The Dalles Mountain Ranch

This post comes to you a little late—I visited the Ranch, otherwise known as Columbia Hills State Park, in early April, hoping to catch the apex of wildflower season. Last week was crazy with interviews, a skillset I'm still very uncomfortable deploying, so I was preoccupied by obsessively turning questions and answers over in my head until I couldn't see straight. Inch by dirty, nail-biting, hard-scrabble inch. I didn't have to scratch around at the Dalles Mountain Ranch, though I spent a surprising amount of time flat on my back. More on that in a moment. Dalles Mountain Ranch complex

The Dalles Mountain Ranch is a homestead complex that has been preserved by the State of Washington in its abandoned condition. The State has been buying up land in the area for some time and is developing amenities that you might expect at a well-funded public park—they've built trailheads, and I understand there's an interpretive center in the works. This is good news and bad news: nicer park, cushier experience; more regulation, signs that restrict access. Likewise, I heard rumors that this park is great for off-trail wandering (it is), but signs posted all over the place restricted me to the trail. I'd like to ignore these types of directives, but my conscience won't allow it. Unfortunate, but inevitable. It's a beautiful park, and while it will probably get 99 percent of its foot traffic during the month of spring when the wildflowers emerge, it's the only way to preserve the land.

The Columbia Gorge Broadleaf Lupine.

I had about five hours to burn, but I had planned absolutely nothing in advance of my trip, and I still don't know where I hiked. I know that I was east of Eightmile Creek, and I started at the homestead—Dalles Mountain Ranch proper. From there, I continued east along a dirt path through huge groves of balsamroot. Like the Labyrinth, fewer than 20 miles away, Columbia Hills State Park encompasses coats of grassland over rolling hills, and I found myself thinking about the default Windows desktop every time I snapped a photo. (Which is, being a hundred miles away from my computer, a minor sacrilege.)

The sky was textured beautifully in early April, so I celebrated by taking this picture of an old tire.

The trail continues east for a few miles, in parallel with the Columbia River and dipping in and out of shallow ravines. The weather was fantastic for most of the day, and little puffs of cottony cumulus cast long shadows over the hills. The skies are broad here, the vistas spectacular. After a few miles, the trail curls south and downhill toward the Columbia before looping back for the trek home. It skirts a steep hillside where I stopped to shoot a panorama. I've discovered that photography can be really physical; I spent most of the day crouching, kneeling, sitting, on my side like a beached whale. Here I lay flat on my back and listened to western meadowlark call to each other.

The trail up Eightmile Creek is flanked by a footpath. Farther up, there's an old livestock trail that continues to follow the creek.

The trail continues its descent toward the Columbia, but I split off at Eightmile Creek and headed uphill. I had run out of time, and it was time to head back to the car. The timing couldn't have been better, the sky grew cloudy and dark about halfway up Eightmile, and 200 yards before the parking lot, it unloaded. First rain, then hail. I definitely took a few shots to the face.

Brooding skies in the afternoon weren't nearly as hospitable as they were in the morning. Felt like a snowball in summer.

The day was worth it nonetheless.


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For Marley

This is probably balsamroot, of the genus balsamorhiza. But it might be Mule's Ears, of the genus wyethia. The two are hard to distinguish. 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.

This is the Columbia River Gorge, Harvey.

These photos are interactive. Click on them and drag your cursor to pan left, right, up or down. On a Mac, iPhone or iPad, standard gestures will also zoom in or out. For a bigger viewer, click View on Google Maps in the upper left corner. If you think you’re nuts, get some of these.


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 identity of these little guys is a mystery to me.

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.

A vast network of bike trails, built over the years by regular use, create a labyrinth of intersecting routes—hence the name of the area.


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 experimented with bracketing, the tactic of photographic a range of lengths of exposure, and I continued to do so here until a mountain biker yelled, "GETTING THAT POISON OAK, EH?" I had no idea.

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.

About a third of the way up Labyrinth Trail, its course begins to stray through copses and in and out of ravines.

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.

This, I think, is a wildflower called Hood's phlox, phlox hoodii. It's one of the earliest wildflowers to bloom in the Gorge.

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.

I stopped here for awhile.

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.

Caught these folks on the move along Coyote Wall.

* Marley is not his real name.

Where Balloons Go to Die*

Upper Three Corners Falls I shot 360° panoramas at Three Corners Falls today, a set of four waterfalls along an officially unnamed creek outside of Stevenson, WA. The payoff was palpable, if I had any feeling left in my palps to sense it: four waterfalls, not the planned three, all in rapid succession (geographically speaking) along an untamed-since-loggers-last-had-it corridor on the north side of the Columbia River Gorge. I hoped to catch them on the girthier side of recent rains, and I think I succeeded. This might explain the mysterious fourth waterfall, a lightweight of 15 to 20 feet in height that preceded the more vertiginous Upper Corner Creek Falls.

The "hike," if I were to call it that, required about two hours of off-trail bushwhacking through dense forest. Water and Devil's club were everywhere, and a want for solid footing made for intimate encounters with both. I took many, many branches to the face and at least one tree trunk to the groin, which seems to be a discouraging trend during these excursions.

These photos are interactive. Click on them and drag your cursor to pan left, right, up or down. On a Mac, iPhone or iPad, standard gestures will also zoom in or out. For a bigger viewer, click View on Google Maps in the upper left corner. If you think you're nuts, get some of these.

[googlemaps]Tributary of Rock Creek just south of Red Bluff Road

This is the view from the approximate trailhead. As you can see, the creek is the trail.

[googlemaps]On my ass above Middle Three Corners Falls

In order to reach the higher falls, however, you have to climb around the vertical drops. Here, I went way too high. Many of these rocks were loose, and all of them were covered in a coat of moss at times six to eight inches thick.

[googlemaps]Lower Three Corners Falls
[googlemaps]Middle Three Corners Falls
[googlemaps]Mysterious unnamed falls
[googlemaps]Upper Three Corners Falls

In hike reports, Upper Three Corners Falls purported to be a perfect location for a panorama. It didn't disappoint, despite my belief that it was a triple-falls instead of a double-. I was surprised to find something this scenic in a part of the Northwest that's been pored over for destinations. I've heard, but never really acknowledged, that there are backwaters of the Gorge that feature even greater spectacle, places that few know about and fewer visit. I hope that this is an example of the costs and benefits. For example, has anyone scaled the rock face on the southern side of the Gorge? There's gotta be some cool stuff up there.

Anyone looking to follow in my footsteps, be forewarned: this isn't for the faint of heart. Be prepared for a physical challenge. Wear protective clothing—Gore-Tex or other durable rain gear will shield you from spikes, thorns, and other blood-letting barbs, not to mention moisture. In particular, wear durable gloves, because you'll want to keep four points on the ground in many places. Most importantly, go once, and never go back. I can't stress enough how destructive I was in getting from fall to fall, and how unavoidable it was to be destructive. You can stick to the creek, but you'll have to step out at different points, and higher-trafficked areas already bear signs of scarring this early in the season—heavy boot prints, flattened ferns, bare branches serendipitously scraped clean of moss. Soak it up the first time, because next year, people will know you've been there.

Other goodies:

[youtube]Slow motion video of Middle Three Corners Falls

A simple panorama of the twin falls at Upper Three Corners Falls.

* Not a figure of speech.