Dog Mountain is so bloomin’ popular with hardy hikers, the U.S. Forest Service has again instituted a spring-weekend permit system to prevent the place from getting loved to death. Permits are required Saturdays and Sundays, April 20 through June 16, and they cost $1 each. That’s down 50 cents from last year. Parking costs $5 per vehicle every day, not just weekends.
Why so popular? Just over an hour from downtown Vancouver, Dog Mountain offers some of the Columbia River Gorge’s most scenic joys, featuring dizzying vistas and dazzling wildflower meadows of yellow, white, deep purple and flaming red. Visitors used to overwhelm the parking area on spring weekends, forcing some to park and walk on narrow state Highway 14, endangering themselves and motorists.
That’s why the Forest Service launched its permit reservation system in 2018. It’s back again this year, providing greater sanity at the trailhead and greater access for hikers who’ve always liked Dog Mountain but never competing with crowds. “Last year’s program was highly successful,” said Lynn Burditt, area manager for Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. “Many people said they hiked Dog Mountain for the first time last year, because they didn’t have to wake up early to beat crowds into the parking lot.”
Visit Recreation.gov to reserve up to four permits. With 250 permits available per day, planning ahead is crucial. Northwest Forest Passes and other interagency passes are accepted as payment, but a Dog Mountain pass is still mandatory. Washington State Park passes don’t get you into this federal site.
A hiking permit does not guarantee parking at the trailhead, which costs an additional $5. Consider parking at the Skamania County Fairgrounds in Stevenson and taking the $2 round-trip shuttle to the trailhead; riders will get a free hiking permit, too. The shuttle runs every half-hour from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends, through the season.
Permits, passes and fees
Different jurisdictions govern different parks and trails in the Gorge. Here’s what they require for a visit:
WA Discover Pass for state parks and recreation lands: $11.50 for one-day pass (can be purchased onsite), $35 for one year. parks.state.wa.us
N.W. Forest Pass for many, but not all, federal and Forest Service lands: usually $5 for a one-day pass, $30 for one year. Dog Mountain permits here. fs.usda.gov/main/crgnsa
Dog Mountain: site-specific permit for $1, plus $5 parking fee. fs.usda.gov/main/crgnsa
Shuttle riders also get discounts at some Stevenson businesses, including Walking Man Brewing and Big River Grill. Who doesn’t want a meal and a brew after a steep hike?
If you’re determined to bypass all crowds and permits (except parking) at Dog Mountain, the Forest Service recommends staying far away from weekends. Try Tuesdays through Thursdays.
You’d find it pretty hard to avoid seeing Gorge wildflowers in spring, when much of the landscape is lit with natural Technicolor. Still, the experts at Washington State Parks and the Washington Trails Association offered some specific Washington-side wildflower recommendations other than Dog Mountain.
From nearest to farthest, they said, you can expect stellar wildflower viewing at Cape Horn, Hamilton Mountain at Beacon Rock State Park, the Coyote Wall/Catherine Creek trail network, the Klickitat State Park Trail, Lyle Cherry Orchard and Columbia Hills State Park at Crawford Oaks/Dalles Mountain Ranch. To research these sites’ attractions and challenges, visit the websites of the Washington Trails Association and Friends of the Columbia Gorge, both of which offer thorough, interactive databases. When I went to the WTA’s “hiking guide” page and selected Columbia River Gorge and wildflowers/meadows, 34 different hikes came up. Narrow your own search by difficulty, length, other features and driving distance. (You can also revisit The Columbian’s story from last spring, featuring park descriptions and big Gorge maps, at columbian.com/news/2018/apr/29/hiking-washington-side-columbia-gorge)
A note about accessibility: People in wheelchairs will still need a little help, but our experts recommend trying the Catherine Creek Universal Access Trail (paved but steep in places) and the Balfour-Klickitat Day Use Area near Lyle. Closer to home is Sam’s Walker, a milelong, flat, gravel loop near the Skamania General Store that makes for a mellow visit to the Columbia riverside. “It’s very pretty, great for flowers, and you can sit on a bench by the river,” said WTA hiking guide manager Anna Roth.
Art and stone
If you’re all flowered out, head farther east to Maryhill, which offers a pair of the Gorge’s oddest, most storied non-natural attractions. Road builder Sam Hill’s mansion was supposed to anchor a utopian farming community until World War I got in the way; Hill was convinced by European friends to repurpose the three-story Beaux Arts mansion as a Pacific Northwest outpost for high culture. Today’s Maryhill Museum of Art has an eclectic collection of European and American artworks and artifacts, beer and wine in the cafe, and unbelievable riverside views on the outdoor patio.
Five miles west is Hill’s accurate scale replica of Stonehenge, the ancient British monument, which he built as a monument to Klickitat County’s World War I casualties. Visiting Stonehenge is whimsical, a little eerie, and free. Sam Hill himself is buried in a crypt down the slope.