Gorge-ous wildflowers

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

Published:

 

BINGEN — The west wind is a bit chilling, but it also circulates the sweet scent of the desert parsley.

Add in the eye-popping beauty of the arrowleaf balsamroot and lupine, and it’s like hiking in a florist shop.

And, yeah, the views of the Columbia River Gorge from the Labyrinth trail at Coyote Wall are special, too.

It’s late April and the best weeks of the year to hike the eastern end of the Gorge are upon us.

By mid-June, the hillsides above the river will have dried and returned to their familiar beige-gray.

But now, the grasses are verdant and the wildflowers are starting to bloom.

Ryan Ojerio, Southwest Washington manager for the Washington Trails Association, said the Coyote Wall and Catherine Creek areas in western Klickitat County are unlike any he’s seen the Northwest.

“The progression of spring wildflower blooms at Coyote Wall/Catherine Creek are a sublime beauty set against the dramatic rock outcrops and sweeping views of the Columbia River,’’ Ojerio said. “It is an incredibly unique and surprising landscape.’’

WTA had 24 work parties between spring of 2013 and this spring and volunteered 1,915 hours restoring, rerouting and improving trails per the Forest Service recreation plan for the area.

The trails are enjoyable much of the year, but no season is quite like spring, he said.

“Spring is by far the best time to see nature’s color and vitality in an area that can be baking hot in the summer and bitterly cold and windy in the winter,’’ he said.

The trail network at Coyote Wall and Catherine Creek is a work in progress. A proliferation of user-created trails are being organized into a formal system, with some routes being closed for safety, private property or natural resource protection reasons.

“I wish that the Forest Service had funding to complete implementation of the Coyote Wall-Catherine Creek Recreation Plan,’’ said Susan Saul of Vancouver, who hikes the area fall through spring. “The trail system needs to be completed as authorized in the plan and trails need directional and identification signage and user information and orientation.’’

To hike Labyrinth trail, park at the junction of Old Highway 8 and state Highway 14 at the west edge of Rowland Lake. Walk to the west on the closed and broken pavement past a waterfall to a signed trailhead at 0.44 mile.

Head up the trail, which leads 2.5 miles up the side of the Columbia Gorge to a junction with the closed Atwood Road. Head west on Atwood Road to Coyote Wall, then chose one of the routes that lead downslope to make a loop.

Labyrinth is the name used by hikers, said Stan Hinatsu, recreation manager for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Mountain bike riders call it Hidden Valley trail.

Other trails at Coyote Wall informally are called Maui and Little Moab, he said.

Hinatsu said the Forest Service has some ideas for giving the trails at Coyote Wall formal names, but “we haven’t got to that point.’’

More work is planned on the trails at Coyote Wall, he said.

The trail along the Coyote Wall cliff face will be moved back some for safety reasons and away from critical habitat.

Hinatsu said the trail will travel along the cliff face in places, but not continuously.

The Coyote Wall portion of the area is used predominantly by mountain bike riders, while hikers predominate at Catherine Creek to the east, he said.

“I go there a lot, but I do not go there on weekends in the spring due to too many people,’’ Saul said.

“In fall and winter, the area is uncrowded and there still is great scenery, fall colors of the oaks and maples, and the area usually is beyond the edge of the rain,’’ she added.

In late December and early January, Saul and hiking companions look to see who can spot the first grass widow wildflower of the coming year.

“The first grass widow seems like a promise that spring is not far off,’’ she said.