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.
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:
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.
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:
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!)
The Escalante River in south central Utah was supposedly the last river in the continental United States to be “discovered” and mapped. You don’t have to spend too much time with it to see why. First of all, it’s not large. “River” is a bit of an overstatement for most of the year, when it is easily forded on foot. Only during torrential summer monsoon storms does it resemble anything that the rest of the world would call a river. Secondly, even the most easily accessible stretches of its ~90 mile course take some time to get to. The Escalante is crossed by a grand total of one paved highway, a remote stretch of Utah Highway 12 that is among the most scenic drives in the west.
The lower reaches of the Escalante’s sinuous canyon pose even more of a challenge, reached only by boat on Lake Powell, or via a combination of hellish dirt roads and long hikes, something we undertook on a backpacking trip a few years back when we entered the Escalante via one of its tributaries, Coyote Gulch.
Upper portions of the canyon are far more accessible, if not as imposing, requiring only an occasional wade across the river to see sights such as the Escalante Natural Bridge:
One of the most significant tributaries of the upper Escalante River is Calf Creek, best known for a pair of waterfalls that are refreshingly out of place in a place not generally known for its aqueous wonders. Lower Calf Creek Falls, the larger of the two cascades, is reached via a ~3 mile hike along a broad canyon carved by the creek:
A few miles north, reaching the smaller Upper Calf Creek falls requires a short but steep scramble down a slickrock slope into the depths of the canyon:
Surrounded by some of the least developed land in the continental United States, the night sky from the Escalante canyons is a prime attraction as well!
Nooksack Falls, Whatcom County, Washington
Composite of three images, 18mm, 4 sec, ISO 200, f/20, two-stop neutral density filter
The last week and a half has been rather pleasant here in the northwest. Most noticeably, the Sun has been out. The trees are finishing the process of filling out their summer foliage. Snowpack in the Cascades is melting rapidly. So in other words, hillsides that are normally green have gotten a little brighter-green. Rivers that are normally filled with water now have more water. People that are normally pasty white are now a little less pasty white. And finally, waterfalls that are normally impressive have gotten more impressive, as is evident by the above photo which I took at Nooksack Falls, about an hour’s drive east of Bellingham, last weekend. I’ve realized recently that I’m sort of a sucker for waterfalls. I won’t go into all the reasons but I tend to be a sucker for most things that are ruthlessly effective at converting potential energy into kinetic energy. It turns me on. If I’m driving and see a sign for a waterfall, I’m probably stopping, even if accessing it requires a 15-mile round-trip hike and my passenger has to be at the airport in an hour. You just have to admire water’s blatant disregard for personal safety as it routinely plunges tens, hundreds, or even thousands of feet before slamming into some poor boulder at its base that has sat absorbing a ruthless pounding for what must, at least to the boulder, seem like an eternity.
I love photographing waterfalls almost as much as I like the falls themselves. The day I discovered that, by simply stopping down the lens on my camera far enough, I could render almost any flowing mass of water smooth, silky, translucent, and white was probably one of the most crucial days in fueling my severe photography addiction. Waterfalls were my gateway drug you might say. I’ve accepted this addition and am no longer in denial but thankfully I don’t see a recovery in my immediate future, although my wallet may beg to differ.
Grand Falls, Little Colorado River, Arizona
I love waterfalls in part because they exhibit so much diversity and character. Waterfalls in Arizona might only run a few days out of the year, their water looking more like molten chocolate straight out of Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory when they do, the result of enormous quantities of suspended silt, sand, and debris pried loose from stream channels that may go many months without tasting a drop of water. Waterfalls in Washington are, for the most part, year-round affairs, impressive primarily in their persistence. (Except for on Mt. St. Helens where volcanic heat accelerates snowmelt leaving most streams, and backpackers who depend on them, high and dry. Ask me about that one sometime…). Even in the fall, the waterfalls seem to run as if they are tapping into some mysterious underground source of water (hint: they are) that keeps them replenished even after the rainy season has passed. The mighty waterfalls of Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada are the bullies of the waterfall world, tall, stocky, aggressive, and so powerful in their flow that they dare you to approach them without eight layers of waterproof clothing, a rowboat, and a bilge pump. They hit you in the face (literally), knock you down, and leave you lying bloodied on the cold granite, that is until summer when they shrivel to merely a trickle or disappear altogether.
Geologically speaking (hopefully I didn’t lose anyone there…), waterfalls are generally indicative of youth. This is because any waterfall worth its salt and pepper will eventually destroy itself; the constant force of the water flowing over the abrupt edge will eat away at the rock forming the brink of the falls, no matter how resistant it might be, moving it farther and farther back until eventually only a flat reach of stream remains. Locations where geologic conditions are causing, or have recently caused uplift of the land are more conducive to waterfall generation. In fact, the states of North Dakota and Delaware, both in relatively quiescent portions of the continent, are the ONLY two states in the U.S. that lack a single USGS mapped waterfall. Now let’s remember that a lot of waterfalls don’t show up on official USGS quads, and naturally both North Dakota and Delaware CLAIM to have waterfalls, so as to not lose out on the lucrative waterfall tourism market. However I have to say that while North Dakota appears to have a solid case, Delaware’s evidence is unconvincing. It’s really sort of embarrassing if you think about it. Heck, even Florida has a few pretty nice looking waterfalls and we all know that Florida is about as flat as a pan-fried fritter.
I’ve posted lots of waterfall pictures on this site in the past (like here, here, here, here, and here) but last week’s outing inspired me to reach back into my archives and pull out some of my favorite unpublished waterfall photos from the past few years:
Havasu Falls, Grand Canyon, Arizona
Upper Calf Creek Falls, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Stirling Falls (tour boat for scale), Milford Sound, New Zealand