TOM McCALL NATURE PRESERVE — One black crow floated in the blasting wind, its precarious grace interrupted by slapstick tumbles through space, wings and feet all flailing.
That’s how life feels now, I thought while peering through binoculars. We like to believe we’re leaders of the dance, and sometimes we are — until nature knocks us upside down and backwards, reminding us who’s really the boss of life on Earth.
You can enjoy that kind of solitary meditation on a weekday visit to the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. It was a sunny Monday and I was almost alone out there. When I did encounter other hikers, most of us pulled on face masks and we all did our best to make room — at least 6 feet of it — along the narrow trail.
Many trailheads and recreation sites in the Gorge have quietly reopened, but officials are nervous about people spreading the coronavirus by getting too close when they’re only trying to get away from it all. If you go, they urge, go on a weekday and keep your distance from fellow hikers. Always pull your mask on when others are nearby. There may be oceans of fresh air out there, but don’t forget how hard you breathe — expelling particles by the bazillions — while negotiating the terrain.
“I’d say go midweek, go early or later in the day, mask up within 10-20 feet to pass on the trail,” Washington State Parks spokeswoman Meryl Lassen said in an email. “Step aside, turn away and hug a tree.”
July is past the season when wildflowers blanket this spot. I saw lots of dried-out leftovers and a few tiny blue blooms among churning yellow grass. I didn’t encounter ticks and rattlesnakes, but those local residents are reportedly on hand here. There are no restrooms.
There are two adjacent trails at the Tom McCall Nature Preserve, and they offer a nice variety of challenge for hardy and not-so-hardy hikers. Downhill is Rowena Plateau, featuring a mile-long trail that meanders across rocky, rolling grassland but never gets too tough on the knees. You’ll arrive at plunging cliffs and take in picture-postcard views of the eastern Gorge.
Uphill is the switchbacking Rowena Crest trail to McCall Point, which starts out on flat, easy gravel before tilting upwards. You’ll climb through shady stands of twisted Oregon white oak before the trail emerges into strong sun and whipping wind. Take a breath and enjoy the peaks of Mount Hood and Mount Adams as they rise over distant horizons.
McCall Point is your destination, a scrubby plateau where you can take in lunch and top-of-the-world views. I couldn’t resist trying a trail that descends through more white oaks, then climbs a steeper, sharper ridge. After about a mile that path got pretty hemmed in by vegetation, and I turned around, satisfied with my explorations.
Stands of burned, lifeless trees dot the landscape, even all the way up here. More reminders that what seems beautiful, durable and somehow above it all is really as fragile and vulnerable as we are.
If you’re looking for easy, wide-open walking or cycling with great views and without worry about breathing on people, stop at Oregon’s Starvation Creek to stroll or pedal the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail, a wide, paved work in progress sporting sweet new connections and viewpoints in the Wyeth-to-Viento corridor (Starvation Creek is in between). The main trailhead is out at Mosier.
Parks and trails have reopened on the Washington side too, including the sprawling Columbia Hills and the super-steep Dog Mountain. Beside the Bonneville Dam is the Tamanous Trail, a short segment that feeds the Pacific Crest Trail, which meanders north past several remote lakes — but that way is tight and rugged, leaving no room for physical distancing. (If you do hike from Bonneville, try this scenic rest across the road afterwards. Hop over to the dam visitor area and drive west where there’s a small parking area and steps leading down to a bench at the water’s edge. This must be the grandest view a dam worshipper can get.)
Not enough room is why the most popular Gorge sites remain closed, including Multnomah Falls and the waterfall corridor, as well as the stairway up the side of Beacon Rock.
“It’s a narrow trail, which makes social distancing almost impossible as people pass, and so many people touch the handrails – they simply can’t be cleaned or sanitized between uses,” Lassen said.
Instead, she recommends the Klickitat Trail, from Klickitat to Pitt or Lyle, as an excellent facility for social distancing while enjoying some truly great outdoors on the Washington side.
“It’s a mixed-use trail, so it’s got hiking, mountain biking and equestrian use,” she wrote.
Bring lots of water because it’s hot at this time of year, she said, adding that the upside is that fellow travelers along this gorgeous trail will be rare.