Hiking, then writing

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Craig Romano laughed when asked if he’s a “professional hiker.”

He prefers to call himself a “full-time outdoors writer.” But to do that job requires a lot of time on the trail.

Romano hiked 800 miles in 13 months researching the routes for his latest guidebook, “Day Hiking Columbia River Gorge.” That overlapped with another 1,500 miles he put on his hiking boots for his upcoming book, “Backpacking Washington.”

In the past few years, he has become the foremost author of hiking books The Mountaineers Books, which offers the most extensive series of hiking guidebooks for the Pacific Northwest.

He shared some of his favorite Gorge-area hikes during a high-energy talk before the Willapa Hills Audubon Society this week at Lower Columbia College.

Romano, 49, is a relative latecomer to the region. He grew up in New Hampshire, where he was a backcountry ranger in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. He was also a guide in the Pyrenees of France and Spain.

Romano, a Mount Vernon resident, has lived in Washington (and hiked about 14,000 miles here) since 1989. He has a BA in history and Masters in Education from the University of Washington.

Romano did Mountaineers guidebooks on hikes in the Olympic Peninsula, North Cascades and Central Cascades before heading south to the Columbia River area.

Though several other hiking guidebooks are devoted at least in part to the Columbia River Gorge, “all of them had one thing in common,” he said. “They were written by Oregonians. They were Oregon-centric.”

However, most of the new trails in the Gorge are on the Washington side, he said, such as Bells Mountain, described below.

Exactly half of the 100 routes in Romano’s book are in Washington. Of those, 11 are in Clark County.

One of those is the 2.2-mile loop in Paradise Point State Park, near Ridgefield. “If you’ve never gone there, you’re going to be pleasantly surprised,” he said. A few road miles away are the La Center Bottoms, “one of the few places in Southwest Washington where you can see sandhill cranes,” he said.

He promised his hike-savvy audience that they wouldn’t know about at least one route in his book -- and a show of hands proved it. (For me, it was the Sedum Point hike near Stevenson.)

The Gorge offers diverse attractions, Romano said, from gut-busting slopes to flat, family-friendly strolls. Though the Gorge is known for waterfalls, he wanted wildflowers on the book’s cover to highlight that attraction, especially this time of year.

One of the Gorge’s best-known wildflower hikes is Dog Mountain, a 2,945-foot-high summit on the Washington side.

“If you’ve done only one hike in the Columbia River Gorge, this is it,” Romano said.

To bypass the crowds on Dog Mountain, he suggested hiking up the adjacent Augspurger Mountain.

Romano called Silver Star Mountain east of Battle Ground “the premiere hike in Southwest Washington. Some of the best meadows in the Cascades are on Silver Star.”

He recommended the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Washougal for the Audubon birders. Birds usually seen only east of the Cascades sometimes fly down the Gorge to Steigerwald, he said.

Other river-side trails are on the 24,000-acre Sauvie Island, most of which is an Oregon wildlife area.

Romano does describe several well-documented waterfall hikes on the Oregon side of the Gorge. His favorite is Latorell Falls, reached by a 2.3-mile loop. Romano cautioned that the parking lots for it and other popular trails relatively close to Portland are the most-visited by thieves who break into parked vehicles.

At the other extreme of use, “the quietest trail in the Gorge is Bell Creek,” he said. That’s because it’s a 15-mile trek on the Oregon side of the river.

Though his Gorge book has been published and his backpacking guide is due in June, Romano isn’t resting his legs.

Because he turns 50 later this month, he’s training for the White River 50 Mile Trail Run at Crystal Mountain on July 30. People may sponsor him for the race, with proceeds going to the Washington Trails Association -- a group that may build more trails to write about.