Friday, March 30, 2012

Coyote Wall & Catherine Creek - Columbia River Gorge

Coyote Wall
6 miles round trip | 1,520 ft elevation gain

Coyote Wall trail
Finally, a dry, sunny weekend. There had been about 3 March weekends in a row of generous rain; and my cabin fever and urge to get out into the wilderness grew almost to the point of being unbearable. I love rain, but not three weeks in a row worth. Cut us Portlanders a break, Mother Nature! Come on, baby!

But when I read the five-day forecast a few days prior to my hike and discovered that the weather for the Eastern Columbia Gorge was going to be about 60 degrees and sunny, I got excited- about as excited as I get the day before leaving on a week vacation. Get me out of the house! For the love of black jeans...

Ok, according to my guide books, each of which I've probably read cover-to-cover three times thanks to the long, rainy winter, the best months of the year to visit the Eastern Gorge are March through May. Why? Two reasons. First: the wildflowers are beautiful out here during these months. Two: the Summer months get HOT out here; and unlike most other hikes you'll take in the wilderness surrounding Portland, there really isn't a whole lot of shade out here. In fact, having recently lived in Southern California, I've noticed more of a similarity between the Eastern Gorge and California that I do between the Eastern Gorge and the Western Gorge.

So, off to the Eastern Gorge! And note, when I say Eastern Gorge, I am talking about roughly the Hood River / White Salmon area and further east. It is here that the densely forested, mossy, dark-green, moist atmosphere you picture when you think of Western Oregonian wilderness becomes more arid, more sparsely forested, a bit less "green" and a little more "golden." Plus, spring comes a little earlier out here than it does further west, or so it seems.

There are three routes that you can take in your car out to the Eastern Gorge, one of which I highly recommend.

The first is to take interstate 84. This is by far the quickest route but for some reason I find it the least enjoyable. It's the most crowded and stressful route, and the road is made out of a rough and loud tarmac. Granted, compared to 99% of America's roads, interstate 84 through the gorge is one of the best. But it gets better.

The second is to cross over into Washington while still in Portland via either the interstate 5 bridge or the 205 bridge and taking Hwy 14 in Washington east all the way. I like taking this route better than interstate 84 because it is, for most of the drive, a calmer, twistier, more enjoyable road with less traffic. It also seems more scenic to me. But, its downfall is that the first leg of the drive, from Vancouver to Washougal is boring, industrial, trafficy, and seemingly always under construction.

The third route is by far the best:

Start by taking interstate 84 east toward Hood River. You'll pass some of the best turn-offs in the Gorge, including, but certainly not limited to, Multnomah Falls. Shortly after the Bonneville Dam you'll take exit 44 and end up in the small outdoorsy town of Cascade Locks, located on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and home to "Bridge of the Gods" (see first photo below), which has been standing since 1926. It costs $1 to cross the bridge into Stevenson, Washington. And as if crossing the bridge isn't cool enough (the views from the bridge, as well as the bridge itself, are quintessentially "northwest"), even cooler is knowing that your drive is about to get really kick-ass. From Stevenson, WA east, the drive gets better and better until you hit the Coyote Wall / Bingen / White Salmon / Hood River area. The views are some of the best in Oregon state, the road is full of twists and tunnels, and the occasional iconic BNSF freight train will go thundering by in the opposite direction. I love this road so much that even my future trips to Hood River from Portland will likely be via Hwy 14 across the river.

Life is too damn short not to take the scenic route every chance you get.

Crossing the "Bridge of the Gods" in Cascade Locks, Oregon
Coyote Wall in the distance from the parking area

You can't miss the parking area off Washington Hwy 14. Just look for the cluster of cars, most of which have some sort of bicycle rack/carrier equipped, parked at the foot of a giant rock face shortly after leaving the town of Bingen, WA heading west. One thing to note about this trail is that unlike most other trails, immediately upon arriving you can see your final destination. In this case, the final destination is the top of that big slanting rock face right in front of you. Now, this is no "El Capitan" in Yosemite, but it is impressive; and the views from the top are wonderful, especially on a sunny, Spring day like the one I experienced.

Alright, enough about the drive and the parking. Let's talk about the hike itself.

The very first thing you'll do on this hike is walk past a gate that keeps cars off of an abandoned, boulder-strewn service road (see photo below). After a rather lackluster quarter mile or so on the wide, paved service road you will come to the trailhead on the left. This dirt path that you're now walking on is an old Jeep road, and for much of the trail you can tell, especially since you'll occasionally have to choose one or the other tire groove to use as your path. If you just follow the old Jeep road you will, in about 2.9 miles, reach the top of Coyote Wall. But, let me make the following recommendation:

One thing you'll immediately notice upon arriving to Coyote Wall is the mountain bikers. They are everywhere, and rightly so! One thing that mountain-bikers and BMX-ers are good at is blazing new trails. Coyote Wall is full of these newer, more narrow, and most of the time much more thrilling, trails. Don't hesitate to leave the old Jeep road- there are more exciting paths to take within the web of mountain-biker trails (one of which I'll discuss below).

As long as you are going uphill and to the west you'll be making progress toward reaching the goal. Similarly, when it's time to come back down, as long as you are going downhill and to the east you'll make it back to your car. Be adventurous and veer off the Jeep road here and there.

Beginning of the trail on an abandoned road strewn with boulders
The start of the trail on an old Jeep road
The five photos below truly capture what it is like to climb to the top of Coyote Wall. Very different than the trails you would find in the Mt. Hood National Forest or Coastal Range, Coyote Wall trail reminded me of hiking in Southern California. There really isn't any shade here, and now I can see why both of my guide books do not recommend doing this trail in the blazing sun and heat of July or August. Expect meadow grasses and wildflowers rather than the mossy Douglas firs and fern-blankets of your typical NW Oregon wilderness. Also expect wind and lots of it. The view of the Columbia looking east gets better and better the higher you climb.

Coyote Wall trail
Coyote Wall trail
Two hikers on Coyote Wall trail - you can really see the old Jeep trail in this photo, one hiker in each tread
Coyote Wall trail

View of Columbia River from Coyote Wall trail looking east toward The Dalles
Now, I think I came a little too early for the blankets of wildflowers that notoriously cover these meadows in the Spring. I've read that they are at their best in more like mid-April than mid-March, when I visited. But I was able to see at least two different varieties: yellow Desert Parsley and purple Grass Widows.

Grass Widow

Yellow Desert Parsley
You know how above I had mentioned that web of mountain-biker trails that split from the main Jeep road path up to the top of Coyote Wall? Well below are some shots from one of them: a rocky area that gets you close to the Ponderosa Pine, something you will not see even 30 miles west of here. Ponderosa Pines are gorgeous trees. The definition of their trunk, as one friend put it, looks like a birds-eye-view of a pan full of brownies.

I'll be honest, if you do not venture off the Jeep path and into this area below the trail may seem a little monotonous. The landscape is the same for the whole trail unless you venture over to this little oasis of Ponderosas. This is also about the only place on the whole trail that offers a chance to get out of the sun and take a load off in the shade. I highly recommend cutting through this area either on your way up, down, or both.

Ponderosa Pine on the Coyote Wall trail
Ponderosa Pine, not a tree you see in the "western," more wet and coastal, parts of Oregon
Ponderosa Pine branch up close
a mountain biker on Coyote Wall trail
(Below) Once you pass an old fence you're nearing the top. You'll immediately notice the steep last-leg of the Jeep road right in front of you but fear not, there is an easier path to get to the top with switchbacks, some of which get you pretty close to the edge. It is really pretty neat up here. I would suggest plopping down and soaking in the view for a while. You may also get to watch BMX-ers clad in helmets and body armor bonzai-charge down the hill.

The steep final stretch - almost to the top of Coyote Wall
Coyote Wall - for size reference, note the hiker in the far left center of the photo
Coyote Wall - The trail does get rather close to the edge at times
Coyote Wall

Catherine Creek - Rock Arch
1 mile round trip | 100 ft elevation

I have to be honest, I would not recommend driving all the way out here from Portland just to visit Catherine Creek, especially if you're looking for some exercise or a challenge. You won't find either at Catherine Creek. Granted, that is not the reason why people visit Catherine Creek. Rather, they come for the wildflowers (which, word has it that you can spot up to 90 different kinds here in the Spring's prime). If I had arrived one month later than I did, amid the wildflower boom, then perhaps my emotional connection to Catherine Creek would drastically alter. But as of today, I do not really have one. The rock arch is pretty cool, but it really only merits a few minutes gawking before you're ready to move on. And there really isn't much to move on to after the arch, unless you want to climb up to the arch itself, which again is only interesting for a few brief minutes.

The trail to get to the rock arch is an old pasture-road that leads back to an old coral. The gate and fence of the coral still stand at the foot of the arch. The path is wide, not terribly exciting, and makes you feel as though you are trespassing on a farmer's land. If you're looking for a leisurely stroll into nature, Catherine Creek is for you. If you're looking for a hike, there are better options out there, including Coyote Wall not 10 miles away.

Rock Arch at Catherine Creek
Trail to Rock Arch - Catherine Creek
Either brave fording Catherine Creek or take the bouncy plank bridge on the left
Bridge over Catherine Creek
Approaching the old coral and the Rock Arch
Rock Arch
Old coral at the foot of the Rock Arch
Catherine Creek trail
My original plan was to hit Hood River right after a day of hiking for lunch and a pint or two at one of Hood River's renowned breweries. There is a lot of really good beer made in Hood River and I was eager to sample it at its freshest on location. I set my sights on Double Mountain Brewery first, since I recently tried two of their beers and found them to be two of the best I've ever had. But I literally could not find a parking spot anywhere!! I forgot how crowded downtown Hood River can get on the weekends (and especially this weekend, being the first nice weekend in about 3 months). Rightly so. Hood River is one of the coolest towns I've ever visited in the US.

I decided to bite the bullet and just head home. After all, hiking season has just started and I will find myself in Hood River quite a bit over the next several months.

I got home, kicked off the hiking boots, went out to my porch, and treated myself to a fresh cigar straight out of my humidor and a bottle of local porter. Ave Maria cigars by A.J. Fernandez and Deschutes Beer. Two of the best in their class, respectively. All I could think about on that porch was how hiking season was finally beginning. Needless to say, I smiled.

Ave Maria by A.J. Fernandez and a Black Butte Porter by Oregon's own Deschutes Brewery

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Rodney Falls & Little Beacon Rock - Columbia River Gorge

.....Continued from the previous blog entry, titled Beacon Rock - Columbia River Gorge 

Bridge at the foot of Rodney Falls

Rodney Falls via Hamilton Mountain Trail
2.2 miles round trip | 600 ft elevation gain

After wolfing my Tillamook Country Smoker beef sticks and wishing I had about three more, I zipped back into Beacon Rock State Park to hike up to Rodney Falls. To get to the trailhead, you turn north off of Hwy 14 right across from the Beacon Rock parking area. This road will end up at a campground, but shortly before you'll see the marked parking area for the Hamilton Mountain trailhead. I will, in due time, hike to Hamilton Mountain. But, being a 7.6 mile hike with a 2,000 foot elevation gain, I decided to save it for another day in the coming Spring. Instead, I hiked 1.1 miles from the trailhead to Rodney Falls and the Pool of Winds (which I will describe below).

The hike was, as I expected, very muddy.

From the trailhead to Rodney Falls you experience a mixture of thick forest and open space underneath, of all things, powerlines.

To Rodney Falls - Hamilton Mountain Trail | Beacon Rock S.P.
To Rodney Falls - Hamilton Mountain Trail | Beacon Rock S.P.
To Rodney Falls - Hamilton Mountain Trail | Beacon Rock S.P.
Rodney Falls
Like most waterfalls, you can hear it before you can see it. Same goes for Rodney Falls. Upon approaching the falls you will see a sign leading you up a very short side trail to something called "Pool of Winds." Go see it! In about 100 paces you'll be perilously leaning over a guard rail and peering into this grotto-like rock bowl, into which the top half of the falls pours into and out of which the lower half of the falls gushes loudly and violently out of.

Needless to say, you'll get wet up here with the spray, so if you have a nice camera on you like I did, I wouldn't suggest sticking it into the grotto to take a photo. It'll get wet fast. The Pool of Winds itself is pretty awe-some, if not very intimidating. There is something thrilling and scary about sticking your head out over the railing and looking into the thunderous and tumultuous churn that goes on within.

Not only is Pool of Winds worth the climb up to, but the view of the falls and the wooden bridge below is fantastic.

As close as I got, with camera, to the Pool of Winds | It is wet, loud, and beautiful up here
Rodney Falls from Pool of Winds
Bridge at the bottom of Rodney Falls and two hikers

Also, make a point to come down to the bridge itself. Bridges like these, that I've only ever seen deep in the Pacific Northwestern woods, are so beautiful to me. I wish, like a troll of sorts, I could just loiter at one for hours, either reading, thinking, conversing with passers by, experimenting with photography, or all of the above. If you cross this bridge and continue onward, the hike suddenly becomes very steep as you trek on to Hamilton Mountain. If all you want to see is Rodney Falls, here is your chance to stop, take in the moment, and then turn around.

Rodney Falls
Rodney Falls

After taking in the beautiful sounds and sprays of Rodney Falls for a bit, I started back for the car. I had seen on my trail map of Beacon Rock S.P. a short hike to something called Little Beacon Rock. Curious to compare the two, I had to check it out.

Little Beacon Rock was one of my favorite spots of the whole day. Not only did it give you an outstanding view of Beacon Rock itself, but the area is itself gorgeous. Little Beacon Rock was a great place to sit for a moment and reflect on how great the day had been. The area is open and very rocky. The trail snakes around mossy boulder fields and a rocky slope. Little Beacon Rock is just a large rock (that sort of resembles a petrified stegosaurus) that juts up atop hill composed of smaller rocks, and although it lacks the grandeur of its big brother, it is a beautiful slice of the Pacific Northwest. The whole time I was at Little Beacon Rock I did not encounter a single other person. It was as if I was the only hiker that day that knew it existed.

A trip to Beacon Rock State Park has to include a trip to Little Beacon Rock, if only for a view of (Big) Beacon Rock! Here are some photos of the Little Beacon Rock area, along with a photo of (Big) Beacon Rock itself in the distance.

Little Beacon Rock area - Beacon Rock S.P. | Columbia River Gorge
Little Beacon Rock area - Beacon Rock S.P. | Columbia River Gorge
Little Beacon Rock area - Beacon Rock S.P. | Columbia River Gorge
Little Beacon Rock
Little Beacon Rock area - Beacon Rock S.P. | Columbia River Gorge
A view of (Big) Beacon Rock in the distance from Little Beacon Rock

Thus concludes the weekend's trip to Beacon Rock State Park, however I wanted to end with just one more photo, that of Hamilton Mountain taken from the trail. In the near future I will be returning to the park to hike to the summit of Hamilton Mountain. Take this photo as a sneak peak and just an example of what is to come in the Spring months, which thankfully lie within the light at the end of winter's tunnel.

That steep protrusion out there is Hamilton Mountain, the top of which I will visit in the close and upcoming future

Beacon Rock - Columbia River Gorge

Ah, the Pacific Northwest - from Beacon Rock, Columbia River Gorge (m)

The hike truly begins when you pass through this gate...

Beacon Rock Trail
1.8 miles round trip | 600 ft elevation gain

Ever since learning about this hike I have been dying to do it. Winters in the Columbia Gorge, however, can be unruly, especially due to the wind. But I am happy to say that this weekend the gorge was perfect, making me doubly happy (one, it was a beautiful weekend; two, Spring is at last arriving!). Now, there are numerous trails in the gorge, both on the Oregon and Washington side, that I am eager to get under my belt this year and present to you in this blog, but first thing's first: Beacon Rock.

What is Beacon Rock? Think of it as a gigantic, 850 ft tall, Faberge Egg made of volcanic rock that sits alongside the Columbia River in the state of Washington. And where did Beacon Rock get its name? From Lewis and Clark on Halloween, 1805! That's right, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark named this rock; and it is from this location that they noticed tidal influences on the Columbia River, therefore coming to realize that the ocean was not much farther.

From the ground, you peer up at this vertical monstrosity and wonder how on earth there is a hiking trail that leads to the top of it. It looks like more of a feat for climbers than hikers (and, indeed, climbers can have their fun here too). But thanks to the dedication, persistence, and brilliant vision of one man, Beacon Rock is what it is today rather than a pile of ruble at the mouth of the Columbia.Wait, what?

This rock has a pretty interesting history. Yes, Beacon Rock was in danger of being blown to bits by the Army Corps of Engineers in the early 1900s. These bits would then become a jetty where the Columbia meets the Pacific Ocean. BUT! A man named Henry Biddle, who first unsuccessfully begged and pleaded Washington State to turn the area into a state park, bought the rock in 1915 before the Army Corps of Engineers could get their grubby, destructive hands on it.

For the next three years, with blood, sweat, tears, and dynamite, Henry Biddle carved a hiking trail up the side of the steep rock. This trail consists of switchbacks, railings, concrete slabs, and bridges. Interestingly enough also, due to the almost vertical nature to the terrain Biddle could not scout the trail to plan it's course before starting to build it. Rather, he would just build one segment, try to finagle a way to build the next using imagination and know-how, and so on. It is, to say the very least, one of the most unique hiking trails you'll experience in America. It is also, to say a lot more, breathtakingly beautiful; and grows even more so with each step you take.

This is what Beacon Rock looks like from a distance (looking south, with the Oregon side of the Gorge in the background).

Beacon Rock, as seen from Little Beacon Rock
The view below is just one example of the views you get of the Columbia River throughout the entire hike.

The Columbia River from around the beginning of Beacon Rock trial

Enough about the rock itself. Now it is time to talk about the hike.

When you first get out of your car and stare up at the monolith in front of you a feeling of "oh shit" enters your mind. You start to fixate on how many calories you're about to burn or how jelly-like your legs are going to be by the end of the hike. But then, suddenly, you notice the elderly couple, hardly even out of breath, coming down the last leg of the hike towards the parking area without a single bead of sweat on their foreheads nor wobble in their legs. Really?, you might think to yourself.

But truth is, regardless of how much elevation you gain in such a short distance, this is an easy hike. True, you are in a constant state of ascension until you reach the top, but with 50 or more switchbacks, the ascension is gradual... very gradual. This is both a great thing or a disappointing thing, depending on who you are. It is a great thing to people who aren't able to tackle strenuous hikes, such as families with small children or the elderly. But it is disappointing to people who arrive expecting more work to achieve the views from the summit. Luckily for those of you who fall into the latter, challenge-seeker category, however, there is Hamilton Mountain, the trailhead to which is located about 1 minute's drive from the Beacon Rock trailhead.

NOTE: You will need a Washington State Park Discover Pass to access this park and other parks. You can either pay $10 for a day-use pass or $30 for an annual pass. Unless you know for certain that this is the one and only state park in Washington you plan on visiting for the next 365 days, I would recommend buying the annual pass.
Imposing view of Beacon Rock from the parking area

Right as I saw this I instantly got very very excited - Beacon Rock

After leaving the parking area you will spend a few brief moments walking through a boulder-y forest until suddenly you get a wide open view of the Columbia and see a large metal gate ahead of you. This is where the trail truly begins; and it only gets better and better from here. After passing through the gate, you will quickly get glimpses of what lies ahead: switchbacks, bridges, and killer views.

Even if you are terrified of heights, this hike will only moderately freak you out. First off, you have very strong, tall guard rails that line the entire path. Second, Beacon Rock, although steep and relatively vertical in nature, is to some extent "stair-like" in that if the highly unlikely event of your falling were to occur, you would only "fall down a step or two" rather than fall all the way to the bottom. Gnarly as that may sound, it at least lends your average person a sense of some sort of comfort that if they were to fall, on most parts of the hike, they wouldn't fall far. But, let's face it, even about a 20 foot fall on this rocky trail would result in a trip to the hospital. This hike is a lot more dangerous than a mere walk in the woods if you don't tread lightly or stick to the trail.

Here are some photos from about the first two-thirds of the trail.

Beacon Rock - Columbia River Gorge

View from the trail - Beacon Rock

The Columbia River Gorge in late winter (m)
Most of the original railings have been replaced, but in some areas, you can still see the original wrought iron railings installed by Henry Biddle in 1918. Here is what it looks like.
Brilliant, imaginative engineering on this trail

Beacon Rock - Columbia River Gorge
Beacon Rock - Columbia River Gorge

When you're about one-third of the way to the top, you will get your first view of the gorge looking east over Bonneville Dam. Here (below) is the view you should expect.

The Columbia River from Beacon Rock looking East toward Bonneville Dam
Switchbacks & Switchbacks & Switchbacks
Getting higher and higher on Beacon Rock with a view of the Columbia looking West toward Portland
When you feel like you've entered a forest, this is the last third of the trail. The trail feels much different starting now

When you feel as though you have entered a forest way up on the rock, you've entered the final leg of the trail. Soon, you will have reached the top. The trail will feel much different from here on, as you are indeed hiking through a little forest on top of this massive volcanic egg. I encountered the last hour or so of a morning fog that had almost completely risen from the river valley floor when I reached this altitude. The fog lent a mysteriousness and spookiness to the hike which boosted my enjoyment even more. 

Here are photos from the last (and highest) leg of the Beacon Rock trail, including its 850 foot summit.

Beacon Rock - Columbia River Gorge
A dripping conifer. Ah, how I love thee, Pacific Northwest
Beacon Rock - Columbia River Gorge
A view from Beacon Rock
Up those stairs and you've reached the summit
Beacon Rock Summit

Looking East from Beacon Rock's 850 ft summit

In the summer months, the summit is going to get crowded early on in the day and stay crowded until the sun has nearly set. In the winter, however, I was the only person up here for a good twenty minutes. Nothing beats taking in views like this in silence.

Beacon Rock's trail is one of the few trails where, even though you follow back the same way you came, the trail feels very different. Much of that is due to the fact that you are so captivated with what lies ahead of you while hiking, that you rarely stop and look behind you. Now, on your way down, you will see the trail from a totally different perspective. I stopped and took several photographs on my way back down because I saw so many beautiful sights that I neglected to notice on my way up Beacon Rock.

Here are some of the wonderful sights you'll see on the way back down Beacon Rock.

Washington Hwy 14 from Beacon Rock
On the way back down - Beacon Rock, Columbia River Gorge
Raindrop Shelter
On the way back down - Beacon Rock, Columbia River Gorge
On the way back down - Beacon Rock, Columbia River Gorge

Upon reaching the ground and hungry for food and more hiking, I decided to swing over to the Skamania Hwy convenience store quick for some Tillamook Country Smoker beef sticks and some V8 before I hike the Hamilton Mountain trail to Rodney Falls and Little Beacon Rock.

Two side notes:

1) If you come out to Beacon Rock State Park I highly suggest you stop at the Skamania convenience store, located just west of the park at the intersection of Hwy 14 and Woodard Creek Rd. Walking into this store is like stepping into a movie set from The Great Outdoors. All I could think about while in the store was that bait shop from the movie Grumpy Old Men. It is like stepping into the past. You know you are not in Portland, let's just say that. I love old convenience stores like this. It reminds me that I'm in the woods.

2) If you stop at any convenience store out there in the wilderness, look for Tillamook Country Smoker beef sticks or beef jerky. It is the best beef jerky I've ever had in my life. It tastes so fresh and has far greater quality that other beef jerky I've tried. Beef Jerky is a fantastic trail food (well, unless you're in bear country...) that gives you protein and calories and is easy to carry. And I highly recommend Tillamook Country Smoker products! Matter of fact, from their website you can order large tubs of their beef sticks and jerky. I plan on placing an order by the end of the month.

I exited the convenience store right in time to watch a freight roar past along the rails right across the street. I regret, however, not turning around and taking a photo of the Skamania Convenience Store itself. But it's only a matter of time before I add a photo of it to this blog entry and, of course, erase the very sentence you are now reading.

To be continued in the next blog entry, titled Rodney Falls & Little Beacon Rock - Columbia River Gorge...