“Perhaps the metaphor of time famine is not quite accurate. We are perhaps crammed with time, but with the wrong kind. Like people who eat too much junk food, we have filled our lives with the wrong kind of time, and rarely if ever do we avail ourselves of the kind of time that will truly nurture our spirits.” From Sacred Time and the Search for Meaning by Gary Eberle
I was in need of some sacred time.
So I dropped the kids off at my mother-in-law’s (thanks, Mom!), left my husband at home to care for the cats and work, and gratefully claimed a weekend away.
After dropping the kids off on Thursday evening, I continued down the freeway to my grandmother’s home in Vancouver. It was twilight, and the moon rose in the east, looming heavy and orange like an autumn harvest moon. I could hardly take my eyes off it, but I managed to make it safely to Grandma’s, and got a good night’s sleep.
Heading Up the Gorge
I had a leisurely breakfast and visit with my Grandma in the morning before picking up a few last-minute items at the store and topping off the gas tank. The day was sunny and warm enough for short sleeves. I headed up the Gorge on the Oregon side, wanting to make good time and stop at a few of the touristy spots along the way.
My first stop was Multnomah Falls, where I asked if they sold the Green Trails maps of the Gorge. They didn’t, so I walked up the paved trail to the iconic stone bridge over the stream.
I was surprised at the lushness of the wildflowers blooming even along this populated trail.
Mist from the larger waterfall sprayed out over the bridge, cooling everyone off and covering us with fine water droplets.
I continued on up the trail just to the first switchback, hoping to get a good view out over the Columbia.
I didn’t feel like joining the many folks continuing on to the top, since I had another hike in mind for the day and didn’t want to be too late getting to my camp spot.
I kept driving east on the old scenic highway, and was intrigued by an old tunnel at the Oneonta Gorge.
I stopped there and poked around, reading the interpretive signs about endemic plants, and walked up the gorge a little ways.
There was a class of high schoolers doing some surveys of aquatic life. It looked like a pleasant place to spend some time and put your feet in the water.
Herman Creek Trail
I made it soon after to the trailhead for Herman Creek. The campground there is closed right now, but the trailhead is open, and was full of cars the day I went. I was lucky to get a spot from someone leaving. I ate a snack and packed my day pack, and headed up the trail. Immediately I noticed plenty of poison oak. It was just leafing out, looking shiny and fresh.
The trail climbs steadily upward from the trailhead, through a nice forest, under some power lines, and around into the Herman Creek Valley. I followed the instructions in Craig Romano’s guidebook to Columbia Gorge hiking, and had no problems figuring out where to turn at each junction. The trail is well signed. I picked this trail because a friend went there the week before, and raved about the Calypso orchids and chocolate lilies.
I was not disappointed; orchids are thicker than I’ve seen them before in certain places along the trail.
The chocolate lilies grow only on one sunny hillside, but they are numerous. Yellow violets carpet the floor, as well, and I saw many other flowers, such as anemones, coralroots, and meadowrue. At some points the pollen from the unfurling maples was so heavy and odorous that I could scarcely breathe.
I passed a few other folks on the trail coming back down. I took lots of photos. At one point I noticed a tuft of fur on the trail; it didn’t look like dog hair. I looked around, and sure enough there was a small deer skeleton off the side of the trail. It made me feel kind of creepy, so I kept walking and didn’t stay long to investigate.
I was starting to feel like finding a spot to sit and eat a snack before turning around, when I passed two women coming the other way. We chatted for a moment, and they let me know about a waterfall ahead about a quarter of a mile. So I continued on a few more minutes, further up the valley, and came to a small trickle of water. Hmm, this couldn’t possibly be it. The next little low spot had a dry stream bed. I hoped I didn’t misunderstand them, and kept walking, telling myself I’d go just a little further. Sure enough, a few minutes later, I heard and felt a waterfall through the trees. Tall and slender, it cascaded down a basalt face covered in emerald green moss. The air was much cooler and refreshing after sweating up the hill.
I rested on the convenient log next to the stream and ate my snack. I pulled out my PLB to send out a test text message to my husband, but because I was in a gorge, it couldn’t get a good signal. I could however get cell service, so I texted him to let him know I was OK and would send the test message later. I sat and breathed for a few minutes. It felt so luxurious to be sitting there by myself in the sunshine with the waterfall, flowers, and shady trees. No kids needed anything from me, and I was in no hurry to have to take care of anyone else.
Soon enough, though, I felt like I needed to head back down the trail so I could get further up the Gorge and find a campsite for dinner. I made it back down in good time. The only problem was needing to heed the call of nature. The poison oak was so thick that I didn’t feel like I wanted to venture off trail to find a tree to hide behind. I also needed to tend to a hot spot on my foot. Finally I came to a spot where the trail connected with an old road, which I turned up and found a bend with some bare dirt to do my business. I had a bonus view out over the river to the other side.
I was only gone from the car for a couple of hours, and I think I did almost 5 miles round trip. It felt great to be able to hike that in normal time, and to still have a lot of the day to putz around.
Columbia Hills State Park
I hit the freeway east again, heading through Hood River and on to The Dalles. The landscape changed from wet, lush forest, to more open woodland, to sage and steppe. I saw many ospreys and vultures while driving along the Gorge.
I stopped to take a photo of the dam and the bridge over the Columbia at The Dalles, and came across an interesting historical marker commemorating the industry of the designers and builders of the dam.
I took some more photos at an unsigned pull-off on the Washington side, too. Then I drove a few more miles up to the Columbia Hills State Park.
There was a sign saying all the utility sites were full, so I hoped there would be a tent site available. There were a few open spots left, but my heart sank when I saw where they were and how close together they were. I love our State Park system, but with all that open space you’d think they could give campers a little more privacy and elbow room. The “primitive” tent sites are situated on a grassy lawn. There is water available in the middle. They each have a metal picnic table, fire pit, and gravel tent pad with wooden wind break.
They are only about 30 feet away from each other, with no bushes or anything between the sites. I just prayed the other campers would be going to bed at a reasonable hour and wouldn’t be too noisy. At any rate, I was tired of driving and there weren’t many other options in the area, so this would have to do.
I unloaded my gear using the handy wheel barrow the park provided. The infamous Gorge wind was blowing, making setting up my rented REI tent interesting. (I have a family sized tent, but I didn’t want something that big for myself, so I rented a 2-person REI Half Dome for the weekend. It was a good call.) I got my dinner rehydrating and other camp chores done. I snacked a bit while I sat in my chair behind camp and watched the sun sink lower in the western sky. Western meadowlarks burbled their liquid melodies and ospreys hunted over Horsethief Lake and called to each other.
Two families with young children were camped at the end of the row of campsites. I think the moms there were surprised that I was alone and felt sorry for me; they invited me over to sit with them and I could tell by their looks they were curious. I was really tired, and didn’t feel like staying up late socializing, so I didn’t join them in the evening. I think some people feel uncomfortable with the idea that some of us are OK being alone, and indeed crave that time. The other campers were young bucks who were here for the opening day of fishing season, and once they knew I wasn’t here to fish, the conversation stopped. I did feel a bit obvious being a woman alone, but I never felt scared or timid.
I ate my yummy homemade dehydrated pasta with sauce, and enjoyed my chocolate dessert and my tiny bottle of sweet wine. I had full cell coverage and was able to text my husband to let him know I was OK, and I successfully tested the texting feature on my PLB as well. As it got dark, bats started flying around. The wind died and it became calm; it was still warm and pleasant. I wanted to see the moon rise into the clear night. I waited and waited, yawning larger yawns every few minutes. The minutes ticked by as I listened to the fascinating conversations of the other campers. Where was that moon? Eventually I could see a faint glow behind one of the mountains to the east. By that point it was 10:00 and I could barely stay awake, so I put myself to bed. Thankfully I had ear plugs that blocked out the noises of people talking.
I slept fitfully – I had read a poem the day before by Mary Oliver that talked about sleeping on the forest floor, and it reminded me of my sleep.
“All night/I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling/with a luminous doom. By morning/I had vanished at least a dozen times/into something better.” From Sleeping in the Forest. (But I didn’t feel a sense of doom.)
I woke up early, made some coffee and hot water for oatmeal. It was sunny but cool enough for a jacket in the early hours. I took my time getting ready, reading some of the many books I brought and taking a walk around the campground.
I watched some Canada Geese with their babies, and watched the ospreys hunting. I found what looked like owl pellets, but they did not have very many bones in them.
One of them was even still moist, and had probably been regurgitated that night. I scanned the large trees nearby, but didn’t see any owls or other raptors.
As it warmed up, I packed my things and cleaned up camp. I set my solar panels out and was able to charge my phone.
I’m so glad to know the set-up works. I drove over to the other part of the park to look at the petroglyphs on display. I had called about the tour to see She-Who-Watches, a famous and sensitive Native American petroglyph that is off-limits to the public. Unfortunately, all the tours are full through May, so I wasn’t able to join that morning’s ranger-led tour to the site. The interpretive signs there are interesting, though, and contain some activities for children.
After the petroglyphs, I went over to the parking area for Horsethief Butte. I poked around with my camera, enjoying the flowers and the scenery over toward Mt. Hood.
There were many other folks out enjoying the beautiful weather, too. Many people scrambled on the trail up to the top of the butte, but I didn’t really feel like making the effort, so I just turned around, came back to the car and ate lunch.
I drove back toward Vancouver on the Washington side. I wanted to check out Catherine Creek to see if it would be something good for children to hike. I despaired of finding a place to park when I saw all the people fishing at the pull-off for the road. It was a zoo, with folks parked in all kinds of crazy places. Farther up the road at the trailhead, people were parked all up and down the road. However, it looked as if several groups were just coming back to their cars after hiking, so I drove a bit farther up the road and found a place to turn around. When I pulled off at a wide spot, I looked over and saw bluebird houses on the fence, and who should be perched nearby but a pair of beautiful bluebirds! The male was vibrant in the bright light, shining blue and rusty orange. I gazed at them for a few minutes before turning around and scoring a parking spot at the Catherine Creek Trailhead.
I had two objectives for this area, and I picked the Nature Trail first. This paved, accessible path is about a mile and a half long if you do all the loops, and you can choose shorter sections.
You’ll wind up and down the meadow, seeing the micro-habitats from different angles. Interpretive signs along the way explain some of what you are seeing. There were many flowers out, creating quite a show for the large numbers of hikers out enjoying the day.
I pulled out my new wildflower app to search for some of them, since many are endemic to that area and I hadn’t encountered them before. I watched a striking red-tailed hawk swoop and dive and rise on the currents. I was glad my hat had a tight neck strap, because the wind was blowing so hard it would have been down in the next county before I could catch it. For such a short trail, it sure took me a long time to wind my way through; I kept stopping to observe or take photos.
After I had finished this loop, I took on my second objective. On the other side of the road, I took the trail up to see the natural arch formation. This was a quick little hike through a sweet valley that has a different feeling than the meadows of the nature trail.
Catherine Creek burbles greenly along, flanked by oak trees and poison oak among the basalt cliffs. Delphinums and camas bloomed along the trail.
The arch sits up above the trail, an interesting abnormality in the crumbling basalt hillside. Those who like can continue on up the trail and make a loop. I just sat for a bit and had a snack.
The afternoon was wearing on and I had hoped to get back to Seattle that night. So I packed up my stuff and didn’t make any more stops till I got to Vancouver. I stopped and said hi to my Grandma again, eating a quick dinner with her. Then it was off north on I-5, toward gloomy dark clouds, and I made a stop at my Mother-In-Law’s for the kids. It was getting dark, and I was having trouble keeping my eyes open, so I reluctantly made the decision to stay overnight there instead of making the last leg of the journey home. It meant having to get up at 5 on Sunday so we could make it to Seattle in time to fulfill our commitments at church, but it worked out just fine that way.
This trip was just about perfect for me. Though I thought I wanted time away to think and delve into things by myself, I realized that what I really wanted was not to have to think at all. Or rather, to take a break from the endless ruts and circles my mind gets into, gaining refreshment from a change of scenery and the relief of not having anyone else to care for. I felt my mind clear and my heart settle. I’m grateful I have supportive family to help out and who doesn’t mind me taking this time to myself.
If You Go:
I used Craig Romano’s Day Hiking Columbia River Gorge for hike directions.
Green Trails Map 428S Columbia River Gorge West has the Multnomah Falls, Oneonta Gorge trail and Herman Creek on it. Green Trails Map 432S Columbia River Gorge East has the Washington trails I hiked on it.
Find info about Columbia Hills State Park.
Download the new Wildflower App for your smart phone: $7.99 http://www.highcountryapps.com/
Print off a plant list from the Washington Native Plant Society: