When spring finally springs, these trails become explosions of color. Hike the rainbow in the Columbia River Gorge or just stick close to the city.
COLUMBIA RIVER GORGE, OREGON SIDE
On this short but stunning hike, a veil of yellow balsamroot and purple lupine drape the 45-acre plateau every spring—though Mosier Plateau is home to more than 30 types of wildflowers, so be on the lookout for desert parsley, cluster lilies, and yellow bells, to name a few. Stop for snacks at the market in Mosier, named after Jonah Mosier, who settled in the area in the 1850s and established sawmills by what’s now called Mosier Creek. A favorite among wildflower enthusiasts, this is a great hike if you don’t have time for one of the Gorge’s lengthier treks, not to mention that after summiting around 600 feet, you’ll have a bird’s-eye view of the Gorge spilling out in all directions, with Coyote Wall just across the Columbia River. The top of the plateau is also a great spot to sit down, take a breath, and absorb the scenery before heading back down.
ROUTE: Park in the lot by the Totem Pole Plaza and head east, crossing over the Mosier Creek Bridge, dated 1920, restored in 2017. After crossing the bridge, take the trail to your right at the bench marked “Mosier Pioneer Cemetery.” The first part of the trail, managed by the city of Mosier, hikes up through Moiser Pocket Park along the cemetery, where members of the Moiser family are buried. Continue up and then get your camera ready for the idyllic Mosier Creek Falls, a two-tiered waterfall with a swimming hole that’s popular during summer. From there, the trail becomes property of Friends of the Columbia Gorge and gradually ascends along a series of switchbacks with yellow and purple wildflowers now dominating the slopes, until you reach the viewpoint. From there, you’ll pass a few concrete foundations before reaching a gravel road. Veer left at the junction to loop around the rim, where you’ll see a path that takes you to Mosier Viewpoint looking out over the gorge. Continue the loop until you connect back to the main trail, where you’ll head back to the trailhead.
DIRECTIONS: From Portland, drive east on I-84 and take exit 69 for Mosier. Turn right after exiting and follow the Historic Columbia River Highway. After the Totem Pole Plaza make a left and drive down a gravel road to a parking area near the railroad tracks. —Michelle Harris
While it’s an unofficial trail, Memaloose Hills still sees flocks of wildflower seekers in April and May. Yellow balsamroot and purple lupine surround the trail in springtime, but be on the lookout for red paintbrush as well. While the two scenic overlooks—Marsh Hill and Chatfield Hill—might steal the show with their epic views of Mount Hood and Mount Adams, the hike itself, which weaves through oak forest, wetlands, and grassy plains, doesn’t come up short. The trailhead (again, unofficial) at Memaloose Overlook is definitely worth a few moments before you begin the hike, with sweeping views of the Rowena Gap and Memaloose Island, which used to be the site of a Native American mausoleum. A sign at the overlook describes the history of Memaloose Island. Another important thing to note, the Memaloose Rest Area off Interstate 84 used to be a popular place to park for this hike but it’s not legal to use the rest area lot as a trailhead, FYI.
ROUTE: Beginning at the Memaloose Overlook viewpoint, cross the Old Gorge Highway and take the main trail, passing through a forest of oak trees and ponderosa pines. This trail takes you into national forest territory. Continue along the trail, crossing a stream, and you’ll then come to the Memaloose Hills-Chatfield Hill junction. Here you have the option to either hike to Chatfield Hill or Marsh Hill, both of which have stunning views and wildflowers speckled throughout the grassy hills in springtime. For Chatfield Hill, turn right at the junction and you’ll soon pass a cattail-rimmed pond, eventually making your way towards a cattle pasture. Continue along a fence towards Chatfield Hill. The trail will veer right and you’ll meander along colorful meadows of yellow balsamroot, purple lupine, and red paintbrush before summiting Chatfield Hill, where you’ll be able to view Mount Hood, Mount Adams, and the Columbia River. After taking in the scenery, head back down to the trail junction and go right to summit Marsh Hill, where you’ll again trek along a slope blanketed with wildflowers. Once at the top, you’re surrounded with views of Mount Defiance, Mount Hood, McCall Point, and the Columbia Hills. Return to the trailhead at Memaloose Overlook from here.
DIRECTIONS: From Portland, head east on I-84 and take exit 69 for Mosier, veering right toward the town. Continue along the Historic Columbia River for 30 miles. Memaloose Overlook will be on the left side of the road. —Michelle Harris
Tom McCall Preserve
Wildflower lovers take note: The three miles of trails winding through this 231-acre preserve seem to have been carved out with your point-and-click camera in mind. In all, more than 300 species of plants grace the wide-open meadows and windswept hills found here, and thanks to the refuge’s high perch along on the Rowena Plateau near the eastern edge of the Columbia River Gorge, you can fill your frame not only with a natural carpet of blue-hued lupines and yellow glacier lilies, but also with unforgettable panoramas of Mount Adams, Mount Hood, and the Columbia River.
ROUTE: From the parking area, head south on an old dirt road through open prairie thick with sunflowerlike balsamroots and purple-stemmed Columbia desert parsley. After about one-third of a mile, you’ll see a large wooden sign marking the McCall Point Trail. Head up the trail to the right for the short but intense 1,100-foot climb to the summit. If you’re not quite ready to tackle McCall Point, the Rowena Plateau trailhead (which lies just west of the parking area) marks a relatively level one-mile stroll perfect for anyone looking to snap a few pics amid the colorful grasslands without dusting up their Sunday best.
DIRECTIONS: From Portland, head east on I-84 for 64 miles. Take exit 69 and turn right onto US 30. Travel for 6.5 miles (through the town of Mosier) and make a right into the Rowena Crest Viewpoint area. Park along either side of the road. No fees or permits required.
Hood River Mountain
Yodeling rarely feels so appropriate as atop this 2,000-plus-foot rise south of Hood River where alpine panoramas unfold as if spliced from The Sound of Music. Mount Hood’s craggy spire dominates a yawning valley populated by farms and orchards, rustic barns, and grazing livestock. And come May and June, flowers take center stage. After a short climb through thick woods, the narrow trail breaks into an open double-track path surrounded by one of the area’s brightest wildflower displays. Shoots of lupine, larkspurs, and red paintbrush complement a sea of pinwheel-like yellow balsamroot. Adding to the trail’s appeal is an off-the-beaten-path, locals-only feel: the trail skirts through SDS Lumber Company land (the company has traditionally taken a benevolent view of hikers), with little signage. Still, the route is straightforward. Once atop the ridge, continue along dirt tracks to a trail intersection near a small, gated structure. Follow the path to quiet, bucolic Old Dalles Road, which loops back to the trailhead, or retrace your steps.
DIRECTIONS: From Portland, take I-84 east to Hood River. Take exit 64 and head south on OR 35. Drive 0.4 miles and turn left on East Side Road. Continue 1.5 miles and turn left on Old Dalles Road. Go approximately 2 miles and look for the trailhead on the right side of the road. A small SDS Lumber sign marks the path. No fees or permits required.
COLUMBIA RIVER GORGE, WASHINGTON SIDE
Lyle Cherry Orchard
Once upon a time, the Lyle cherry orchard was just that. But when farmers stopped irrigating, the orchard died—save for one tree, whose survival no one can fully explain. The solitary deciduous denizen echoes the solitude you’ll likely have on this hike: No road signs announce the trail’s existence, so you have to know where to look.
ROUTE: From the simple roadside pullout, step over the pyramidlike ladder and continue walking until you’ve reached the Cherry Orchard Trail sign about a quarter-mile from the turnout. The first mile up a rocky cliff abounds with steep switchbacks, for a total elevation gain of 1,500 feet, before flattening onto an open bluff with prime Gorge views. Continue up the ridge and weave through head-high grasses and scrub oaks, and when you think you’ve come to a viewless end, keep on trekkin’ through the trees until you reach a spectacular sheer with sweeping vistas. Look for the cherry tree on the eastern edge, where the hill dips toward The Dalles.
DIRECTIONS: From Portland, drive east on I-84 to either the Bridge of the Gods or the Hood River Bridge, and then head east on WA 14 through Lyle. The trail begins at a small gravel turnout on the left (north) side of the highway about a half-mile after the double tunnels. Park in the turnout and look for the small trail opening.
It may seem that winter’s gloom clings tenaciously through May, but on Dog Mountain the abundance of wildflowers proves that spring has sprung. Blooms on this popular Washington trail are at their peak in May, when the slopes seem practically spray-painted with fantastic colors. The summit offers a wildflower bonanza, plus fantastic views of the Columbia River Gorge, Mount Hood, and Mount St. Helens.
ROUTE: You’ll work for it: The entire way out is uphill, beginning with a steep 700-foot climb of no fewer than 10 switchbacks, from which sharp eyes may spot wild strawberry or coral root orchids. At the half-mile mark, veer right for better views; the left trail goes through a dense forest and is more strenuous. At the next major junction, take the left-hand spur for a more direct route and spectacular views, or the right-hand spur for wooded paths and rarer blooms. No matter how you ascend, you’ll end up at the open slopes at the top, which by mid-May are a riot of lupine, yellow balsamroot, larkspur and paintbrushes—a sight certain to put the spring back in your step.
DIRECTIONS: From Portland, drive east on I-84 to Cascade Locks exit 44 and cross the Bridge of the Gods. Head east for 12 miles on WA 14. The Dog Mountain Trailhead is between mileposts 53 and 54. NW Forest Pass or $5 parking fee required (or check out CAT transit services), and on weekends (including Memorial Day) between April 23 and June 12 every hiker must carry a permit.
Dalles Mountain Ranch
Part of Columbia Hills Historical State Park near Lyle, this historic homestead on the Washington side of the Gorge takes you through rolling hillsides blanketed with bright yellow balsamroot and purple lupine. Along the way you’ll pass various old structures like an 1878 barn, a wooden wagon, and gravesites of the Brune and Crawford families, who used to live on the homestead and ranch. Interpretive signs tell the story of the ranch’s past. On a clear day, deep blue sky surrounds the landscape, with expansive views of the gorge and Mount Hood that open up as you gradually wind your way through the old cattle ranch. Though not as strenuous as say, Dog Mountain, you’ll still get a nice workout on this moderately challenging hike, with an elevation gain that climbs about 1,300 feet.
ROUTE: From the Crawford Oaks Trailhead, take the access road up past the information kiosk, and climb some switchbacks, eventually reaching views that loom over Horsethief Butte and the Columbia River. Continue along the rimrock and you’ll pass through a gate, eventually reaching a four-way junction. Go right to connect with the Vista Loop Trail, crossing Eightmile Creek, and meander along colorful fields of balsamroot and lupine before reaching another junction. From here you can take a left and descend towards Eightmile Creek for a shorter loop, or veer right and continue on the Ranch Route, passing a tree plantation and then crossing another creek through a grove of oaks. Turn right at the Eightmile Creek-Ranch Road junction, and you’ll pass the Crawford Ranch buildings, a graveyard, and an outdoor museum of rusted old farm equipment. Then return to the main trail and descent down the Eightmile Creek trail, where you’ll veer right back onto the access road to the Crawford Oaks Trailhead.
DIRECTIONS: From Portland, drive east on I-84 to exit 87 and go left on US 197, crossing the bridge into Washington. Continue about 3 miles before turning right onto WA14. The park is located at milepost 85. A Discovery Pass is required to visit for the day. —Michelle Harris
At one point not too long ago, the only way to take in the spectacular east-facing Gorge views from Washington’s Cape Horn was to pull over on WA 14 and stare upriver. With the traffic whizzing at your back, it was more nerve-wracking than soul-stirring. But now Cape Horn hosts one of the Gorge’s most secret trails, making it possible to stand atop the bulging rock for far quieter meditations of the magnificent scene across the river: Larch Mountain, the bare knob of Angel’s Rest and of course Multnomah Falls, which appears to dangle from the Oregon cliffs like a fluttering bit of string. But perhaps the most spectacular part of this trail is its existence. Its uppermost lookouts were supposed to be the property of Rim View Estates; a developer had divvied up a prime parcel of land like a sheet cake. That was before Friends of the Columbia Gorge’s Nancy Russell loaned the Trust for Public Land some $300,000 to buy out the developer in 1986. In 2006, the Friends purchased the only private home that managed to get built in the subdivision: a $1.5 million behemoth complete with stable and koi pond that will eventually be replaced by a scenic overlook—a kind of Washington rival to Oregon’s Vista House across the Columbia.
ROUTE: To reach these viewpoints, you’ll have to navigate the Cape Horn Trail, a 7.8-mile loop that twists through a delphinium-filled forest, switches back over mossy fields of scree and—just as your legs begin to jelly—slips behind a showerlike waterfall. Finding the trail is a minor challenge, as it has yet to make an appearance on official Forest Service maps, lacks the grooming and foot traffic of many Gorge trails and is largely sign-free. All this, Cape Horn Trail enthusiasts will tell you, precisely defines its wild appeal. After you park at the base of Salmon Falls Road, walk perhaps 80 feet up this road; the trail begins on the left at a tree marked with a Resource Conservation Area sign. After a milelong ascent through brushy forest, the trail briefly joins with a dirt road. Keep left past a pasture until you reach paved Strunk Road. Turn left for 200 feet and then a make quick right down the gravel road that winds past a house. The gravel path becomes a grassy lane, then winds through a maple forest to WA 14. (Two 30 mph signs conveniently point to the trail’s second half.) After crossing the road, head straight at the four-way junction to the Cape Horn area. Eventually you’ll reach Cape Horn Road. Make a left on this little-used stretch, walking the 1.3 miles or so back to Rte 14 and Salmon Falls Road.
DIRECTIONS: Head east on WA 14 from Washougal. After you round Cape Horn, look to the left for Salmon Falls Road between mileposts 26 and 27 (marked by a bus stop and a pullout).
Catherine Creek State Park: Columbia River Gorge
More than 90 species of wildflowers bloom between February and July at this beloved Washington state park, providing a photographic bonanza. The moderate and well-maintained trails also make carting equipment (tripods, for instance) a cinch. And be sure to pack your macro lens: that cluster lily is ready for its close-up. —Ramona DeNies
Cooper Mountain Nature Park
Tucked in the outskirts of southwest Beaverton, nature abounds at this 230-acre park. Cooper Mountain rises almost 800 feet, so it goes without saying that you’ll come home with some Instagram-worthy snapshots of the Tualatin River Valley and the Chehalem Hills. Over 3 miles of trails meander through conifer forest, oak woodlands, and prairie, putting you in touch with a variety of habitats. As you roam the trail, you’ll see expansive prairies overtaken by a palette of wildflowers, including deep violet Oregon iris and giant fawn lilies. The park is also home to white rock larkspur, which Oregon lists as endangered. Keep your eyes open for western bluebirds perched atop tall grass, and if you’re very lucky, you might just spot a bobcat lurking in the grassy slopes. (The Cooper Mountain Nature House, located by the parking area, is currently closed to the public.)
ROUTE: A sidewalk near the playground connects you to a path lined with ponderosa pine. Take a right at the Little Prairie Loop, which meanders along a small prairie, and then follow the Cooper Mountain Trail. For bonus views, take the Overlook Trail, which parallels the Cooper Mountain Trail, and pause for a moment to soak in views of the Chehalem Hills and Parrett Mountain. Here you’ll also find a phonograph-shaped trumpet that lets you listen to the sounds of nature. Continue on to reconnect with the Coooper Mountain Loop and you’ll soon pass a large prairie, which come April, is strewn with wildflowers. Along the way you’ll see a small pond, where you may just get a glimpse of red-legged frogs. If you’d like, take a right onto the Larkspur Loop, and offshoot from the main trail that crosses a creek and puts you in view of white rock larkspur, which blooms in late spring. Return to the main trail and veer right towards Blacktail Way, where you’ll traverse oak woodlands and conifer forest. You’ll soon pass another listening trumpet before reconnecting with the Little Prairie Loop back to the trailhead. 18892 SW Kemmer Rd, Beaverton, Oregon —Michelle Harris
Lacamas Heritage Trail
The 312 acres here pack in conifer groves, fetching waterfalls, fir-fringed Round Lake, and, in spring, tiers of rocky meadows electrified by scores of camas lilies. Mountain bikers fawn over challenging patches of rooty singletrack and lung-burning chugs up dirt roads. Birders favor the adjoining Washougal River Greenway for a 1.5-mile tour of avian-rich wetlands. Need a skinny-tire cruise? The Lacamas Heritage Trail stretches 3.5 miles alongside Lacamas Lake, offering chance encounters with herons, double-crested cormorants, and bald eagles. 2700 SE Everett St, Camas, Washington
Camassia Natural Area
This nature preserve on the West Linn side of Willamette Falls is just off I-205. Read more here! 4800 Walnut St, West Linn, Oregon