Thursday, January 24, 2019

The King of Roads

I had no idea that the Columbia River Scenic Byway is known as the "King of Roads" - or that it was America's first scenic byway. Frankly, I knew next to nothing about Oregon until this year as I started to explore my growing attraction to the state just south of home. Growing up I thought of Oregon only as Bend and my grandparents' house there. I clearly remember writing an essay on the pond in their neighborhood when prompted with the school assignment, What is your favorite place? My own little Walden, it seems.

Last Summer I took myself on a solo road trip to central Oregon. There, I took in Painted Hills and Smith Rock State Park:
As Above So Below
Terra Incognita

Now that I live in Olympia, day trips to the Columbia River and NW Oregon are more accessible than ever before. I find myself magnetically drawn to this gaping gorge that cuts through the Cascade mountain range, separating states. Before settling in Oly I was hunting for a place in/near Hood River, which sits along the Oregon border. Alas...the job market isn't so hot in those sleepy lil' towns.

This week we headed south to take in some of the many waterfalls along the scenic byway, that King of Roads. Even the laziest human can enjoy some vivid nature porn in this glorious pocket of Oregon. Dozens of exquisite falls line the road, most of which don't require any real effort to access. We had to seek out extra mileage and extend some of the little trails to lesser known, more "hidden" falls-like Fairy.

Fairy Falls

We easily took in four falls in one afternoon: Wahkeena, Fairy, Bridal Veil, and Latourell, along with a drive by of Multnomah. Can't get me out of the car for that one. It's not that I hate Multnomah, the highest waterfall in Oregon. It's that I hate the crowds.

Latourell was by far my favorite, and the most Icelandic of the gang. This whole area is reminiscent of my favorite Nordic country though: towering stacks of blackened volcanic basalt, highlighter-bright moss, and plunging, nameless falls of various size pouring around every turn.

Latourell Falls
Latourell from afar

The Columbia plateau was formed by millions of years of expansive lava floods emanating from as far away as Montana. Large basalt skyscrapers that remain, like Beacon Rock and Crown Point, offer the best views of this phenomenal little corner of Earth. There's a unique comfort in the climactic beauty that only cataclysmic disaster can create. Arresting light and moss bursting through the ruins like Tupac's rose from the concrete.

At 31, I've become much more invested in the geologic history of the places I hike. These days I research each new area I visit and try my best to understand what I'm witnessing. Yeah....wish I had paid more attention in Rocks for Jocks (Geology 101) rather than writing it off as my one and only Science credit. Yay, Bachelor of Arts!

Bridal Veil
Bridal Veil

I'm exceptionally grateful to experience this Columbia byway after the devastating Eagle Creek Fire of 2017 blocked access to much of it. The blaze was ignited by a 15 year old who threw a firework into Eagle Creek Canyon. It charred through 50 acres, an area larger than the metropolis of Washington D.C. Some of the most spectacular sections of this wilderness are still inaccessible, including the magical Oneonta Gorge. Oneonta is the miniature, PNW version of Zion's Narrows. You hike up a creek bed, under a log jam, through waist-high water to a climatic waterfall that drops into a swimming hole. Then there's nearby Tunnel Falls, with a giant waterfall you can walk behind (Icelandic indeed).

Wahkeena Trail
Charred trees

Though disappointing, the ongoing closures will allow deep healing for the Eagle Creek region and much needed respite from human trampling. The Gorge may well be the next stop for me in stationary living. Otherwise, without a doubt a frequent haunt if I go the way of van/RV life. Until then, I'm really enjoying hiking in it as much as possible. Heading South against traffic ain't so bad either...

More on waterfalls

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