Absolutely Gorge-ous

Without a doubt, one of the most photogenic areas in the Pacific Northwest is the Columbia River Gorge, and that’s saying something! No, not that Columbia Gorge – the other one! The one without the amphitheater. I’m talking about all that drop-dead gorgeous scenery along the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington.

Apparently I’m not the only one who thinks so. The area is federally protected and is known as the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area. Running east from Portland through the Cascade Mountain Range, this canyon is over 80 miles long and up to 4000 feet deep in places. It is this variation in elevation combined with widely varying rainfall amounts that creates a hugely diversified collection of ecosystems, ranging from temperate rain forest in the west to grasslands in the east.

Rowena Crest Sunrise, Mayer State Park, Oregon

The rising sun clears the hills on the Washington State side of the Columbia River while Arrowleaf balsamroot and Broadleaf lupine glow in the early light, at Rowena Crest Viewpoint, Mayer State Park, Oregon.

Originally created by Lewis and Clark – no wait, that’s not right. But it was used by Lewis and Clark in 1805 to get to the Pacific Ocean, since I-84 wasn’t quite finished yet. And I-84 is what you’ll use if you visit this area, at least on the Oregon side, since the old highway exists only in small chunks here and there. While both sides of the river have plenty to see, it’s the Oregon side that’s known for its waterfalls, with one after another of them stretching along the coast.

While the Columbia River has been grinding away at the canyon for some time, it was the Missoula Floods that really got the job done, creating the steep canyon walls that make the waterfalls here so spectacular. If you’re not familiar with the Missoula Floods, that’s a fascinating topic all its own. You did emphatically not want to be hanging around here when those events were going down.

Wahclella Falls, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon

Wahclella Falls from high above the trail, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon.

So what’s around here besides waterfalls? Well, wildflowers are everywhere. Remember those diverse ecosystems? You can see all kinds of wildflowers here if you know where to look. Some are just about everywhere, like the Arrowleaf balsamroot, essentially a sunflower. The lavender colored lupine is also widespread, and contrasted with the yellow balsamroot, makes for a striking color combination when they’re both in bloom at the same time. But it’s the little guys that are the most fascinating. Some of them are so small you almost need a magnifying glass to find them, like this small-flowered forget-me-not that was growing just a few feet from my tent.

Small-flowered forget-me-not, Memaloose State Park, Oregon

These tiny little beauties are so small that they’re easy to miss, but well worth a look, at Memaloose State Park, Oregon.

Speaking of camping, one of the advantages of this area is that you can camp here year-round. Now it might be a bit cold in December, but if you want to get out early in the season and see some wildflowers in March, the campgrounds are open, and you’ll have the place nearly to yourself. One word of caution, however, and that word is “trains”. There is a constant flow of freight trains on both sides of the river, and they do not sleep at night. If you end up at a campground that has road access to the river, causing every train to have to blow its horn as it comes through your tent (or so it seems), you won’t get any sleep, either.

The Bench, Mosier, Oregon

A bench becons passerby to sit and enjoy the view, in Mosier, Oregon.

There are also plenty of hiking trails all along both sides of the gorge, as well as wineries and other tourist activities, particularly in the Hood River area. So next time you’re looking for somewhere different to get out of town, check out the Columbia River Gorge – the one to the south of Seattle. Just be sure to bring your earplugs!

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7 Responses to “Absolutely Gorge-ous”

  1. Aaron says:

    Beautiful pics!! Is there a spot to camp away from evil train horns?

    • Ed Leckert says:

      Well, Aaron, the Best Western in Hood River is nice!

      Just kidding! I’m usually interested in getting a sunrise photo shoot in, so I want to be a short drive from my favorite spots. I found that Memaloose State Park is a little better than some because the campsites sit above the tracks a bit and there are no crossings nearby, but the highway noise is more of an issue here.

      There are campgrounds on the Washington side that may be better, but I haven’t tried them yet.

      If I didn’t need to be close to the river, I’d check out the campgrounds in the Mount Hood National Forest southwest of Hood River, Oregon. It’s a much more primitive experience, however, and not accessible year-round.

  2. Jim Lippincott says:

    Very nice shots of my old stomping grounds there in the Gorge, glad to see you made the trek and Mother Nature cooperated!
    Where are you off to next?


  3. Joan Turchin says:

    Great pictures, and I enjoyed your history lesson as well.

  4. Lorraine says:

    Beautiful places, Ed! Take me with you!