Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Catherine Creek-Coyote Wall

Balsamroot grow along the Coyote Wall, high above the Columbia River
11 miles loop, 2700 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no parking fee

Packed with views of snowy Mount Hood, the great cliffs of Coyote Wall, and the mighty Columbia River, the loop hike from the Catherine Creek Trailhead to Coyote Wall is one of the best hikes on the Washington State side of the Columbia River Gorge. In spring, the landscape around Coyote Wall explodes with wildflowers, turning an already excellent hike into one of the finest in the Pacific Northwest at that time of year. If you're looking for variety, you'll find it on this hike: in addition to the features mentioned above, hikers can enjoy the waterfalls of the Labyrinth, a natural arch at Catherine Creek, and fabulously green grassy meadows on the slopes above the Columbia River.

Spring is the best time of year to do this hike, especially in the months of April and May. The grasslands of this landscape turn brown later in the season and the area is not quite as charming without its magnificent floral displays. Temperatures are also more moderate during the spring, as the area can get quite hot in summer. Watch out for poison oak and ticks; also, keep an eye out for rattlesnakes on the open, south-facing slopes of this hike.

I hiked the Catherine Creek-Coyote Wall loop on a sunny late April Sunday, when the spring wildflower bloom of the Columbia River Gorge was in full swing. From Portland, it was an 80 minute drive to reach the Catherine Creek Day Use area trailhead: I followed I-84 east to Hood River, taking exit 64 and then crossing the Columbia on the Hood River Bridge, which charged a $2 passenger car toll at the time of writing. Once across the bridge, I turned right onto Washington Highway 14 and followed it east for 6 miles, passing beneath Coyote Wall. I turned left onto Old Highway No. 8 when Highway 14 reached Rowland Lake; I followed Old Highway No. 8 around Rowland Lake and then steeply uphill through two sets of basalt cliffs to the Catherine Creek Trailhead, where there was ample parking along the north side of the road. The hike started from the far (east) end of the parking area.

Two trails branched out from the trailhead into the grasslands that lay uphill: the Bitterroot Trail, which led to the left, and Atwood Road (also signed as FR 020), a former road trace that headed uphill and to the right. The first stretch of this hike followed Atwood Road, so I took the right fork. Less than a hundred yards from the trailhead, I passed a junction with the Catherine Creek Loop Trail; I stayed on Atwood Road, which continued north into a canyon, soon entering the woodlands along Catherine Creek. After following Atwood Road a quarter mile from the trailhead, I came to a second junction with FR 021, which split off to the right. Here, I took a brief detour from the main trail to visit Catherine Creek Arch. I took the right fork and crossed Catherine Creek and then followed the trail a fifth of a mile north along the base of a large cliff of columnar basalt. A fifth of a mile from the junction, just before the road trace began a steep ascent, I came to an old corral on the right side of the trail. Looking up from here, I spotted Catherine Creek Arch, a natural arch of columnar basalt. While it's not the most visually impressive arch, as it is separated from the basalt wall behind it by just a narrow crack, it was still an interesting phenomenon to see, as basalt arches are not terribly common.

Catherine Creek Arch
Returning down FR 021 to the junction with Atwood Road, I continued uphill along Atwood Road, which began to ascend more steeply on the most extended ascent of the hike. Initially, the road trace stayed in bottom of Catherine Creek Canyon, but the road soon began to ascend away from the creek, following the base of the basalt walls on the canyon's west side. As I made my way uphill, I looked back for some nice views of Catherine Creek Arch. Soon, the trail entered a thick forest as it made a steady ascent, passing under some power lines and reaching a junction with Old Stove Road at just under 2 miles into the hike. At this junction, I took the left fork to stay on Atwood Road, which made a 180-degree turn and then emerged out from the forest into the open grasslands of Sunflower Hill at 2.2 miles from the trailhead. 

Arriving at Sunflower Hill, views opened up as I hiked through the meadows, which were a vibrant green with fresh grass in April. Snowy Mount Hood rose ahead of the trail above the green meadows, but the heart of the view lay to the east, where the Columbia River began its dramatic journey through the Cascades by cutting a water gap between Dalles Mountain and McCall Point. Tiered basalt cliffs lined the river on both sides, evidence of the massive and frequent flood basalt eruptions that shaped the Columbia Plateau millions of years ago. Memaloose Island lay at the heart of the Columbia River: this island was once a burial ground for the native peoples of the Columbia River. Based on native customs in the region, the dead were not buried and instead were wrapped in blankets and left on the island with funerary items.

The Columbia River flows past the Dalles
The trail- Atwood Road- passed a junction with the Bitterroot Trail as it crossed the meadows of Sunflower Hill and also passed underneath a set of power lines. After that, the trail returned to the woods briefly, crossing Rowland Creek and passing by another junction with the Rowland Wall Trail. At both junctions, I stayed on Atwood Road, continuing west; the road gradually narrowed into a single track trail. At 2.8 miles, the trail reentered a green meadow on the slopes high above the Columbia River. Over the next mile, the hiking on Atwood Road was extremely enjoyable: I followed the single track trail through open meadows, with small, profusely blooming wildflowers mixed in with the grass. The trail undulated as it crossed these high slopes, with some gradual ups and downs but little net elevation gain or loss. At 3.3 miles, I passed a junction with the Upper Labyrinth Trail; I continued forward on Atwood Road. 

Views from the meadows above the Columbia River
As I hiked through these high meadows, views of Mount Hood, across the river in Oregon and the highest peak in that state, gradually improved. 

Mount Hood rises above the Columbia River
At 3.6 miles into the hike, the trail passed through the scenic ravine of Labyrinth Creek. Further downstream, this creek carves out of the prettiest landscapes of the eastern Columbia River Gorge, but there was little hint of what was further downslope from this position. Entering the oak woodlands in the ravine, I crossed Labyrinth Creek on a small footbridge.

The upper canyon of Labyrinth Creek
Shortly after crossing the Labyrinth Creek ravine, the Atwood Road came to a junction with the Old Ranch Road, now 3.7 miles into the hike. After following Atwood Road for such a long distance from the trailhead, I finally left that trail for Old Ranch Road, taking a left at the junction and descending downhill. Although Atwood Road does continue west towards Coyote Wall, it passes over private land; the hike utilizes Old Ranch Road as a detour to prevent trespassing on private property. Old Ranch Road headed back out into an open meadow as it descended steeply, dropping 120 feet in just over a tenth of a mile with sweeping views towards Mount Hood. Along this stretch, I could see the house on nearby private property and hear lawnmowing on the nice spring day. 

Old Ranch Road then flattened out and turned to the right; at 4 miles into the hike, I came to a junction between the Old Ranch Road and the Traverse to Coyote Wall. At this junction, I took the right fork for the Traverse Trail, which ascended briefly via switchbacks to regain the elevation lost on the Old Ranch Road. I passed a number of junctions with road traces and trails after this, staying left at every junction to remain on the Traverse Trail. I traversed across grassy slopes with great views of Mount Hood until I finally came to a junction with the Coyote Wall Trail, 4.7 miles into the hike. This junction was obvious, as the traversing trail ended with a massive cliff to the west.

Meadows, Mount Hood
Two trails ran along the Coyote Wall: a path running directly along the cliff and another path set back about 50 meters from the edge. From the junction, I headed uphill towards the top of the wall first; I took the trail removed from the edge on the way up and then hiked down along the trail following the cliff. Here, I finally arrived at the great balsamroot blooms for which the eastern Columbia River Gorge is known. The meadows along the Coyote Wall were brimming with the big, yellow flowers of the balsamroot, a splendid sight that eased the steep uphill ascent up the hill near the wall.

Balsamroot meadows at the Coyote Wall
Although the path I followed uphill was slightly set back from the edge of the Coyote Wall, the scenery was still incredible; the steep slopes of the hill here were coated in balsamroot and then dropped precipitously off a nearby edge, with snowy Mount Hood towering beyond the drop. The trail here was quite steep as it climbed about 300 feet uphill over a third of a mile, with the two trails along the Coyote Wall coming together at the top of the Coyote Wall, a little over 5 miles from the trailhead.

View of Mount Hood and balsamroot on the rim of the Coyote Wall
From the top of the Coyote Wall, I admired the view of forest directly below the massive columnar basalt cliffs with Mount Hood in the distance; however, the view down the wall from here was not as great. I started following the wall-side trail downhill, which delivered constantly amazing views of the huge cliff, until I came to a viewpoint where I could see down the entire length of the wall, its massive basalt columns lining up all the way down to the Columbia River. 

Coyote Wall and the Columbia
I hiked along the Coyote Wall Trail down the length of the cliff for the next 1.5 miles. There were frequent trail junctions along the way, including a point where the Coyote Wall Trail briefly joined the switchbacking Old Ranch Road; at every junction, I took the fork that kept me closer to the cliff. The views were glorious the entire way down as the full length of the wall was in the open and covered with meadows bursting with balsamroot blooms. The mighty Columbia passed below at the end of the wall and Mount Hood rose above it all. I also had great views back up the length of the impressive cliff.

Looking up the length of the Coyote Wall
At 6.5 miles into the hike, as I approached the bottom of the Coyote Wall, the trail veered to the left away from the cliff and completed the 1500-foot descent from the top of the wall by switchbacking through pretty grasslands displaying blooming desert parsley and interspersed with small basalt outcrops. At 6.8 miles, the Coyote Wall Trail ended by joining Old Ranch Road, which I continued to follow downhill through a long switchback. I ignored the junction with the Little Maui Trail and after 7.3 miles of hiking I reached the roadbed of Old Highway 8, which has become part of the hiking trail system here.

Columbia River at the bottom of the Coyote Wall
I turned left at the junction with Old Highway 8 and followed it east for 0.3 miles, paralleling WA Highway 14, the railroad, and the Columbia River below. Desert parsley and gentian grew in the grasslands along the former road, along with a few California poppies, which are rare to spot this far north.

Gentian growing along Old Highway 8 near the Columbia River
At 7.6 miles into the hike, I took the Labyrinth Trail, which split off to the left and headed uphill from Old Highway 8. The Labyrinth Trail- true to its name- immediately dove into a maze of basalt buttes and oak woodlands. A little ways up the Labyrinth Trail, I passed a junction with the Little Maui Trail, bearing right at this intersection to stay on the Labyrinth Trail. Over the next mile, I hiked through the Labyrinth, a very scenic ravine that was another of this hike's many highlights. The trail followed Labyrinth Creek for a while up the canyon as it passed a number of waterfalls where the creek dropped down columnar basalt ledges. The prettiest of these waterfalls came about 0.4 miles up into the Labyrinth, where the creek cascaded down an angled basalt face into a pool below before flowing further down the rocky but green canyon to the Columbia River past patches of blooming desert parsley and balsamroot.

View of the Columbia River from the Labyrinth
Columnar basalt and waterfalls in the Labyrinth
At a half mile up the Labyrinth Trail, I crossed Labyrinth Creek while following the trail steadily uphill through the mixed oak woodlands and balsamroot grasslands of the canyon. Columnar basalt cliffs rose above the ravine, providing a stark and angular contrast to the lushness and rounded slopes of the canyon bottom. I saw some extremely geometric examples of columnar basalt in the Labyrinth- some of the walls displayed perfectly straight, evenly-size, and hexagonal columns with clean jointing, a sight that is still fairly rare in the area despite the omnipresence of basalt throughout the Columbia River Gorge and Columbia Plateau. Indeed, some of these examples looked as perfect as those found at Devil's Postpile in California or at other more famous columnar basalt sites.

Columnar basalt cliffs in the Labyrinth
Perfectly geometric columnar basalt
As I ascended through the Labyrinth, the trail left the creek and made its way uphill through a canyon of alternating woods and small meadows. Here, in the shadow of the basalt buttes and oaks, I found a handful of blooming chocolate lilies. These lilies, which have spotted brown petals, are a rare wildflower treat- I have only ever seen them here in the Labyrinth, although they occur across much of the North American west coast.

Chocolate lilies
The trail continued ascending until exiting the canyon and emerging into the grasslands above the Labyrinth. After 8.8 miles of hiking and after 700 feet of elevation gain after leaving Old Highway 8, I came to a junction with the Desert Parsley Trail. At this unmarked junction, I took the right fork to follow the Desert Parsley Trail east. The Desert Parsley Trail followed the contours of the hill through open, grassy slopes for a half mile, providing excellent views east to Rowland Wall and down to Rowland Lake below. Rowland Lake is actually an arm of the flooded Columbia River that became separated from the rest of the Columbia's slackwater reservoir by causeways carrying Highway 14 and the railroad.

Rowland Lake and the Columbia River
While traversing these open grasslands on the Desert Parsley Trail, I spotted a snake crossing the trail. I gave it some space and continued onwards after it had completed its crossing, but it was a good reminder to keep my eyes open: the warm, south-facing open slopes here are popular with snakes, including rattlesnakes.

Snake along the Desert Parsley Trail
The Desert Parsley Trail met up with the Shoestring Trail at 9.3 miles into the hike in a forest. The trail junction was unmarked; here, I chose to stay on the Desert Parsley Trail, which made a sharp switchback to the right and started descending via switchbacks, first through meadows and then through forest. After a third of a mile of descent, the trail reentered the open on a basalt talus slope. Here, the trail passes through an area known as Indian Pits: the talus structures near the trail were created by Native peoples of the Columbia River. The trail continued descending steeply as it passed Indian Pits, all the while providing constant views of Rowland Wall. Like Coyote Wall, Rowland Wall is a columnar basalt cliff, but it is not nearly as impressive as its better known cousin to the west.

Rowland Wall and the Columbia River Gorge
The trail approached the base of Rowland Wall, passing through beautiful slopes of desert parsley and lupine, and intersected with the old road trace of the Raptor Trail, now 10 miles into the hike. The Raptor Trail led downhill to the road but was closed at the time of my visit for peregrine falcon nesting; it is off limits to hikers between February and May each year. Instead, I took the single track that branched off to the left here, leading up and over the Rowland Wall.

Lupine-lined trail near Rowland Wall
Once atop the Rowland Wall, the connector trail brought me to the Rowland Wall Trail. I took the right fork here to head downhill for the final mile of the hike. Initially, this trail followed the rim of the Rowland Wall and was not unlike the Coyote Wall Trail; I enjoyed nice views to the west of Rowland Lake and the Columbia. The Rowland Wall Trail then turned to the east away from the cliffside, crossing the grassy slopes of lower Sunflower Hill. The trail passed through multiple fields of blooming camas here, a final wildflower treat of the journey's floral feast. At the final trail junction with the Bitterroot Trail, the Catherine Creek parking lot was already in view in the distance; I turned right at this intersection and followed the Bitterroot down the last grassy hill to complete the loop.

Camas near Catherine Creek
What a hike! While the Pacific Northwest is best known for moist conifer forests, soaring rocky peaks above glaciers, and alpine lakes nestled amidst huckleberry and heather meadows, the Catherine Creek-Coyote Wall showcases some of the best of what you can see east of the Cascades. The endless wildflowers, the spectacular basalt formations, the mighty Columbia- hike here to appreciate all this beauty. The area is quite popular with day hikers from Portland, especially the Coyote Wall portion of the hike, which can be accessed by a shorter hike from a different trailhead, but it's undoubtedly worth visiting.

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