Friday, March 26, 2021

McCall Point

Balsamroot blooming at McCall Point
3.6 miles round trip, 1000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no parking fee

McCall Point is a low peak rising over the grassy Rowena Plateau at the eastern end of the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge, a short drive from the town of the Dalles. Each spring, the grassy slopes of McCall Point erupt with a riot of color as balsamroot and other wildflowers bloom in one of the most spectacular flower shows in the state. The balsamroot bloom of the eastern Cascades is a stunning sight that every resident of the Northwest should see in their lifetimes and McCall Point is as good a place as any to see these stunning wildflowers. The excellent views of Mount Hood, Mount Adams, and the Columbia River Gorge still makes this a rewarding hike at other times of year.

I visited McCall Point on a late April weekend, when the annual balsamroot display in the meadows here typically peak. April and May are the best months to visit this part of the Columbia River Gorge, when the grasslands are green and filled with wildflowers. The Tom McCall Preserve is closed from November 1 to March 1 each year to prevent erosion in the area when the ground is muddy.

The hike is about an 80 minute drive east of Portland. To reach the trailhead at the Rowena Crest Viewpoint from the city, follow I-84 east to exit 76 for the Historic Columbia River Highway and Rowena; upon exiting the interstate, bear right and follow signs to take US 30 (the Historic Columbia River Highway) east for 3 miles, making a number of switchbacks to reach the top of a plateau, where the turnoff for the Rowena Crest is on the left side of the road. I parked in the large cul-de-sac loop of the viewpoint; after checking out the view below of the winding highway that I had just driven, I walked over to the McCall Point trailhead at the other end of the parking loop.

The wide dirt trail left the parking lot and initially skirted the edge of the basalt cliffs defining the Rowena Plateau, providing some additional views of the curving switchbacks of the Old Columbia River Highway below as well as of the Columbia River itself flowing past basalt cliffs and green, grassy hills in the distance. The trail- flat for the first third of a mile- then crossed a broad meadow that was covered with brilliantly yellow blooms of balsamroot.

Balsamroot in bloom on the Rowena Plateau
After 1/3 of a mile, the trail made two broad, 180-degree turns and then began ascending along the east side of the ridge leading up to McCall Point. Here, the trail passed above incredible fields of balsamroot, paired with open views of the Columbia River below and the town of Lyle and the basalt cliffs of Dalles Mountain in Washington State across the river.

Balsamroot blooming above the Columbia River
Trailside vegetation was lush in late April as I climbed through oaks, patches of balsamroot and lupine, and desert parsley that had not yet bloomed.

Lush springtime vegetation along the McCall Point Trail
The trail ascended steadily through the forest above the grassy bench for a bit before climbing up onto the open, grassy slopes below McCall Point at 0.6 miles. The fields here were also packed with blooming balsamroot, lupine, irises, and paintbrush- not only were the nearby meadows blooming with wildflowers, but I could see the fields of yellow on the slopes of the nearby Memaloose Hills. The trail ascended steadily through this meadow via a set of switchbacks; views were amazing the entire way up, stretching to Mount Defiance rising sharply up the Columbia River Gorge to the west.

Balsamroot blooms along the trail
Balsamroot, irises, and paintbrush
As the trail switchbacked up the slopes on a still-moderate but increasingly aggressive grade, McCall Point itself rose ahead. The summit of McCall Point is protected in a preserve managed by the Nature Conservancy; the peak is an offshoot of Seven Mile Hill, which itself is part of the Columbia Hills, a range of rolling, high hills and basalt cliffs that is cut through by the Columbia just downstream of the Dalles. McCall Point is named after Tom McCall, a former governor of Oregon in the late 1960s and early 70s known for his towering environmental legacy in this state.

McCall Point rises in front of the trail
At a little over a mile from the trailhead, the trail reentered forest, embarking on a slightly steeper climb. At 1.5 miles, the trail reemerged into the meadows from the forest. The trail made a final few switchbacks on these open, high slopes as it made the final ascent to the summit. The views from these open slopes here were the best of the hike- even better than the views at the very top. Green meadows featuring bursts of yellow balsamroot blooms covered much of the Rowena Plateau below me, with black basalt cliffs dropping from the plateau down to the Columbia River below. A similar landscape lay on the opposite side of the river in Washington State and I saw occasional barges heading up or downstream on the Columbia past the town of Lyle. On a clear day, visitors can see Mount Adams rising to the north across the Columbia; on the day of my visit, I was only able to spot the snowy base of the massive volcano as there was still quite a bit of cloud cover. 

Columbia River Gorge views from the high grassy slopes of McCall Point
Mount Adams across the Columbia River Gorge
At 1.8 miles, I arrived at the top of McCall Point, which was a rounded, grassy summit. The flowers at the summit were just as good as the fields of flowers I had hiked through on the way up. McCall Point was not the high point of Seven Mile Hill- in fact, it is just a knoll on a ridge extending from that hill and a social path appeared to lead further up the hill, but crest of the hill to the south had dense tree cover and would not have provided the same views that I had at McCall Point.

Trees on the north side of the point actually obstructed views to the north and east from the very summit, although there were sweeping views to the west of Mount Defiance rising over the Columbia River and the nearby grasslands exploding with yellow patches of balsamroot. While I enjoyed the view from here, the clouds parted briefly to reveal Mount Hood, the sharp, glacier-covered volcanic pyramid that is the highest peak in Oregon. 

Balsamroot and the Columbia River
Mount Hood peeks out from the clouds
Following a social path from the very high point of McCall Point around the trees on the northeastern side of the summit, I came to a point with fairly nice views to the northeast. From here, I could look along the length of the Columbia Hills, with Seven Mile Hill on the Oregon side of the River and Dalles Mountain rising above the basalt cliffs on the Washington side of the river. Upstream of here, the Columbia River simply cuts through the basalt layers of the Columbia Plateau; but here, the Columbia River cuts through its first water gap downstream of Wallula Gap, launching it into its spectacular, nearly sea-level crossing of the Cascades.

Dalles Mountain rises above the Columbia River
There were a good number of other hikers on the trail at the time of my visit- spring is by far the most popular time to visit here because of the amazing wildflower blooms. Despite the crowds at that time of year, the balsamroot blooms here are truly impressive and I can't recommend enough visiting this corner of the Columbia River Gorge in late April and early May. 

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