Last spring, as we all got re-educated about the potential dangers of indoor air, my personal mission became clear: to gulp down as much fresh air as possible while exploring the great outdoors.
The outdoors don’t get any greater than our own nearby Columbia River Gorge, where I continue escaping with regularity. Coronavirus has provided a yearlong excuse to go Gorge myself.
Thick forests that give up the occasional western Gorge vista are grand, but what enchants me most is how the landscape transforms as you head farther east — morphing from verdant green to rocky golden brown, dramatically tilting to expose millennia of geologic history.
The word “awesome” was invented for this, I often think while trying to keep my eyes on the highway.
Here’s my guide to that farthest-out quadrant of the Columbia River Gorge, northeast of the Hood River Bridge. To preserve the awesomeness, considering going on a weekday, not an overrun weekend. Pick a site or two for an easy day trip. Or, if you’re a curious completist like me, try an early morning sprint out to the east end of the Gorge — that’s just over 100 miles — and then meander back at a leisurely pace.
Opened in 1940, the Maryhill Museum of Art’s richly odd collection was shaped by gifts from Hill’s European friends and topped off with modern American, regional and Indigenous pieces. Museum entry costs $12 and is by preregistered, timed admission because of the pandemic. The museum cafe remains closed. But the dreamy grounds are open to the public: sculpture lawn, picnic tables and veranda with jaw-dropping views of the Gorge.
Pictures of history
West of the museum are Horsethief Butte and Horsethief Lake.
Horsethief is such a cinematic word, I hate to reveal the boring truth: The name was applied by park developers who liked cowboy movies. The new lake was created by the rising waters of the Dalles Dam in the 1950s. There is no history of rustlers hiding horses here.
And yet, the place feels so evocative of history. Try picturing the native fishing village that thrived for centuries here as you walk the short, easy hike halfway around the small butte. Try scrambling up and into the interior, where you’re equally likely to discover squads of rock climbers or ghostly silence.
When waters were rising behind the new dam, ancient petroglyphs on nearby rock walls were saved from submersion, stored away and eventually assembled into an outdoor walkway exhibit called Temani Pesh-wa (“Written on the Rock”) that’s on public display next door at Horsethief Lake. The legendary petroglyph Tsagaglalal, “She Who Watches,” is also here but viewable only via preregistration for ranger-guided tours that have restarted, after a year off, on Fridays and Saturdays only.
Those Horsethief sites are the riverside anchors of immense Columbia Hills State Park, a 3,637-acre wonderland of undulating hills that offers pleasantly gentle hiking — after a moderate climb up a dirt road from the Crawford Oaks trailhead, minutes east of Horsethief on state Highway 14.
Avoid that climb by driving 2 miles up rocky-but-reasonable Dallas Mountain Ranch Road (well-marked, west of Horsethief) to designated parking at the top. Take in heavenly views of the rolling landscape, then stroll big hiking loops between grassy fields, oak valleys and, in April and May, bright bursts of balsamroot and lupine.
Up for more challenge? A few miles west of Columbia Hills is the steeply scenic Lyle Cherry Orchard hike, a 5-mile out-and-back that starts at a poorly marked trailhead on state Highway 14. The going is rugged and steep, the views rewarding. Nature has thoughtfully provided a pair of beautiful, grass-carpeted plateaus for rest on the way up.
Up for no challenge? Stroll the paved Balfour-Klickitat Loop, just west of the Klickitat River on Old Highway 8. The way is less than a mile, round-trip, and favored by bald eagles all year long. Farther west on Old Highway 8 is the paved Catherine Creek Universal Access Trail — on the south side of the road — another short, easy hike that combines great birding and unbelievable flower power.
Arch and wall
On the north side of Old Highway 8 is the greater Catherine Creek area, which offers several looping trails and a diverse landscape favored by the Gorge’s wildest flower fans. To explore paths that will keep you busy for a couple miles or more, go right at the trailhead and be ready for moderately difficult hiking. To skip the tough stuff and enjoy an easy walk to a natural rock arch, go straight.
A few miles west of Catherine Creek is the eastern Gorge’s supreme (in my humble opinion) hiking site, Coyote Wall. There are two trailheads on state Highway 14 — one on Old Highway 8, one at Courtney Road — which you likely can’t miss because they’re so busy.
Why so supreme and busy? The massively crooked plateau here is so dramatically scenic, it just might make you forget you’re climbing up, up, up. Choose your own adventure amongst a spiderweb of trails. For maximum beauty, hike the easternmost Hidden Canyon trail into the Labyrinth, which isn’t as scary as it sounds — just strenuous-but-gorgeous hiking along grassy canyons and rocky cliffs. For huge views, take the western trailhead and work your way up the Old Ranch Road or Little Maui trails. At some point you’ll want to veer west and stand upon the edge of creation.
Where’s this famous wall?
You’re right on top of it.
There’s always more to explore in the Gorge — the more I go, the more curious I get — but sometimes your knees do insist that they’ve had enough.
Consider dipping those knees, and the rest of you, in the delicious outdoor hot tub at The Society Hotel in the town of Bingen, where a one-hour spa session costs $25 (it’s free for guests spending the night). Either way, it’s by appointment only.
The hotel is the remodeled Bingen School, built in 1937 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and charming evidence of its former educational mission is still everywhere. My wife and I stayed overnight in the “Social Studies” room and enjoyed browsing the highly literary library in the cafe and lounge, where drinks and coffee are served.
Coronavirus rules are strictly enforced here, so you’ll be wearing a mask nearly everywhere you go — even in the spa area, even inside the sauna.
The Society Hotel’s website offers eight different Gorge day itineraries tuned to different personalities, from wine tourist to mountain goat to souvenir shopper.
Bingen is right on state Highway 14, while the adjacent town of White Salmon is easily missed because it’s not. But between the two of them you’ll find all the dining and microbrews you could ask for after a day of exploring the eastern Gorge. Raise a glass to Sam Hill, and She Who Watches, and cowboy movies, and the CCC — and above all the ice-age floods, author of this amazing landscape, without which you couldn’t sit here and enjoy.