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.
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.
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 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 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.
The day was worth it nonetheless.
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