Field Notes

Trail of the Month: Scouting Petroglyphs in the Columbia River Gorge

Take a guided tour to "She Who Watches," a piece of history hidden in the cliffs.

By Ramona DeNies April 17, 2017 Published in the May 2017 issue of Portland Monthly

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Clockwise from top left: Wildflowers bloom in Columbia Hills State Park; She Who Watches; a guided tour scans for petroglyphs.

Ranger Andy Kallinen has heard many stories: that she was a female chieftain turned to stone, high above the Columbia, to forever guard her people, or a teenage villager who prayed so hard for a landslide that she herself became rock. One early travelogue, from a white pioneer, made dubious reference to her as a witch. When a later archaeologist asked a Wishram elder about the sharp-toothed, sunken-eyed image, she recoiled—a sign of respect, he guessed, for a “death guardian spirit”: perhaps a destroyer of contagions that likely swept through this swath of high desert.

Three things we can know: that Tsagaglalal, as this mysterious petroglyph-pictograph is known, translates to “She Who Watches” in a Sahaptin dialect; that her face appeared at Gorge burial and cremation sites from the 1600s through the late 1800s; and that regardless of origin story, her enduring presence alone is a gift.

Many of the carvings that reside here, at Washington’s Columbia Hills State Park, were jackhammered from nearby Petroglyph Canyon in the 1950s. Not She Who Watches, who remains in place, on a smooth basalt slab overlooking a stretch of river once called the Long Narrows, before the Dalles Dam flooded its banks.

To ensure this massive petroglyph’s safety, the park limits access to twice-weekly guided tours, April through October. There’s a reason to make the trek during the still-gray skies of spring. “A bright, sunny day washes the eye out,” says Kallinen. “The best viewing is wet, cloudy shoulder seasons—you can see how the pictographs pop.”

Tours Friday and Saturday at 10 a.m., Columbia Hills State Park, Dallesport, 509-439-9032

Post-Hike Watering Hole

The Baldwin Saloon first served thirsty Dalles railworkers in 1876. Today, it’s more upscale: brick walls lined with landscapes and artistic nudes, and a hearty menu of seafood, steaks, and Swedish crèmes best washed down with a pint from local Freebridge Brewing.

Drive Time: 100 minutes
Activity: Hiking
Distance: 1/2 mile
Difficulty: Moderate
Fee: $10 Discover Pass

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