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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To tide you over

An homage to my sister's homage of a better photographer's good idea. I went to Columbia Hills State Park a couple weeks ago, and I'm still editing photos. I took about one million of them. I'm also adding audio and video to these posts, which adds an extra dimension of complexity—I haven't spent a lot of time editing either, but I want to progress continually toward realism with the scenes I recreate here. Alas, this requires time.

The morning light served our photographic purposes well. Low-angled light illuminated the mist plumes that rose from the waterfall's point of impact.

In the interim, I went to Abiqua Falls yesterday, a far shorter and less photo-intense adventure. Information is widely available on the web, so I won't spend a lot of time huffing about it here. The falls and the "basaltic amphitheater" it created are spectacular—just go already.

At a measured height of 92 feet, those who kayaked over Abiqua's precipice were thought to be world record holders. At 92 feet, no one cares because that's a *#$%ing long way to fall.

Word to the wise: Plan on parking at the top of the 2.25-mile spur to the "trailhead." This is immediately after turning off of Crooked Finger Road onto a road marked only with an "off-road vehicle staging area" sign.* The parking is extremely limited at the bottom, and you may get blocked in by other vehicles. In addition, the road down is as choppy and undermaintained as it's reputed to be. If you don't have a high-clearance vehicle, definitely park higher up.

The aforementioned basalt. Here it is fractured in a beautiful honeycomb pattern.

This photo is 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.


*Alternatively, you could park on one of the spurs along the way down, just don't park at the bottom. There's a huge quarry-ish area where we found a VW Bug, for example.

Park here. If memory serves me, it's about 1.5 to 2 miles away from the Abiqua trail, as it were, but you'll avoid complications on the way out.

Hills like down pillows

Suspended above Drift Creek, the North Fork drops 66 feet, creating this stunner. Drift Creek doesn't impress as the kind of place to produce spectacle. About two hours outside of downtown Portland, the drive feels at times more rewarding than the hike itself, despite enduring about an hour of suburban traffic between Portland and Newberg. (A commuter corridor where, it should be noted, there seems to be an abundance of Stetsons, a detail that pleases me so much that I refrain from absolutely unloading on the uncoordinated traffic interchanges at regular intervals of 300 yards and the mile upon mile of low density commercial and the peripatetic packs of 30 year-old men on scooters and the—I hate the area. But I love the hats.)

Without a macro lens, many of these intimate shots are less detailed than they could've been. Nevertheless, forests are full of life that's easy to miss.

Thereafter, the country crumples like an unmade bed, and I found myself in the heart of wine country, the Yamhill Valley. I've been here many times—to Dayton, Amity, Willamina, St. Paul—but the idyllic beauty of this bucolic landscape strikes me only now. The hills roll like down pillows, the vines fall like hair. I counted about a thousand sheep before Route 18 slipped deep into Siuslaw National Forest. There the familiar weight of temperate rainforest returns, the bite of cold air, the musk of decay. The ferns and the firs and the clover and the hollowed out stumps that crumble to the touch. (I found Spirit Mountain Casino there. Who knew?)

Twenty or thirty miles of highway and backroads later, I arrived at the Drift Creek Trailhead. There were many cars, more people, a shed with bathrooms and a trail. If this sounds underwhelming, it's because it was.

Wahh, waaaah.

OK, I should probably back this up a bit. I have a preexisting relationship with the Coast Range, and there's a certain protocol I follow when going there. The drives are longer, so I handpick the music, which if habit is any indication tends to be a combination of Pink Floyd and Rachmaninoff piano concertos. Imagine, if you will, the sinusoidal ups and downs of hills and valleys to Dark Side of the Moon against the high-pitched ambient buzz of a four-cylinder engine. The conspiracy of forces has a sort of somnolent effect on me, I am neither asleep nor awake, and the first time I experienced this odd transformation, I explored an abandoned railroad line along the Salmonberry River on a Tuesday, not a soul in sight, just me and the coyote who wanted to eat my lunch. I can't think of anything to say except... I think it's marvelous.

A carpet of clover.

TL;DR: I was really disappointed when a crowded parking lot opened upon scrub alder and the clusterfuck of tangled undergrowth that typifies forest 50 years young amid the lingering putrefaction of trailhead bathrooms.

I was wrong.

It took a quarter-mile to let go of my hate, and once I did the forest sprang to life. I take no pleasure in photographing forest undergrowth—I just can't do it right—so I went small instead, sticking my nose in the little places that get lost in the big picture. Even the people brightened up. There's a weird unspoken hiker's code that dictates greetings for each and every hiker passed, and it was in full effect at Drift Creek; no economical "hello!" for entire groups here.

Green, green, green. It's still early in spring, so the full spectrum of color has yet to arrive in the forest.

The trail descends 500 feet in ambling switchbacks, then flattens as it follows the contours of the land for a solid mile. Deeper into the forest, much of the disheartening roadside scrub fades away and the land acquires more character. Evidence of old growth can be found in places: a carpet of clover surrounding the disemboweled remains of a Doug fir that must've been hundreds of years old when it fell; further on, across footbridges caked in mud, the trees rose like flying buttresses under a stained glass canopy.

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. (This photo demonstrates the limit of what Google's app can do.)


But none of these sights compared to what waited at the end. Drift Creek Falls isn't terribly tall, but you get every inch of its 66 feet. Before I was even aware of the creek's plunge, I encountered a 200-foot suspension bridge crossing the Drift Creek canyon floor 100 feet below. No big deal.

In August of 2010, the massive slab of rock at center broke from the main precipice and dramatically changed the appearance of the falls. Check out the difference.

The view of the falls is magnificent from every angle. I spent about an hour here to shoot photos and eat dinner. After an hour back up the trail, I headed home.

Small rapids near the base of Drift Creek Falls.

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.