Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Dalles Mountain Ranch

Balsamroot blooms near the Crawford Ranch in the Columbia Hills
6.5 miles loop, 1100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Washington State Parks Discover Pass required

Each spring, the sun-bleached grassland slopes of Dalles Mountain in Columbia Hills State Park come alive with a profusion of wildflower colors. This hike makes a loop across the wide grasslands on a bench above the Columbia River, passing near Crawford Ranch and providing views into Oregon and out to Mount Hood. The hike is not difficult, with gentle climbs and descents through the rolling hills and wide open views the entire way. While it is possible to start this hike from either the Crawford Ranch or from the Crawford Oaks Trailhead off of Highway 14, here I will describe the second option. Wildflower blooms in the area generally peak in mid-to-late May.

I visited the hills on a camping trip with a friend on an April weekend; after setting up at nearby Maryhill State Park, we followed Highway 14 west past the Maryhill Museum and Wishram to the Crawford Oaks Trailhead at Columbia Hills State Park, which was on the north side of the highway. On a day with overwhelming volumes of rain in Seattle and Portland, it was sunny near the Dalles and the parking lot was full.

From the trailhead, we followed the wide multi-use trail up towards the meadows. The trail here was really a gravel road, which we shared with plenty of other hikers and a good number of mountain bikers. After meandering up from the parking lot, the trail made a sharp switchback and began to climb along the basalt cliffs that defined the canyon of the Columbia River. The Columbia River came into view, with Horsethief Butte a notable nearby landmark; Mount Hood was visible far off on our return during a break in the distant storm. The columnar basalt walls of the Columbia River Gorge here were the result of massive volcanic eruptions that left extensive lava flows throughout the Columbia Basin about 15 million years ago.

The Columbia River and Horsethief Butte
Mount Hood
The trail then turned into a ravine cut by Eightmile Creek, following the line of oaks growing by the creek to the north. Some wildflowers appeared here- desert parsley, balsamroot- but nothing that matched the bloom further up. In just under a mile, the trail crossed Eightmile Creek and came to a junction where the loop path split. On the left was the Military Road, on the right the Vista Loop; we chose to do the loop counterclockwise, heading east on the Vista Loop.

The Vista Loop climbed  uphill slightly before leveling out on the bench above the river, traversing open grasslands and passing beneath the power lines that ran through the park. Although few flowers were blooming here, the wide open views of the river and of the Dalles in the distance. Across the river, farmland covered the rolling hills of Oregon.

The Columbia River and the Columbia Hills
Hiking a little further along, we came to a lovely viewpoint of the Columbia River to the east. Today, the waters of the river look calm and peaceful, a result of the Dalles Dam that created Lake Celilo, the second of the reservoirs on the Columbia River that create a chain of slackwater from the Pacific Ocean to the confluence with the Snake. Submerged beneath Lake Celilo is Celilo Falls, once one of the most impressive rapids of North America. Each summer at this spot, where the full volume of the Columbia River made a 20-foot plunge, Native Americans congregated from throughout the Northwest to fish the extraordinary salmon runs. It's estimated that as many as 20 million salmon once ran these rapids every year. Native American fishing at the falls ended in 1957 when the rapids disappeared into the lake.

Lake Celilo and the drowned remnants of Celilo Falls
Continuing along the Vista Loop, we headed north from the river through the rolling grasslands. The wildflower show was still in its early stages and was perhaps a week or two away from peak bloom; while a decent number of balsamroot were blooming, in many spots I saw just the balsamroot foliage and no yellow blossoms yet. While some early lupine had bloomed and lupine foliage was plentiful, for the most part those purple flowers seemed at least a week or two removed from true bloom. Desert parsley was blooming well throughout, though, and I spotted plenty of blooming phlox as well.

Lupine and desert parsley
About a mile and half up the Vista Loop, we came to a junction with the Military Road. The trail to the left led back towards the parking lot; the trail to the right continued uphill towards Crawford Ranch. As we hadn't seen many flowers yet, we decided to continue the hike and see if we could spot more flowers closer to the ranch. The trail to the right towards the ranch continued through the undulating slopes and approached the base of the taller buttes that defined the crest of the Columbia Hills.

I was glad we continued on towards the ranch, as the best of the wildflower show was on the slopes nearby the ranch. As we approached the ranch, we transitioned from scattered pockets of flowering balsamroot to fields in full bloom. In some areas, there were even a handful of blooming lupine and phlox scattered with the balsamroot.

Views into Oregon
The trail came to another junction at the ranch itself: here, the Eightmile Alternate trail led back towards the Crawford Oaks Trailhead while another trail led just slightly uphill to the ranch itself and the upper trailhead for the hike. At this junction, we found the wildest profusion of flowers: yellow floral faces filled the prairie in all directions.

Balsamroot and lupine at Crawford Ranch
From the ranch, we followed the Eightmile Alternate Trail back towards the trailhead, enjoying the open views along the trails and the many patches of blooming phlox, balsamroot, and desert parsley.

Phlox and balsamroot
Trail through the Columbia Hills
The Eightmile Alternate Trail merged with the Military Road and descended back to the Eightmile Creek crossing to complete the loop. As we descended the gravel road back to the trailhead in the evening light, Mount Hood made a brief appearance and a last few rays of sun painted the hills in Oregon.

The hike through the Columbia Hills is certainly worth it for the spring wildflower show; it made for a fun trip combined with visits to the nearby Maryhill Museum and the Maryhill Winery.