Photo: Courtesy John Howard and Friends of the Gorge

You can access this 64-acre eastern Gorge preserve, known as Dancing Rock, only on a hike led by Friends of the Columbia Gorge.

ST. CLOUD TRAIL

Often overlooked for more high-profile geologic settings on Highway 14, like Beacon Rock State Park (just five miles down the road), the St. Cloud Trail wanders through one of the most distinctive settings in the Gorge: an abandoned apple orchard hugging the banks of the Columbia River. At just a half-mile, the easy, kid-friendly loop can be finished in a blink. But with a scattering of picnic tables, a stretch of sandy beach, and a delightfully competition-free gaze at Multnomah Falls across the river, don’t be surprised if you wind up spending an entire afternoon on your own version of Cloud Nine.

GIBBONS CREEK

Opened just three summers ago, the treasures of the 2.25-mile Gibbons Creek Wildlife Art Trail outside Washougal remain a well-kept secret. That is, unless you’re a bird. Set in the 1,049-acre Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge, at the mouth of the Columbia Gorge Scenic Area, the shallow lakes, creeks, and groves of oaks and cottonwoods here are a scenic rest stop for nearly 200 species of migratory avian life, including purple martin and American bittern. Don’t just look up, though. Sunbathing western painted turtles and leaping blacktail deer are among the dozens of four-legged critters spotted here.

HARDY RIDGE

Wedged between two popular Washington hiking spots—Beacon Rock and Hamilton Mountain—the challenging Hardy Ridge Trail doesn’t attract a ton of traffic. But those who tackle the eight-mile loop’s quad-busting climb through hemlock forest, along open meadows, and past bare rocky outcroppings walk away with plenty of Flickr fodder: glimpses of Mount Adams’s peak and Hamilton and Table Mountains abound, as do brightly tipped wildflowers like Indian paintbrush, and shrubby penstemon in full bloom this month through late July.

DANCING ROCK

You can access this 64-acre preserve just across from The Dalles only on outings led by Friends of the Columbia Gorge, during which you’ll be privy to one of the Gorge’s most mysterious geologic features: kolk ponds. Remnants of ancient floodwaters, the deep wells here were hollowed out by a series of powerful underwater vortexes. The repeated floods also deposited massive granite boulders from hundreds of miles away across the rolling hills, adding to the otherworldly feel. Bonus: the three-mile trek begins with a petroglyph tour inside Columbia Hills State Park, including a look at the area’s most famous rock-rendering, “She Who Watches.”

ELOWAH FALLS

A few miles east of Oregon’s bumper-to-bumper waterfall circuit, Elowah Falls and Upper McCord Creek Falls provide a remarkably traffic- and crowd-free experience. After a moderate half-mile trek in, hikers face a choice: A left turn leads to a gentle, mile-long ascent to the base of Elowah, a mighty 200-foot beast plummeting over a striated stone amphitheater. To the right, a steep series of switchbacks blasted into the cliff face delivers stunning views of Elowah and the Gorge all the way up to the twin falls of Upper McCord Creek. The best decision? Try ’em both. After all, you won’t have the hordes slowing you down.

This article appeared in the June 2012 issue of Portland Monthly Magazine.

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