Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Hamilton Mountain (Columbia River Gorge)

Hamilton Mountain rises above the Columbia River Gorge
7.5 miles loop, 2100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Washington State Parks Discover Pass required

The massive basalt cliffs of Hamilton Mountain provide marvelous views over the Columbia River Gorge, making it one of the most popular hikes on the Washington State side of the gorge. This hike in Beacon Rock State Park visits some pretty waterfalls en route to the views from Hamilton's big cliffs; the variety on the hike makes it one of the more enjoyable hikes in the Columbia River Gorge. Its location overlooking the Bonneville Dam, just an hour from Portland, makes it an extremely popular destination with local hikers.

I hiked Hamilton Mountain during an early November trip to the Columbia River Gorge, hoping to see some fall color on the deciduous trees in the area. From Portland, I took I-205 north across the Columbia River into Washington and exited onto Washington Highway 14 heading east. I followed Highway 14 past Camas and Washougal, enjoying the views at Cape Horn before continuing onward to Beacon Rock State Park. At Beacon Rock State Park, immediately after passing a sign welcoming me to the park on the left side of the road, I made a left turn onto a side road that was only marked by a sign that said "Camping"; I followed this road uphill and took the first right turn, which brought me into a sizeable parking lot that was the trailhead for the Hamilton Mountain hike. As this was a Washington State Park, I displayed my Discover Pass before starting the hike. On a sunny and cold November weekend, the parking lot was full.

I left the parking lot on the trail to Rodney Falls and Hamilton Mountain. The trail started out with a gentle ascent through the forest for the initial 0.3 miles before emerging into a power line clearing. The clearing provided a clear view due east down to the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, from which these power lines emanated, carrying hydroelectric power to Vancouver, Washington and beyond. In this clearing, the Hamilton Mountain Trail intersected with the Hadley Trail, which led off to the left towards the Beacon Rock State Park campground. I stayed the course, returning into the forest on the Hamilton Mountain Trail. The trail continued making a gentle ascent through the forest and came to a junction with a spur trail to Hardy Falls at 0.9 miles.

The spur trail to Hardy Falls branched off to the right of the trail and dropped about 50 feet in elevation; however, it was not a particularly worthwhile detour as there are not good views of the falls from the trail. Prettier waterfalls lay just ahead on the trail and were more enjoyable stops. Shortly after passing the Hardy Falls spur trail, I came to another spur trail on the left that led to the Pool of the Winds. This short side trail ended at a cliff walkway above Rodney Falls and a view into a beautiful gorge where a waterfall on Hardy Creek plunged powerfully into the Pool of the Winds. The force of the waterfall indeed resulted in gusts blowing out of the pocket gorge. This spot had the feel of a slot canyon and is one of the prettiest waterfalls on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge.

Pool of the Winds
I returned to the main trail, which crossed Hardy Creek on a well-built bridge just below Rodney Falls, a pretty cascade, at the one mile mark of the hike. This is a popular spot; expect the bridge to be crowded on a nice weekend day.

Rodney Falls
From Hardy Creek, the trail began to ascend more steeply, passing a gap in the trees with a view down to the Columbia River and Beacon Rock. At 1.2 miles from the trailhead, I passed an intersection with the Hardy Creek Trail, which split off to the left. I would return on the Hardy Creek Trail as this was a loop hike, but on the way in I continued uphill on the Hamilton Mountain Trail. The amusing trail sign here labeled the two routes as being "Difficult" and "More Difficult." The "More Difficult" route lived up to its billing, embarking on a steep switchback climb up the slopes of Hamilton Mountain.

View of Beacon Rock and the Columbia River from the Hamilton Mountain Trail
The Hamilton Mountain Trail switchbacked up to a bald, rocky ridge stretching south from the main mountain, reaching the top of that ridge at 1.7 miles. This ridge had arguably the best views of the hike: the massive basalt cliffs of Hamilton Mountain rose above, while the Columbia River Gorge was laid out below, with the mightiest river of the Northwest cutting its way through the Cascades. Deciduous trees were intermixed into the conifer forests below, providing pockets of yellow autumn color that spiced up the scenery. The mountains on the Oregon side of the river rose steeply from the Columbia, creating the dramatic topographic relief that makes possible the many waterfalls on the Oregon side, which include Multnomah Falls, Oregon's tallest drop.

Basalt cliffs of Hamilton Mountain
The Bonneville Dam held back the Columbia River just to the east of Hamilton Mountain. The Bonneville Dam is the last of the many dams on the Columbia River before its waters finally reach the Pacific Ocean. The nearly 200-foot high dam holds back the Columbia River to generate renewable and cheap hydroelectricity for the Northwest and to protect downstream communities from floods that previously ravaged the towns along the Columbia. Started as a New Deal project in the Great Depression, the Bonneville Dam- along with the Grand Coulee Dam- was one of the first major hydroelectric projects along the main trunk of the Columbia River. The slackwater reservoirs held back by this dam and seven others between here and Hells Canyon allow for barge traffic as far inland as Lewiston, Idaho. The power generated from this dam has helped keep electricity prices in the Northwest lower than just about anywhere else in the country.

The Columbia River is just barely above sea level at the downstream side of the dam: sea lions from the Pacific swim upstream as far as the base of the Bonneville Dam. Salmon swim to this dam each year, too, on their way back to their spawning grounds higher up the river. Fish ladders help the salmon surmount the dam, but this dam and the numerous others upstream make the journey more difficult and have altered the river's natural flow, which has severely impacted the salmon runs on the Columbia River. The salmon runs each summer and fall now are just fractions of the size of the monumental salmon migrations that nourished Native peoples all across the Northwest and that amazed Lewis and Clark.

Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River
I followed this ridge north to reach the base of the main cliffs of Hamilton Mountain. Here, the trail began switchbacking aggressively again as it ascended another 600 feet to reach the summit of Hamilton Mountain. Early in this ascent, the trail switchbacked through a clearing with views west along the gorge as the Columbia River flowed by the bases of Larch Mountain and Beacon Rock. I didn't realize it at the time, but this would actually be the last good view in a while, as the views are actually quite limited at Hamilton Mountain's true summit.

Beacon Rock and the Columbia River Gorge
The trail returned to the forest for the remainder of the ascent until it reached the summit ridge of Hamilton Mountain at 2.8 miles from the trailhead. There was an unmarked intersection at the top of the ridge; the trail to the right led to a dead end at the 2438-foot summit, where there were no real views to speak of. I followed the trail to the left, which continued north along the summit ridge; unfortunately, vegetation was quite tall here and views were quite limited, though not nonexistent. After 0.2 miles along the ridge, I came to a raised rock ouctrop by the trail; hopping on the outcrop, I found some nice views, most notably to the northeast of Table Mountain's impressive columnar basalt cliffs and Mount Adams in the distance. Table Mountain's cliffs were massive, dwarfing the basalt cliffs on Hamilton Mountain. The basalts that make up Table Mountain, Hamilton Mountain, and Beacon Rock are a result of the Columbia River Flood Basalts rather than volcanism in the Cascades. Volcanic activity from a hot spot over what is now eastern Washington and Oregon resulted in massive eruptions of low-viscosity lava that flooded the Columbia Basin and flowed west along the Columbia River Gorge, forming thick layers of flood basalts.

Table Mountain and Mount Adams from Hamilton's summit ridge
Leaving the rocky viewpoint, I continued north along the ridge, which was generally forested. The trail then descended off the ridge to the west and traversed slopes just below the ridge to reach an open, rocky saddle at 3.7 miles from the trailhead. There were good views from this saddle: Table Mountain towered over the Columbia River to the east, while the rocky ridge of Hamilton Mountain that I had just hiked rose to the south, with Mount Hood's snowy summit peeking out behind the mountains on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge. This was a nice, quieter spot on the trail with plenty of room to spread out, sit, and enjoy the scenery; it was also the last major viewpoint on the hike.

Table Mountain and the Columbia River Gorge
Mount Hood and Hamilton Mountain
When I soaked in enough of the views, I decided to complete the loop to get back to the trailhead. From the saddle, I walked north to the edge of the clearing, where I came to a well signed junction; here, I took the left fork for the Equestrian Trail, a road trace which began to descend into the forest. I followed the Equestrian Trail gently downhill for a mile through a broad switchback, dropping into a deciduous forest where the trees were displaying beautiful fall colors in the late afternoon lighting. I passed by a junction to the right of the trail for Don's Cutoff and a mile after leaving the saddle I came to another junction with the Upper Hardy Creek Trail at the bottom of a valley. Here, 4.8 miles from the trailhead, I turned left to follow the Upper Hardy Creek Trail south.

Descent along the Hardy Creek drainage
I followed the Upper Hardy Creek Trail briefly to a small clearing with a picnic table. Here, I headed to the left at the junction with the Hardy Creek Trail, leaving the Equestrian Trail. I followed the Hardy Creek Trail through the forest on the lower slopes of Hamilton Mountain for the next 1.2 miles, passing through beautifully illuminated autumn woods. The trail passed a few clearings with limited views en route and dropped steeply at the end as it descended to rejoin with the Hamilton Mountain Trail. From there, I followed the Hamilton Trail for the final 1.2 miles back to the trailhead.

Autumn woods near Hardy Creek
The views of the Columbia River Gorge and the Bonneville Dam from Hamilton Mountain were quite good, although the best views did not come from the summit. The waterfalls en route- especially the Pool of the Winds- gave this hike plenty of variety. The fall colors in November visible both in the forests along Hardy Creek and in the Columbia River Gorge below were surprisingly nice. The hike is a bit on the popular side so it might not be so fun during peak summer hiking season, but I found it to be an enjoyable experience during the shoulder season.

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. 

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.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Mount Aix

Mount Adams, Goat Rocks, and Mount St. Helens behind Nelson Ridge
12 miles round trip, 4400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous
Access: Bumpy dirt road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass may be required (but probably not)

The Cascades of southern Washington State hide a giant: Mount Aix, a high peak that caps the wild, rocky ridges of the William Douglas Wilderness Area. Mount Aix is the tallest peak in the southern Washington Cascades outside the three volcanoes (Rainier, St. Helens, Adams) and the Goat Rocks. Its height gives hikers that reach its summit commanding views of the range. This is a rarely-trod corner of Washington State where hikers can find far more quiet than at nearby Mount Rainier National Park or the highway corridors near Seattle and Portland. The hike to the summit is a demanding, relentless climb but ends with a spectacular walk along Nelson Ridge with the option of a fun but slightly exposed Class III scramble to the top. I enjoyed this hike immensely during my fall visit, when I also got to catch beautiful fall colors on nearby western larches.

I hiked Mount Aix on a sunny late October weekend. From the Puget Sound area, I took Highway 410 east and south from Enumclaw to Cayuse Pass in Mount Rainier National Park; at the junction with Highway 123 at Cayuse Pass, I stuck to the left to stay on Highway 410, crossing Chinook Pass and then descending into the valley of the American River. I turned right onto Bumping River Road, following it past Goose Prairie and Bumping Lake. Past Bumping Lake, the road became NF-1800, a dirt road; I followed it for 2.5 miles and then headed left at the junction with NF-1808, an even bumpier dirt road that led a final 1.5 miles to the trailhead, marking by a small sign for Mount Aix. There's a small turnoff to the left here but I simply parked next to NF-1808; there's no bathroom or sign indicating a Northwest Forest Pass is required, even though we were on National Forest land.

I followed the trail heading east from the trailhead, which headed into the forest and immediately began a steady but moderate climb for the first 0.25 miles to reach the foot of Nelson Ridge and enter the William O. Douglas Wilderness. Here, the terrain steepened substantially and the trail headed to the south (right) as it began a steep and relentless uphill that would make up most of the hike. Through this ascent, the trail stuck fairly close to a creek as it made innumerable switchbacks. A few breaks in the trees yielded views of nearby western larches, which were showing up bright color in late October; this otherwise the climb was a bit monotonous at times as it ascended constantly through the drier forests characteristic of the eastern Cascades. There were no larches directly along the trail.

Larches along the ascent
At 2.5 miles the trail left the creek and began switchbacking into more open slopes, coming to the first views at 3.3 miles from the trailhead. One of the rocky summits of Nelson Ridge, a major north-south ridge in the William Douglas Wilderness, rose ahead. 

Nelson Ridge
More notably, the open slopes brought view of Mount Rainier to the west. Nelson Ridge and Mount Aix provide a less common perspective on Rainier: viewed from the east, the three major summits of Rainier- Columbia Crest, Point Success, and Liberty Cap- could be seen at the same time. Little Tahoma was visible but instead of standing out to the side of the larger Tahoma, it blended into the rock and glaciers of Rainier's eastern face. This was a lovely angle from which I could nearly see the full lengths of the Nisqually, Cowlitz, Ingraham, Emmons, and Winthrop Glaciers, all of which are among Rainier's most impressive glaciers. Disappointment Cleaver cut through the glaciers down the center of the mountain. This was a good angle from which to study the entirety of the Disappointment Cleaver climbing route up Rainier (which I had just completed a few months prior).

First views of Mount Rainier
As the trail continued to make broad switchbacks while ascending Nelson Ridge, trees thinned even further and soon the widening views soon also encompassed Bumping Lake and the western larch forests near the reservoir. While Rainier and the surrounding peaks would still be visible later from Mount Aix, views of the Bumping River valley were only to be had during this stretch of the ascent.

Bumping Lake
After 4.7 miles of hiking from the trailhead and 3500 feet of elevation gain, I arrived at an intersection with the Nelson Ridge Trail just slightly below a saddle on the crest of Nelson Ridge. Here, I took the right fork, which kept me on track for Mount Aix. The trail paralleled Nelson Ridge as I headed south, continuing to ascend until the trail made a sharp left turn as it wrapped around a small summit on the ridge. At this point, I decided to visit this small side summit and left the main trail by turning to the left and ascending up the slopes of loose rock through a hundred additional feet of elevation gain to the local high point. While this is not a requisite detour for the hike to Mount Aix, this small summit provided fantastic views of mountain to the north and south along the dramatic spine of Nelson Ridge, with Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens visible to the south on either side of the ridge. Mount Aix, the sharp peak that was my destination for the day and the tallest peak in the area, rose steeply to the east: I thought that this summit gave the most impressive view of Aix.

Mount Aix from a summit on Nelson Ridge
I returned to the main trail and followed it east as it began heading towards Mount Aix, taking the high ridge connecting Nelson Ridge to Aix. The trail lost 160 feet in a brief descent from Nelson Ridge to a saddle; after passing the saddle, the trail followed the top of the rocky ridge directly in a thrilling stretch with views in all directions. 

Mount Rainier and Nelson Ridge from the ridge out to Mount Aix
The trail gained 300 feet from the saddle as it came to an unmarked junction one mile past the previous junction with the Nelson Ridge Trail. There are two routes to the top of Mount Aix from this trail: the first is a steep, Class III scramble route that departed to the left of the main trail here, while the other is a longer route on trail that circled around the east side of the summit before reaching the top. I chose to ascend via the scramble route and returned via the trail; you can cut off a half mile round trip from this hike by taking the scramble route both ways or add a half mile if you skip the scramble altogether. This unmarked scramble route left from the main trail and made a very steep ascent up the rocky slopes of Mount Aix, requiring a few exposed scrambling moves towards the very top as it ascended 300 feet in just a tenth of a mile up through a rocky gully. This was the most challenging and arguably the most fun stretch of the hike and ended at the summit.

Looking back down the scramble route
From the 7766-foot summit of Mount Aix, I had a magnificent view of the peaks of the William Douglas Wilderness as well as of the great peaks of the Cascades to both the north and the south. The surrounding rocky peaks included the north-south crest of Nelson Ridge, which ended at Bismarck Peak to the south. Forests of golden western larches filled the Hindoo Creek valley to the south as well as the two cirques to the north of Mount Aix.

Aix's prominence meant that the view farther afield seemed to encompass all of the southern and central Cascades. Every inch of skyline to the west was filled with a peak. All five Washington State volcanoes were visible, although Baker and Glacier Peak were both very far away and very faint. Fifes Peak, the Goat Rocks, and the Tatoosh Range were notable mountains at a medium distance, while farther afield the view included Mount Si, Kaleetan Peak, Snoqualmie Mountain, Summit Chief, Mount Daniel, Mount Maude, Mount Stuart, and just about any other peak you can think of between here and US Highway 2. To the east, the rocky ridge of Mount Aix faded out and forested plateaus stretched east towards Yakima, which in turn faded into the bare desert ridges that rise above Yakima Canyon. A layer of haze blocked the view out into the Columbia Plateau.

Mount Rainier and Nelson Ridge
Mount Adams and Goat Rocks
Snoqualmie Pass peaks and Mount Stuart on the horizon
These mountains were a favorite haunt of a young William O. Douglas, for whom this wilderness area in Gifford Pinchot and Wenatchee National Forests is named. Douglas grew up in nearby Yakima and wandered these mountains before he left this wilderness for the world of law, becoming the youngest justice in the history of the Supreme Court when he was nominated by Franklin Roosevelt and confirmed by Congress in 1940. He went on to become the longest serving justice in the history of the Court.

After soaking in the views for over an hour and enjoying the summit by myself, I started my return. Rather than descending the scramble route that I had come up, I chose to follow the proper trail down. The trail followed the east ridge of Mount Aix after an initial descent onto the mountain's north slopes. A steep descent down talus slopes brought me down to a small permanent snowfield that remains on the north side of Mount Aix. Here, the trail skirted the moraine of this snowfield; it must have once been a glacier and indeed it's of a size such that a similar snowfield in a more southerly state might be called a glacier. After passing the snowfield, the trail crossed over the the east ridge of Mount Aix and then followed the ridge down to join back up with the Mount Aix Trail, 0.3 miles after leaving the summit. Here, I took the right fork to head west back towards the trailhead. After another 0.3 miles of traversing the loose rock on the south slopes of Mount Aix on a narrow trail, I returned to the spot where I had previously departed the trail to start the summit scramble. Returning via the trail added an additional half mile of hiking relative to simply coming back down on the scramble, but it was substantially easier hiking. From there, I made my way back for the final 5.7 miles, making a small ascent to reach Nelson Ridge and then pushing myself through the lengthy and knee-busting descent to reach my car by sunset. 

Snowfield along the Mount Aix summit trail
Washington State has plenty of beautiful hiking destinations and it is tempting to write off Mount Aix as just another hike. Visitors and novice hikers will find more rewarding experiences at the national parks, in the North Cascades, or at easier hikes closer to the Puget Sound; however, hikers looking for wide-open views and solitude will find that Mount Aix is a good antidote to the increasingly over-crowded nature experiences around Mount Rainier or even the Goat Rocks.