“It’s going to be a tough year” in the Gorge, Lipman said. “We don’t want to discourage the public from visiting, but we do want people to stay safe and have an enjoyable experience. We hope people will be patient.”
Here’s our patient, practical guide to the Washington side this year, with a special eye toward the hidden gems that most visitors overlook as they crowd the famous sites. “We want people to get to know the hidden Gorge,” Lipman said. “Visit the alternative trails that nobody knows about. You may have them to yourself.”
To make sure of that, leave early and finish up early. Sprint all the way out east and then work your way back. Try Tuesday through Thursday rather than Saturday or Sunday.
The gorgeous Gorge can be confusing, Lipman and Tkach agreed. Its public facilities are owned and operated by numerous agencies, including two state parks departments, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Land Management, the Washington Department of Natural Resources and the Friends organization, as well as some private landowners. Many maps are incomplete; many parking areas and trailheads are easy to miss.
“It’s true, to find them sometimes you already have to know about them,” Lipman said.
From west to east, here they are.
• Washougal’s Gorge: Take a peek at the Gorge’s scenic wonders without leaving Clark County. The 1,049-acre Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge marks the east end of Washougal and the west end of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. The parking lot is small; the flat, gravel trail crosses wetlands offers great wildlife viewing and birding and interpretive panels and art.
• Saint and Sam: Two small, riverside sites with beautiful views, wheelchair accessibility and picnic areas; hardy hikers tend to blast past on the highway, so the parking stays pretty empty. St. Cloud is a short universal-access loop that explores a historic apple orchard, with views of Multnomah Falls across the river. Sams Walker is a secluded gravel trail with interpretive panels that crosses historic farmland.
• River to Rock: The Washington side’s most famous site must be Beacon Rock, with its safe-but-vertiginous 848-foot, 52-switchback clamber up fenced-off stairs. Just across state Highway 14 is the diverse Hamilton Mountain Trail, known for cool waterfalls, beautiful vistas and challenging ups-and-downs that link with further trail networks.
Parking gets crowded at both trailheads, but the riverside Doetsch Day Use Area, about a mile west, offers plenty more. From there you can walk the River-to-Rock Trail to reach Beacon Rock and start your climb; or, just enjoy the Doetsch Walking Path, a paved loop with benches and interpretive panels about a historic family ranch here.
• Cresting Gillette: Park at the Bonneville trailhead overlooking Bonneville Dam, take the gravel Tamanous Trail from Bonneville Trailhead and turn left onto the Pacific Crest Trail; enjoy views of ponds, peaks and waterfowl as you reach Gillette Lake, a stocked trout lake. “It’s a great, gentle day hike — but it’s starting to get hammered” by crowds, Tkach warned.
• Riverside history: “Not getting hammered,” she added, is the easy riverside loop around what explorer William Clark called Strawberry Island (now Hamilton Island). To get there, turn into the hamlet of North Bonneville and take West Cascade Drive to Portage Drive. Extend your visit by hopping east to pick up a brochure and stroll the self-guided tour around the vanished town of Cascades and the Fort Cascades site. This easy-to-miss area is a gem of historic interest.
• Whistleblower: One strategy for beating crowds and cars in the Gorge is to get a little outside the Gorge. Try driving a few miles north from Carson to Stabler on Wind River Highway to explore local logging history and learn about the stressful, safety-minded labors of the whistle punk — the guy who blew a loud whistle to alert others that logs were in motion. The Whistle Punk Interpretive Loop is an easy family hike featuring boardwalks and interpretive panels. “You barely see another soul there,” is Tkach’s experience.
• Going to the Dog: Dog Mountain, a short, steep, super-popular climb because of its stunning wildflowers, has been overrun for years. Given the Eagle Creek fire, officials have gotten serious about limiting access. You need a special permit to hike there; you need to pay for parking too. Skamania County is running weekend shuttles there.
• Welcome Wagon: “I’m hesitant to share my new favorite, secret trail,” Tkach said, and then she shared it: The Weldon Wagon Trail, another spot technically outside the Gorge Scenic Area. Take Highway 141 north to Husum, right onto gravel Indian Creek Road, left onto Indian Cemetery Road. “Some would say it’s not worth going,” but the five-mile out-and-back along a historic wagon road features “carpets of wildflowers below huge sculptural oaks,” Tkach said. “These oaks are different than any you’ve ever seen.”
• Loop or long: The town of Lyle offers options. On the west side of the Klickitat River is the short, universal-access Balfour-Klickitat Loop, a great place to watch birds. On the east side is the long, dramatic and mostly flat Klickitat State Park Trail, a former railway that’s been replaced by gravel. Mountain bikes and horse riders are welcome here as well as hikers; the 31-mile trail has numerous access points as it follows the river north. Lupine and balsamroot bloom in spring.
Friends of the Gorge: gorgefriends.org
This excellent, recently updated site has everything you need, including maps, detailed hike descriptions and links to transit information. Also try www.columbiagorgecarfree.com
Washington State Parks: parks.state.wa.us
Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (U.S. Forest Service): www.fs.usda.gov/attmain/crgnsa
East of Lyle, a gravel parking lot gets you into the Lyle Cherry Orchard. This is a steep but rewarding 5-mile out-and-back climb with “amazing views,” Tkach said, adding that it’s one of the few trails owned and managed by Friends of the Gorge (and that it’ll double in length as soon as permits are approved). The name is historical and you won’t find many cherry trees here — but you will find a beautiful scrub-oak savannah.
• Up and around: Birders, wildflower peepers and archaeology lovers all dig Columbia Hills Historical State Park, which combines several sites and straddles the highway about 100 miles from Vancouver. Alas, unless you arrive here early, you’ll find it one of the most overrun spots in the Gorge.
One site is Horsethief Lake, which includes great examples of Native American rock art. Some is visible to the public, but the ancient “She Who Watches” petroglyph can be viewed only via ranger-guided tours. Register in advance by phone at 509-439-9032 or 509-773-3145. A little east of there you can walk around, or climb up and through, a basalt castle called Horsethief Butte. Rugged hikers and rock climbers love the challenging but short interior trail. The biggest challenge is the tiny parking lot.
But here’s what’s new: about 1 mile east of Horsethief Lake is Crawford Oaks, an extensive trail network that meanders up and around rolling hills while climbing to Dallas Mountain Ranch, a historic site. The Crawford Oaks parking area is typically meager, but more parking areas, trailheads and other neat secrets are hidden on the hillside above. Follow Dallas Mountain Road a couple miles to the northeast to attain high-altitude parking and trailheads, stunning views, excellent birding and, perhaps, paragliders lifting off.
• Up and away: Just outside the Gorge Scenic Area — but richly scenic, both outside and in — is the Maryhill Museum of Art. For a whole different exploration experience, wander its delightfully odd collection of modern art and other treasures; enjoy lunch, local wine and staggering Gorge views from the outdoor patio.
Did You Know?
• Henry Biddle bought Beacon Rock in 1915 for $1 and spent three years installing those stairs. That makes 2018 the trail’s 100th anniversary. When Biddle learned that the Army Corps of Engineers wanted to seize and destroy the rock for gravel, he offered it to the state as a park. The governor balked at the gift, so the same offer went to Oregon, which was eager to accept. Shamed by the prospect of an Oregon park on the Washington side, Biddle’s gift was finally accepted by this state.
Foot traffic not only kind clogging Gorge: Transit options exist but are limited, as is space to park cars
Then, leave the Gorge behind and head north about 25 miles, through Goldendale, to Brooks Memorial State Park. “It’s a very different ecosystem, much more desert, but very beautiful in its own right,” said Lipman. “Lots of oaks, lots of amazing views of the Columbia Plateau.” With 9 miles of hiking and equestrian trails, Brooks is a “great way to get some exercise in a less-visited park,” she said. Brooks also offers tent camping, cabins and an education center.
Normally after taking in Brooks’ earthly views, you could pop down to Goldendale Observatory State Park at night to peer through a big telescope. But the observatory is closed for renovations through June 2019; meanwhile, Goldendale astronomers will offer solar shows at 4 p.m. and evening sky shows at 8:30 p.m., Thursday through Sunday, all season long, down at the riverside Stonehenge Memorial at 87 Stonehenge Drive, Maryhill State Park.
Visiting Stonehenge is always free and always amazing. Hike down the slope to pay your respects at the grave of visionary builder and eccentric Sam Hill — without whom you wouldn’t be standing there, contemplating the wonders of the Columbia River Gorge.