Elowah Falls in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge cascades in endless curtains of white. I sat mesmerized in the cooling mist and relished the sight of it being whipped sideways by a wild wind. While I could have lingered in this amphitheater of yellow lichen and green moss, there was far more to see and my New England Hiking Holiday companions and I had to go.
The hike here had taken us on a narrow ledge overlooking the impressive Columbia River dotted with islands. Lewis and Clark’s Corp of Discovery was known to have camped on one of them directly below.
The muscular Columbia River flows more than 1,200 miles from the base of the Canadian Rockies to the coast of Oregon. Being dammed in eleven places today makes it a tamed house cat compared to the raging torrent it was when early explorers arrived. The Columbia River Gorge was declared a national scenic area in 1986 and spans 292,000 acres of wildness. Train rails on both sides of the river transport goods from the interior to the coast, and Highway 84 on the Oregon side is a busy thoroughfare with access to numerous foot trails leading to over forty waterfalls. Yes, you can read one of the numerous hiking guide books for the region, but having a seasoned guide who has tried them all and knows the special treats in store on each one is a wonderful thing. New England Hiking Holidays is staffed with competent guides who are sensitive to the varying degrees of hiking abilities of their guests and able to select the perfect experience guaranteed to leave you smiling.
Our shakedown run took us up canyon through towering Douglas fir and stands of alder. The song of the well-hidden feathered set kept us company on the ascent overlooking a creek carving a path through luxuriant foliage. Tender meadow rue and the sweet white blooms of Miners Lettuce and trillium lined the path. In the distance, the rumble of a great fall pulled us onward and upward over sometimes rocky terrain. The lush coolness of the forest glens soothed and refreshed. I loved hiking in the deepening silence of the trees and away from the rushing traffic falling behind us.
The mean age of our group of twelve was about 50. Most of these experienced hikers had traveled with NEHH before at various locations around the U.S. and Europe. This is not a competitive event. “Easy-peasy” options are given at the onset of each outing. I scored about a five on the one-to-ten fitness scale in our group of hikers, preferring to dawdle behind taking snaps and smelling the profusion of wild blooms. One of the guests, a young man from Phoenix who was used to climbing in the slot canyons of Arizona, wanted to experience Oneonta Gorge that required swimming—yes swimming!—to reach the base of a thundering cascade. A special outing was arranged for him so he would not go home disappointed.
After a day of exploring, we crossed over the Bridge of the Gods to the Washington side of the Columbia to our digs overlooking the Cascade Range. Stately Skamania Lodge boasts gourmet cuisine, zip lines, an 18-hole golf course, and four miles of hiking trails. I couldn’t wait to slip into the outdoor spa and listen to the wind stirring the trees under pure blue skies. With the tension melted from my body followed by a swim in the Olympic-sized pool, I felt born again.
No trip to the Gorge is complete without a hike up popular Eagle Creek. The moment you enter the well-groomed path, you are swallowed in green. Chatty smaller streams join the run through the majestic forest. The drop-off naturally becomes more precipitous as you climb up canyon. Often the trail narrows to a ledge with a well-placed handrail to steady your nerves. Sprays of pink and white flowers nestled in ferns cling to the basalt canyon walls, and around each bend is another stunning view of the deepening chasm. Devils Punchbowl is the first of three falls along the way to High Bridge, our lunch destination. Rock walls deep in the canyon are matted with mosses, ferns, and lichens. With abundant life all about, I felt refreshed, soothed, restored, and deliriously happy to be here. Four-miles in, we crossed over a heart-catching cleft in basalt walls with black water flowing far below. At our lunch stop I shed my boots and dangled my dogs in the tingling water while our guides laid out a delicious spread.
Not to be outdone by the beauty of the Gorge, Washington’s majestic, white-caped Mt. Hood towers over nearby Hood River Valley. A serene walk around Lost Lake garnered a shot of the icon reflected in still waters. While other hikers did the more dramatic Lost Lake Butte hike with even more stunning panoramas, I fended off scrappy chipmunks threatening to invade our picnic table.
Before heading back to civilization, a brisk walk along the banks of the rushing Salmon River was in order. We could see the rocks on the bottom of the clear river where rainbow trout lurked. It was raining in earnest on this walk, but the canopy of the old growth forest took the brunt of the weather. The limbs of the monster trees sheathed in moss and draped in old man’s beard, are twisted into alien forms. We puddle-jumped up the soggy trail and got quite lost in the fecund smells of this wet world. It is an undulating track that leaves your mind free to wonder at the bizarre formations of the trees and makes you glad to know they have been spared the logger’s axe. The trees were witness to the native peoples fishing for salmon on the shores of these bountiful waters, and the early explorers and homesteaders who struggled to survive the Oregon Trail to make this place their home. Happily, they are with us still and can been enjoyed by moderns wanting to reconnect with nature and their own primal yearnings.