Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West

Oregon

Wildflowers and Waterfalls of the Columbia River Gorge

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


On the road again

Two days til grad school starts: time for a quick post in list form! Here are some random musings, observations, rants, and pictures from a two-week, 2,500 mile end-of-summer road trip through Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, Oregon, and Washington:

  • Packing everything you own into the backseat and trunk of a Toyota Corolla IS possible, if only for 15 miles until you get to the closest UPS store so you can pack 61 pounds of crap into a box and ship it so your car doesn’t bottom out going across every single expansion joint in the road
  • A small passenger car with over 180,000 miles, power steering leaks, suspension maladies, and mysterious engine and electrical issues is nevertheless capable of successfully completing a 2,500 mile road-trip including travel up and over several 10,000 foot mountain passes, on roads through several deserts with temperatures soaring to 108 degrees, all while fully loaded with nary a squeak.
  • Said road trip is also possible to complete without the aid of a GPS unit, smartphone, or other computerized mapping device.
  • To anyone who claims their home town/state/country/etc has the best sunsets ever, please go to the Grand Canyon and watch the sun go down from Desert View. I’ll be expecting a formal, written retraction of your blasphemous statement in the mail any day now.

    Grand Canyon from Mohave Point

  • Pink Jeep Tour guides are really good at spotting Deeres.
  • It is impossible to make money in Las Vegas.  Even if you win a decent amount of dough, you will be tempted into spending your winnings on drinks served in three-foot-tall brightly-colored souvenir “cups” and $7 slices of crappy pizza in the casino food court at 2am. But you won’t know its 2am because there are no clocks anywhere.
  • When traveling through particularly desolate stretches of Nevada, it is amazing how quickly your mind begins  voluntarily generating thoughts such as “I wonder how many hours it’s been since I’ve seen another car…” and “I bet I could take my hands off the steering wheel for 10 whole minutes and not hit anything.”

    Tufa towers on the shores of Mono Lake, CA

  • If you never thought you encounter a situation in which you would consider $4.89 a screaming good deal on a gallon of gasoline, go visit Lee Vining, California (and look at what the Chevron is charging first…)
  • Americans like Yosemite more than they dislike getting hantavirus.

    Tenaya Lake, Yosemite National Park

  • Tropical plants will die if you leave them in the backseat of a hot car for a week with no access to food or water.
  • Camping in bear country is a pain in the ass. A typical night terror in Yosemite consists of waking in the middle of the night in a panicked and frantic state wondering if you remembered to take that tube of mildly scented chapstick out of your pocket and put it in the bear box.

Bumpass Hell thermal area, Lassen Volcanic National Park

  • Even if people say they aren’t buying you something from your Amazon wish-list, never buy anything from your Amazon wishlist.
  • Eugene, Portland, and Bellingham should secede and create a new autonomous state called Hippie-gon-ton.  Seriously, these are the kind of places where I deeply wish I had the courage to take pictures of random people I encounter on the street; I’d have a collection to rival People of Wal-Mart in no time, albeit in a very, very different way. Also, on a related note, Portland is the perfect city to arrive in when you haven’t showered for 3 days.

Yosemite Valley and Half Dome

  • The awesomeness of Powell’s bookstore in Portland, OR is still difficult for me to comprehend…I could spend WEEKS there. One’s need for a smartphone with navigational capabilities is greater WITHIN THIS STORE than it is in perhaps any major metropolitan area in the country, with the possible exception of:
  • Seattle, which has quite possibly the worst maintained and most confusing street network of ANY CITY ANYWHERE. Someone should probably go rescue the pothole crew because they clearly have been being held hostage somewhere…since the Eisenhower administration. Also, let’s stop it with the whole “Wouldn’t it be cool to make this street randomly dead-end and then reappear 5 blocks later?” thing.  If I’m driving down a numbered street, it should be a thru-street and not be broken into 8 billion separate sections.
  • On the plus side, if you can somehow manage to navigate Seattle streets without blowing a tire, breaking an axle,  or needing to pull over somewhere and cry, there are a lot of good eats to be had, including the 3rd best Philly cheese steak restaurant this side of Philadelphia and some seriously good pizza.
  • Sea anemones shrivel up when you poke them. Also, it is possible to be surrounded by so many fat purple starfish that you feel afraid.
  • Randomly arriving in a new city where you know nobody and finding a place to live using Craigslist is way easier than it sounds. And no, I’m not living with a convicted felon.
  • The Pacific Northwest is really nice and sunny in the summer…which is conveniently when I am never there.
  • Finding that a “Vegan Revolution” bumper sticker has been pasted onto your car over a pro-meat sticker instantly turns you into a card-carrying vegan drives you to east as much meat as humanly possible the next day (such as a Philly cheese steak and a delicious bacon cheeseburger perhaps).
  • On another related note, a maple long john topped with strips of bacon is just about the best thing e…….. (Zach has heart attack)

    Sunset over the San Francisco Peaks, Flagstaff, AZ


A Crater Lake Comparison

College and blogging go together about as well as tofu and….well…about anything. Keeping up with this site, which by definition requires photographs, is even more challenging. Apart from several thousand photographs of Whitman Mission National Historic Site (where I volunteer and write another photography blog), I take very few photos during the semester, given that pictures of classrooms are boring and I don’t often take to lugging a DSLR around to weekend frivolities.

It was a visit to Crater Lake in the summer two years ago that prompted me to start this website in the first place.  Somehow though, that attempt went fallow and I never got past creating an account and drafting a first post. That post, with the awe-inspiring title of  “Photography Challenges at Crater Lake National Park”, and packed with 576 words of my mind-numbingly painful drivel, still sits in my “Drafts” folder to this day, staring at me with sad eyes much like whatever this is.

Happily, I now have a second Crater Lake visit to share photos from.  If you’ve ever wanted to see snowdrifts engulfing multi-story buildings, you should visit Crater Lake NP in the early spring. Driving up Oregon Hwy 62 from Medford, my thought progression went something like this: “Hmm…not very much snow yet”, “Strange, I thought we’d be getting into some snow by now”, “Wow, maybe we’ll actually be able to hike around a little at the lake”, “Holy crap, the snowbanks are taller than the car”, “Whoa, now they are taller than my 6′ 3″ housemate!” I truly have never seen such quantities of snow in my life. Entering the few remaining open buildings required travel through snow tunnels in order to access the doors. The road to the rim of the lake is kept open year-round, and after seeing the massive snowbanks and realizing how much manpower must be required to accomplish this, I had to ask the question “why”?  The volunteer ranger on duty didn’t really have a clear cut answer, mumbling only something about “politics” and “tradition.” We were also informed that this winter had been “a dry one” and that the fact that we were even able to see the lake was rather fortuitous, as more than 50% of winter days are so cloudy that the lake surface is not even visible from the rim.

Crazy snow.

Crater Lake Lodge, closed for the season

Wandering around the shuttered Crater Lake Lodge area felt eerily like a scene from The Shining (filmed at the nearby Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood) with the Crater Lake Lodge buried up to the 4th floor by snowdrifts.  One advantage to the snow was the lack of the oppressing clouds of mosquitoes that plagued us during the summer visit.

Crater Lake Panorama, March 2012

For comparison purposes, here are some images from that July 2010 visit, starting with a shot taken from almost the exact same vantage point at the first photo in this post (note the position of the peak towering over the lodge). The only difference in that here I’m not standing on top of thirty feet of snow.

Crater Lake Lodge, sans 30' snow drifts

Crater Lake at Dusk

The Moon and Venus setting behind Crater Lake

Crater Lake Panorama, July 2010

I clearly remember being surprised on that visit at how much snow remained present, even in mid-July.  Several trails were still closed. After last week, this no longer seems extraordinary. If anything it seems a small miracle that it ever melts at all and that Crater Lake is not covered by some sort of permanent glacier.