the week, and nearly as many dogs as humans.

A few minutes in, the trail turns, and the roar of traffic on I-84 gives way to the roar of Oneonta Creek in the canyon far below. They are nearly the same sound, and so different. A waterfall drops down the long far side cliff and crashes into the “creek.”

This area is the site of the 2017 Eagle Creek fire that raged for three months, burning 50,000 acres along the historic Columbia River Highway before it was contained, started by a teenager throwing fireworks into a canyon during a burn ban. The forest canopy is completely gone, and the standing trunks are charred.

The trail is rocky and narrow in places, but not nearly so alarmingly so as some trip reports on All Trails made it out to be—at least not relative to other trails I’ve hiked. I’m relieved. And there are flowers!

The falls are pretty spectacular too.

I go on as far as the bridge, not realizing there is more trail that goes beyond the burn, but I have another destination anyway.

I return to the car and continue east toward the intersection with I-84, running parallel to the historic highway, stopping at Horsetail Falls. Like Multnohmah Falls, it’s right there by the road. Not as satisfying as having to put in some effort to get to it, but spectacular.

I cross the Bridge of the Gods back to Washington. There’s a two dollar toll, which seems a bargain what with the deity connection.

I’m heading to the Wind River Arboretum. When my parents moved to Washington in 1946, after the war, my father worked for the forest service at the Wind River Experimental Forest in the unincorporated Stabler Community (I know!) and my mother started growing my older sister.

First, I take a detour down a forest service road to a lonely trail called Whistle Punk (#59 in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest). It circles through a turn-of-the-last-century logging operation, complete with interpretive signs and a few rusty pieces of equipment. The hemlock and fir forest is sublimely fragrant, and there’s an observation deck into a wetland where I stop to listen to a Grand Ribbit Symphony of unseen frogs.

I’ve been to the experiment station before (no longer in operation), and wondered if my parents lived in one of the houses. Sadly, I can’t remember now what my mother told me about it.

The experimental forest was established in 1932, to study the sustainability of exotic trees in the Pacific Northwest environment, but Forest Service research in the area began twenty years earlier. I walk through the arboretum, which is my destination, that I didn’t know was here the first time I came. I don’t know what my father did here, exactly, but now I have a better idea of what the “experimental” part was about. As a silviculturist, perhaps my father walked among and studied these very plots. They were here for only a few months before my father was transferred to Olympia.

There are signs throughout saying when a species was planted and where it came from, along with interpretive signs. Mostly the trees are not here. Turns out nothing grew well, that it was best to stick with species native to and seeded in the PNW, like the Douglas fir that tower for miles outside the arboretum. Even Douglas fir seeds from Colorado eventually failed.

Was it a failed experiment? No, not really. They didn’t find anything that grew well, but they learned a lot. Foresters now replant forest land with locally sourced seeds. Most interesting, at least to me, were the European and Siberian larches that grew much faster than Douglas fir over thirty years, but by the time they were fifty years old, they were weak and had stopped growing. “These experiments were done prior to large scale reforestation in the PNW, or foresters may have been tempted to extensively plant the larches.” No experiment is ever a failure, even if only to learn what not to do. (Also, the PNW’s own native species have been widely introduced in other temperate forests around the world, and do well.)

It was a fun day, culminating with Burgerville in Camas and the seasonal Oregon strawberry shake. I think I’ll make it a goal to sample all the seasonal shakes this summer. At least once.

You can read more about the Wind River Experimental Forest here.

To read about my upcoming memoir, Mother Lode: Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver 
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11 thoughts on “Adventure Log: The Gorgeous Gorge

  1. I love hearing about the connections between your adventures and your parents’ contributions to the land. It is also amazing to hear how the natural world regenerates after fire, yet also refuses to allow various species to grow in the eco-system. nature has so many lessons to teach us about how and where to thrive. Thanks for sharing this adventure.


  2. I’m glad I’m an early bird and don’t need to do Hamilton Mountain again … although never say never. I’ve been watching the forecast too … meh. Not a deal breaker for my excursions but the sun sure helps. Have you done Angel’s Rest?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve been eyeballing a couple hikes in the Gorge but hadn’t even seen this one. Glad to see you exploring “the other side”. With the flowers beginning down there I’ll begin looking in earnest for something beautiful. I have one new one picked out on the Washington side. That fire caused a lot of damage for sure, but if it is at all like the Norse Peak Wilderness fire off of 410, rebirth will come slowly, but it will come. Fun history about your Mom and Dad. I find myself really enjoying interpretive trails and signage these days. I’m ready for the warm. 

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s not a single nice day in the forecast until a week from Tuesday! Of course, that will change ten times. The parking at Hamilton when I headed back toward Camas around 1:00 was insane!


  4. I haven’t been to Oneanta, I’ll add that to my list. Walking through the burn is not a top priority – though it has its own beauty and lessons. And I won’t go to the Gorge on weekends. I do love Latourell Falls. And the fee thing on the old highway starts up Memorial Day. But I’m waiting waiting for some weekday sun to get out to the wildflowers, Memaloose or Tom McCall – they say peak time is coming right up, and I’ve only managed that once, it’s time to revisit. I had to look up silviculturalist, must be related to the word sylvan. Cool that you have history out there. I love the fascinating lessons learned. I love this whole post actually. Thanks for sharing your day!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I did not know about the highway fee. Glad I went now! Actually, two things surprised me. The people were not that troublesome (I went early). And I really hardly noticed the trees (maybe because I hadn’t been before). It did occur to me that I wouldn’t have been able to see the creek in the canyon and probably not that first tall waterfall if there had been branches.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, clear cutting and burning have that in common… 😦 The fee started last year and they say they refined it for this year, but I just don’t see how it can work well. It gets crowded in summer and you have to arrive well before 9.


      2. The fee situation does not sound like fun times. I’m usually at the Paradise gate before it’s even staffed! Haha. I do have a pass, but when I come back down around noon, the line is so long. People are stupid.

        Liked by 1 person

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