Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West

Wildflowers and Waterfalls of the Columbia River Gorge

A broad river sits at the bottom of a green valley

Looking east along the Columbia River Gorge toward The Dalles on an alternately sunny & rainy March afternoon. 

In the home stretch of its more than 1,000 mile-long journey from the Canadian Rockies to the Pacific Ocean, the Columbia River has carved a spectacular canyon that now forms the border between Oregon and Washington: the Columbia River Gorge. Nearly 100 miles in length, the Columbia River Gorge is one of the most unique landscapes in the Pacific Northwest, and home to some spectacular geology. Most of the gorge is carved into the Columbia River Basalts, layers upon layers of volcanic rock formed by vast lava flows that inundated most of central and eastern Washington about 16 million years ago. More recently, a series of large glacial outburst floods at the end of the last ice age broadened and re-shaped the gorge as they raged their way down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean, creating many of the landforms that we see today.

By the time the Columbia River enters the gorge, its elevation has already dropped to just 160 feet above sea level. The low elevation of the gorge makes it one of the warmest areas in the Pacific Northwest, and a prime destination for some early season camping. We recently spent three days in the Columbia River Gorge soaking up what passes for balmy weather this time of year around here.

A large river sits at the bottom of a broad, deep gorge.

An early spring view of the eastern Columbia River Gorge from Rowena Crest Overlook on the Oregon side of the gorge. 

A streak of headlights illuminates a winding mountain road with stars overhead.

Motorcycle headlights illuminate the sweeping curves of the Historic Columbia River Highway just below Rowena Crest. The constellation of Canis Major sits just above the horizon. While the historic highway has been largely replaced by the much less charismatic I-84, large portions remain as backroads or hiking trails.

Two of the main attractions in the Columbia River Gorge are wildflowers and waterfalls. Even now, in mid-to-late March, the wildflower show was already in full swing, particularly in the drier, warmer, eastern reaches of the gorge:

A trio of bright pink rocket-shaped wildflowers are seen in front of grasses and a yellow wildflower.

Shooting stars (Dodecatheon sp.) are among the early blooming wildflowers in the eastern Columbia River Gorge. A yellow fritillary (Fritillaria pudica) lurks in the background.

A patch of bright pink flowers at the base of a low, rounded hill

Grass widows (Olsynium douglasii) are some of the earliest wildflowers to bloom in large numbers in the eastern Columbia River Gorge.

A cluster of bright pink flowers in a grassy field next to a rock.

More grass widows…

A cluster of bright pink flowers in the middle of a hiking trail.

Most grass widows are a vibrant pinkish purple color, but white petals are also found here and there. 

A few clusters of small yellow flowers sit on a rock with a river and gorge in the background.

Pungent desert parsley (Lomatium grayi) at Horsethief Butte. 

One of the most remarkable sights in the Columbia River Gorge is experiencing the rapid change in environment as you drive through the gorge from east to west. The Dalles, located near the eastern end of the gorge, lies in the rain shadow of the Cascade Range and receives very little precipitation: just 14 inches annually. Here, the rocky slopes of the gorge are nearly devoid of any vegetation other than wildflowers and grasses. Just half an hour and a handful of freeway exists to the west, the average annual precipitation has increased to about 30 inches at Hood River, and ponderosa pine and Douglas fir cover the slopes. 20 more miles/minutes to the west, at Cascade Locks, annual precipitation rises to over 75 inches and the gorge is filled with the dense, shady, and mossy forests typically associated with the Pacific Northwest. In other words, you can travel from a true desert to a near-rainforest in less than an hour, while driving on a nearly flat interstate that hugs the shore of massive reservoirs created by dams along the lower Columbia River.

A cluster of large, yellow, daisy-like flowers sits next to a boulder at the base of a tall cliff of brown rocks.

Large clusters of balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sp.) were beginning to flower in some of the drier, eastern parts of the Gorge, like these at Horsethief Butte.

Fungus and moss grows on a rotten log on the forest floor

An unknown species of fungus shares a decaying log with some moss. Scenes like this are common in the wetter, western half of the Columbia River Gorge.

The combination of dramatic terrain and copious precipitation at the western end of the Columbia River Gorge (particularly on the more mountainous Oregon side) combines to form some of the most spectacular waterfalls in the United States. As the aforementioned ice age floods flowed through the gorge on their way to the Pacific, they removed the lower ends of valleys belonging to the Columbia’s many tributary streams. Consequently, many of these tributaries enter the gorge several hundred feet above river level, terminating in spectacular plunges that carry their water into the Columbia River:

A thin waterfall plunges from a cliff of volcanic rock and covered in bright green mosses.

Latourell Falls plunges over a cliff of columnar basalt at the western end of the Columbia River Gorge, not far from Portland. This photo is a bit blurry; the trails to several of these waterfalls were busy, even on a somewhat chilly Tuesday in March, making it hard to set up a tripod for a steady shot. 

A thin, tall waterfall plunges off of a cliff into a pool.

Elowah Falls, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon. This shady alcove was heavily burned in the Eagle Creek Fire of 2017, but is already showing signs of re-growth. 

A waterfall and cascade flows through a verdant forest as a hiker looks on.

Starvation Creek Falls, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon

A waterfall and cascade flows through a verdant forest.

Starvation Creek Falls, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon

Let’s be clear: with temperatures in the 40s and 50s and the nearly constant winds that blow through the gorge, it was no spring break in Florida, but after a long winter and with the Cascades still buried in snow for several more months, the greenery and signs of spring were a welcome sight. (Even though we did have our tent totally chewed up by an unknown animal…a first for us in many, many nights of camping throughout the west!)

One response

  1. Amazing

    June 22, 2021 at 7:38 am

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