I met Marley* while checking out at Whole Foods. He's gotta be in his early twenties, which is practically a baby, and he said he's from LA. He said he's lived in Portland for a year. He said he loves the outdoors.
This is funny, because when I told Marley that I'd spent a day in the Gorge, he looked at me with a blank face and an asterisk above his head.
"What's that?" he asked me.
"The Columbia River Gorge," I said. I'd never had to explain this to anyone before. "It's east of Portland?"
Marley showed no change in emotion.
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OK, I said. So first of all, the Columbia River is the second longest river in the Western Hemisphere that flows into the Pacific Ocean. Its headwaters begin at Columbia Lake in British Columbia, 1,243 miles from its terminus near Astoria, OR. Its 250,000 square-mile watershed drains the Columbia River Basalt Group, an ancient lava bed created between 17 and 15 million years ago when the lid blew off the Pacific Northwest—a hot spot under Yellowstone that triggered regional volcanic activity in intensities that match some of the biggest and most voluminous in geologic history.
The Columbia River Gorge is a 100-mile corridor that cuts through the basalt, a porous and easily eroded igneous rock, at a saddle in the Cascade Range. It was carved some 18,000 to 13,000 years ago when an ice dam periodically broke and refroze, releasing the waters from ancient Glacial Lake Missoula. The volume of this lake is estimated to have been about 500 cubic miles, or about half the size of Lake Michigan, and its floodwaters reached as far as Eugene, OR in the Willamette Valley, flowing as fast as 80 miles per hour. This happened at least 25 times during the period.
Fortunately, these days are long gone, and the worst I had to deal with when I visited the Labyrinth on Saturday was a sunburn.
The Labyrinth gets its name from the lattice of bike trails that have been carved out of the grassy basalt hillsides. Their milage is virtually infinite, and a hiker can spend a day or two exploring the paths on foot without wanting for new discoveries.
I began my trek at the Coyote Wall trailhead, where I was fortunate enough to find a parking spot within the grounds proper. Saturday was the first legitimately beautiful day of the season—fair skies, warm weather—and unless it's been like this regularly east of the Cascades, I can see the area getting packed later in spring and summer.
I followed the abandoned highway past the Coyote Wall Trail to the Labyrinth Trail. Portions of this highway have been absolutely pummeled by rock fall, in some places so severe that there were no remains of any highway whatsoever. In places, it appeared that concrete had once been poured, it just wasn't there anymore. Just as amazing, there are flattened sections at the base of Coyote Wall—access roads, no doubt, abandoned long ago—that were entirely swallowed by talus. Of course, my first thought upon seeing the wall was: climb.
Following the course of the abandoned highway, I turned off onto the Labyrinth Trail and began to climb. The area around Hood River, OR, a stretch of the Columbia River Gorge that includes the Labyrinth and Dog Mountain, is one of the most compelling parts of Oregon. From the top of these basalt escarpments, I can trace the desiccation of the Columbia Gorge by scanning from west to east. This area of the Gorge straddles an ecotone between the high plains in the east and the lush forests nearer the Willamette Valley. It turns out that this is one of the planet's sharpest ecological divides, with the western portion of this 30 mile corridor receiving as much as 75 inches of rain, whereas the eastern portion only receives 15 inches. Likewise, to the west, I could see the dense forests near Multnomah Falls and the Oneonta Gorge, but to the east the trees scatter like buckshot and vanish just as quickly.
Still, despite its relative exposure—the mighty Columbia is rarely out of sight—the Labyrinth preserves the intimate atmosphere of its more decorated westerly counterparts. I followed several packs of hikers, many with ever-ebullient children, and found, to my surprise, that I managed to lose all of them, engrossed in whatever thing I was taking a picture of. Basalt is still basalt without the massive bodies of Doug fir to blot out the sun, and in the Labyrinth it is similarly eroded. Trails around the Labyrinth duck into a gulch or a gully, emerge onto the spine of a ridge with 270-degree views of the Columbia, then dip back into a meadow. The result is an overland experience every bit as intimate as an old growth trail with the added spectacle of a riverine vista around every corner.
This isn't the place for destination hikers. True to its name, the Labyrinth is a place that rewards wanderers. It's a place to enjoy the birds and wildflowers with friends and a dog and maybe a mountain bike, and they're everywhere. All of them. But unlike a true Labyrinth, it's almost impossible to get lost here. You can see for miles, and in a bind, there's almost always someone to ask.
* Marley is not his real name.