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

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