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News / Life / Clark County Life

Trek through time: Explore the past by hiking Southwest Washington landscapes with incredible views

From the Gorge to the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, history buffs and hikers have a plethora of opportunity

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: March 23, 2024, 6:13am

People were walking around this beautiful region long before it became known as Southwest Washington.

Why not welcome spring by following in some of those historical footsteps? Get some exercise by exploring the same landscapes our ancestors explored years, centuries or even millennia ago. Go forward, hikers — and keep the past in mind.

Geologic history

The entire Columbia River Gorge is a geologic-history site. Don’t let all that dramatic scenery wash over you without pausing to consider how it got that way.

While seismic and volcanic forces started building, lifting and carving the Columbia River landscape millions of years ago, the present-day shape of the Gorge is surprisingly young. It was between 19,000 and 15,000 years ago — which, in geologic terms, is really only yesterday — when the legendary Missoula Floods repeatedly broke through ice upriver and crashed down the channel, carving steep walls here, unleashing landslides there.

Head east past Hood River, where the landscape turns from green to brown, to revel in surroundings that still feel pretty raw. For dramatic hiking in the eastern Gorge, you can’t beat tilting, towering Coyote Wall and sweet, flowery Catherine Creek (U.S. Forest Service sites without fees or permits). A little farther east is vast Columbia Hills Historical State Park, where you can scramble all the way up Horsethief Butte or stroll miles of rolling pathways at Crawford Oaks.

Dotting the serene Crawford Oaks landscape are historical placards describing Indigenous pathways, ranching families and a misguided attempt at growing an oak forest here to encourage rainfall. There are also boulders that shouldn’t be here at all. Those are glacial erratics — rocks originating many miles upriver that were carried and deposited here by the ice floes of the Missoula Floods.

No visit to Columbia Hills State Park is complete without a drive up Dallas Mountain Ranch Road to the remnants of that historic ranch and an incredible view from what seems like the top of the world.

Indigenous history

If you plan to reach Columbia Hills by 9 a.m. on a Friday or Saturday, don’t fail to preregister for a tour at Horsethief Lake: a volunteer-guided hike through a restricted area where 75 indigenous petroglyphs (carvings into stone) and pictographs (paintings on stone) can be seen, including the famous Tsagaglalal (“She Who Watches”). The site remains sacred to local tribes and it’s off limits, other than guided tours, because of vandalism. Learn more about the site and the tours at the Columbia Hills website.

Even if you don’t make the tour, check out the permanent display outside the gate. These images were rescued and moved here when The Dalles Dam raised the water line in 1957, but hundreds more were submerged forever.

Steep Wind Mountain is another historical site in the Gorge that remains sacred today. (It’s also closer to Vancouver, about 50 miles away, and there’s no fee to park there.) A hardy hiker can conquer Wind Mountain in about an hour. It’s a kinder, gentler alternative to nearby Dog Mountain, which is equally steep but so much longer to climb.

The rock mounds and furrows atop Wind Mountain were built by tribal youth on vision quests, perhaps as long as 1,000 years ago. Stay in one of the designated viewing areas as you imagine what it was like to haul rocks around, up here on this windy peak, while awaiting a vision.

The Wind Mountain trailhead is tucked uphill from the town of Home Valley, off state Highway 14. Take Wind Mountain Road, keep right at the Home Valley Road cut-off and turn right onto Girl Scout Road. The parking area is unpaved. Walk down the road a few yards. The trailhead is on your right.

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Much closer to home is a historic riverside site that some still call Cathlapotle but many more today know as the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge ($3 parking fee). According to The Oregon Encyclopedia, Cathlapotle is the best known and best preserved of 55 Chinookan villages formerly along the lower Columbia River. Archaeologists have found the remains of six plankhouses there, some with extensive underground storage cellars.

Cathlapotle was a perfect perch for trade — and for safety, since its inhabitants could monitor the nearby river without being seen. The journals of earliest British and American river explorers here describe being suddenly surrounded by canoes paddled by tribal warriors who turned out to be perfectly friendly.

A new Chinookan plankhouse opened here in 2006. It’s been the site of educational and cultural programs, but it’s currently closed to the public. Walk the trails beyond the plankhouse to see an effort at restoring the stately oak woodland that Indigenous people used to maintain here through controlled burns. Settlers replaced all that with giant evergreens.

‘One Place Across Time’

Walk the Vancouver waterfront east of Interstate 5 to take in a remarkable sweep of history — from pioneer trading post to U.S. Army base and barracks to wartime shipyards. It’s all part of today’s national historic site. It’s easy to see why the marketing motto of the site used to be “One Place Across Time.”

Launch from the spiffy new parking lot on East Fifth Street. From here you can hop onto the Discovery Loop Trail to enter the reconstructed mid-1800s fort (closed Sundays and Mondays), visit the multicultural worker village outside its walls and head south over the Confluence Land Bridge (honoring Indigenous peoples and spanning state Highway 14 to reconnect land to river) to reach the waterfront. From there you can turn right to head downtown, up to Evergreen Boulevard and back over to the sprawling historic site. Evergreen Boulevard turns into Officers Row, where a couple of properties are named for the key historical figures who once lived and commanded troops here: Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and George Marshall.

For a hike that’s actually a stair climb, drive east on Columbia Way to the Marine Park Boat Launch, where the plain-but-profound Kaiser Shipyard Tower memorializes the massive drive to build warships here during World War II. (The Kaiser shipyard effort also spurred the creation of the Kaiser Permanente health maintenance organization.)

Back in the Columbia Gorge is the remnant of another historic fort. It’s easy to miss the Fort Cascades National Historic Site because it’s dwarfed by the adjacent Bonneville Dam, but in the 1850s this spot was a small settler town and fort. When the Army abandoned the fort at the start of the Civil War, settlers moved in and repurposed it. The town was destroyed by flood in 1894. Today, you can walk a flat, mile-long trail loop that explores the few artifacts that are left here — road beds, a set of railroad wheels and a grave stone.

Lewis & Clark

There’s barely a mile of the lower Columbia River shoreline that continental trailblazers Lewis and Clark didn’t explore. Frenchman’s Bar and Vancouver Lake? Cathlapotle village in Ridgefield? Captain William Clark Park in Washougal? Check, check and check.

The same is true over at the mouth of the Columbia, which was Lewis and Clark’s ultimate destination. That’s where you’ll find a bi-state complex of seven different national, state and local park units, all under the umbrella Lewis and Clark National Historical Park. At the park headquarters, south of Astoria, you’ll find a reconstructed encampment called Fort Clatsop. At Washington’s Cape Disappointment State Park, north of the river, you’ll find a lavish visitor center. Everywhere you go, you’ll find extensive hiking trails, some of which connect deep forests to ocean beaches.

State v. state

Beacon Rock may be the Columbia Gorge’s signature landmark. It’s astonishing to think that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers once wanted to reduce it to rubble for building material. Landowner Henry J. Biddle of Vancouver tried blocking that destruction by donating the unique volcanic plug to Washington as a state park. But after Washington said “no” to the gift, Oregon offered to say “yes,” which shamed our state into accepting the gift after all. (Wouldn’t it be weird if Beacon Rock, on the north shore of the river, was actually an Oregon beachhead here?)

The other Biddle gift appreciated by today’s Gorge sightseers is his vertiginous-but-solid, 848-foot, 52-switchback, fenced-off staircase to the top of the rock. It’s surprisingly easy to make the ascent. Take in the whole glorious scene, and ponder all the forces — both natural and human — that made it this way.

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; scott.hewitt@columbian.com