The Columbia River begins in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, flows into the USA in the state of Washington, then turns west to form most of the border between Washington and Oregon. 2,000km long and with a drainage basin the size of France, it has the greatest flow of any North American river entering the Pacific.
At the end of the last ice age, the Missoula Floods carved a massive canyon through what is now the Cascade Ranges creating the 80km long, 1,200 metre high Columbia River Gorge.
Then, in about 1450 CE a massive landslip known as the Bonneville Landslide blocked the river. Native Americans called it the Bridge of the Gods as it enabled them to cross the mighty river without getting their feet wet. Over time, erosion weakened the land bridge and eventually the river broke through. The uneroded portions of the landslide remained, forming the Cascades of the Columbia. Perfect conditions for salmon to spawn, the area became an important fishery for the several local Native American tribes who would congregate here in the season to fish and trade. It remains an important salmon habitat as well as a mecca for hiking and camping thanks to its unique landscape.
For a bird’s eye view over the gorge, one of the best locations is the 11km up and back hiking trail to the top of Dog Mountain.
Stunning views and spring wildflowers mean this is one of the most popular hikes in the Gorge area. It’s rated ‘challenging’ as it ascends more than 850 metres in altitude in less than 5km, but the track is in good condition and it’s absolutely within the capability of anyone with reasonable fitness.
From the base of the mountain, the trail leads steeply up for about 1km before it splits. Both tracks lead to the top and there’s an encouraging directional sign with arrows indicating ‘difficult’ to the right and ‘more difficult’ to the left.
We chose ‘difficult’. Who wouldn’t? We’ve nothing to prove and we’d read that there is no difference in views either way.
We climbed steadily but it was cool under the forest cover. 2km further on, the trail emerged onto a grassy point with our first views over the gorge.
And plenty of blooming flowers.
After that the trail plunges back into the forest and becomes increasingly steep, as well as being quite loose underfoot in places. Another 1 1/2 km later, it emerges again from the trees at the site of a former fire lookout, now affectionately known as Puppy Point.
Here you find one of the reasons the trail is especially popular in Spring. The upper slope of the mountain is a meadow and between April and mid-June flowering balsam-root turn it into a blazing yellow carpet. It was past its best by the time we were there but you could get a sense of what it is like.
To the top is now less than 1km, winding up through the meadow. It gets quite blustery here but the views along the way are fabulous.
At the top of the mountain there is, alas, no 360 degree panorama. Indeed, no view at all as a stand of trees occupies the summit.
But just below the peak is a great place to sit, catch your breath and admire the view. A few locals were taking advantage of the 4th of July holiday. And because it’s a State park not a National park, dogs are welcome.
And then all that’s left to do is walk back down again. Job done.
On the way back to town we visited Bonneville Lock and Dam. The first of 7 built on the Columbia River system, it was constructed in 1938 under Roosevelt’s New Deal to improve navigability of the river and provide hydropower to the Pacific Northwest. It’s been expanded and extended since, but retains its original features and in 1987 it was declared a National Historic Landmark for its beautiful Colonial-Revival style design.
On the hills behind you can see the result of a forest fire which erupted on 2 September 2017 and burned for 3 months before it was fully contained. 48,000 acres of forest were destroyed. Smoke affected air quality as far away as Portland for weeks. Salmon hatcheries on the river were forced to release 600,000 fish. After the fire was extinguished, the Forestry Service had to cut down 9,000 trees along the Historic Columbia River Highway before the road could be re-opened. Five years on, some hiking trails remain closed.
The blaze was caused by a 15 year old idiot throwing a firework into Eagle Creek Canyon during a burn ban. His even more idiotic mates filmed the incident on a mobile phone. The footage inevitably came to the attention of police. The teen was sentenced to five years probation, was required to write letters of apology to various government departments and 152 people who were trapped on the Eagle Creek trail overnight when the fire began, and was hit with a restitution order totalling $36 million.
He’ll never be able to pay it of course, so to us the best bit is this – he was also ordered to undertake 1,920 hours of community service with the US Forest Service. That’s the equivalent of 6 hours per day every Saturday and Sunday for 160 weekends. Maybe spending every weekend for more than 3 years working in the forest, he might have gained some appreciation of the damage he caused. Or at least left him with no time or energy to do any other dumb things.
Anyway, back to the lock. The most fascinating aspect is the fish ladder. Dams obviously prevent fish moving up and down a river. That’s especially problematic for species like salmon whose life cycle depends on migration. The answer to the upstream obstruction is fish ladders, like a series of stepped pools through which the salmon can pass to get upstream of the dam.
For getting downstream, a system not unlike a waterslide at a theme park draws in the fingerlings and juveniles and shoots them down a water filled cylinder to below the dam. Lots of dams have fish ladders, but here at Bonneville a series of windows allows visitors to watch the salmon valiantly finning up the fish ladder.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service monitors the process closely. A team is employed to sit and count the number and species of fish making the journey. That’s sounds tedious but every now and then there’s a bit of excitement. Although the ladders are designed to only allow the passage of certain sized fish, in the past decade or so sea lions have worked out that salmon are prolific at the base of the fish ladder. Some have swum upriver from the coast – that’s more than 200km – for a feed and very occasionally one has made it into the ladder. Imagine sitting there counting salmon and all of a sudden there’s a sea lion in the window!
We stayed in the small town of Cascade Locks on the Oregon side of the gorge, near to the area famed for its waterfalls. In fact, this section of the Historic Columbia River Highway is known as the Waterfall Highway. Many are close enough to the road that you can see them just driving along. Others take a bit more effort. We walked a loop described as giving ‘the best bang for your buck for waterfalls in the area’. It didn’t disappoint.
The trail starts at Multnomah Falls, the second tallest year-round waterfall in the United States. The falls descend 165 1/2 metres to an upper pool, then cascades another 21 metres to the bottom.
A path leads from the base of the falls to the bridge over the pool separating the upper and lower sections, and then a switchback trail up to the top. The falls get 2 million visitors a year, and the trail gets busy enough that this year the parks service has introduced a timed-entry ticket system.
But once in, you can do other walks with no time limit. From the top of the falls, the East Larch Mountain trail leads up past several cascades and another three smaller waterfalls, Dutchman Falls, Weisendanger Falls and Ecola Falls.
The trail is lusciously green and humid, feeling almost sub-tropical.
These rocks looked like a giant snake stretching toward the river.
The trail climbed further and, rounding the mountain, emerged into a drier, sunnier microclimate where summer flowers were thriving.
We started to notice gobs of white goo on the stalks of many plants, described to us by a hiker we met on the path as ‘butt juice’. Newborn spittlebugs chew on leaf matter and then excrete and cover themselves in the froth. It protects them from predators and dehydration until late summer when they emerge as adult froghoppers. There was so much of it around, it looked like the spittlebugs had had an Independence Day party of their own.
Returning to the denser, wetter forest we reached beautiful Fairy Falls.
A few more kms brought us to another great view over the gorge.
And then, last but definitely not least, magnificent Wahkeena Falls.
On our last day we woke to low cloud and the threat of rain. Disappointing, as we planned to do a hike with views. Eternal optimists, we headed off anyway, to the Larch Mountain Crater Loop Trail. Larch Mountain is the second highest in the region and the largest of three shield volcanoes forming the Boring Lava Field, a collection of about 90 volcanoes active until about 57,000 years ago in the Portland area.
The crater is now a shallow bowl filled with Douglas fir, western red cedar, western hemlock and noble fir. Despite its name, there’s no larch here and never was. The name wryly references the fact that in the 1880s, loggers felled noble fir trees here and passed them off as larch, which was a higher value product.
The misty conditions made for quite a magical walk.
Some of this area was affected by the 2017 fire but regrowth is proceeding. Rhododendrons, which favour dappled shade to the complete cover previously provided by the thick forest, were in bloom.
Also bear grass.
It’s actually a lily, but is nicknamed bear grass as the black bears love the reedy leaves. We are told they like to amble along the paths made by humans, snacking as they go. Fortunately they prefer to avoid humans rather than attack them, so we saw plenty of chewed grass but no bears!
At the peak of Larch Mountain a side trail leads to Sherrard Point and a lookout with a 360 degree panorama with views of the five major volcanic peaks in the region – Mt Hood, Mt St Helens, Mt Rainier, Mt Jefferson and Mt Adams. At least, you can see them when the fog isn’t down around your ears. All we could see in any direction was this.
Oh well, at least it didn’t rain!
Next stop – the Willamette Valley for wine, more waterfalls and a giant goose.