Several worlds collide in the Columbia Gorge. In the west, moss-covered rain forests cling to misty green cliffs. A few miles east, only scrub oaks dot a semi-arid scabland. And in between, a colonnade of more than 20 major waterfalls separates the alpine meadows of the Cascade Range from the mudflats of the Columbia River, nearly at sea level.
In the midst of these colliding ecosystems is the remarkable Hatfield Wilderness. Although it lies a mere half-hour freeway drive from Portland and overlooks a busy transportation corridor along the Columbia, it remains delightfully wild, protected by a ribbon of breath-taking 3000-foot cliffs....
The annual rainfall varies from a soggy 150 inches in the Bull Run Watershed to 75 inches at Cascade Locks, and just 29 inches at Hood River on the eastern end of the Gorge. Summers, however, are dry...
Plants and Wildlife
Between the dense Douglas fir and sword fern rain forests of the west and the open oak grasslands of the east, the Columbia Gorge hosts twelve plant species found nowhere else in the world -- including six strictly confined to the wilderness lands. Look for rare plants and flowers on the rock walls of the Gorge's cool, north-facing canyons, where even alpine wildflowers are often tricked into growing nearly at sea level.
The many layers of columnar basalt exposed in the cliffs of the gorge are all part of the massive lava outpourings which inundated 50,000 square miles of eastern Washington, eastern Oregon and Idaho to a depth of up to a mile 10 to 17 million years ago. These rock floods -- a result of the North American continent overriding the Pacific Ocean floor -- surged down to the ancient Columbia to the sea, pushing the river north to its present location.
Hiking & Backpacking
The thorough trail network is very heavily used on weekends, particularly in the vicinity of Multnomah Falls and along Eagle Creek. The dramatic elevation gains on many trails (as much as 400 feet) should be taken into consideration when planning trips.
The Columbia Gorge is a center for testing technical climbing skills. For starters, good conditioning hikes include the nearly 5000-foot climb from Starvation Creek Falls to Mount Defiance and the numerous trails up to the 4000-foot Benson Plateau. Then head 3 miles west of Bridal Veil Falls to Rooster Rock (a 200-foot pinnacle with routes varying in difficulty from level I-4 to II-5.6-A3) and Crown Point (a 700-foot bluff with routes of difficulty II-5.4 and III-5.6). The Pillars of Hercules, a group of 100-foot basalt towers immediately west of Bridal Veil, rate difficulty levels from I-5.2 to II-5.8.
Backcountry skiing in the Three Sisters Wilderness. Skier: Talbot Bielefeldt
Location: 24 mi E of Portland
Size: 107 sq mi
Status: 102 sq mi designated wilderness (1984, 2009)
Terrain: Cliffs, densely forested canyons
Elevation: 100' - 4960'
Management: Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area
Map: Forest Trails of the Columbia Gorge (Geo-Graphics)