Friday, March 25, 2016

A Stop Along the Way: Lewis and Clark State Park

This is an unassuming little park just off of I-84 east of Portland. It's a quick restroom stop on Exit 18, with room for the kids to run around a little and easy access to get right back on the freeway. But wait!

Did you bring the family dog? This park has a leash-free area. Are you a whitewater kayaker? This is the perfect take-out, with free parking and easy landing areas along the Sandy River. Interested in geology? Broughton's Bluff, a wall of basalt that marks the western end of the Columbia River Gorge, rises at the edge of the lawn. Fishermen ply the banks of the Sandy and run driftboats in the spring, angling for hatchery chinook and steelhead. Level pathways wind through the lower part of the park, with markers for common western Oregon native plants. Rock climbers already know about the popular basalt cliffs here; climbs are rated from 5.4 to 5.13.

We come for the hiking trail. The trailhead begins clearly enough where the flat lawn gives way to sloping forest. Come in early spring and build your muscles and stamina for summer hikes in the Cascades; the climb begins immediately and never really stops. Watch for wildflowers alongside the trail, which gradually becomes more challenging. You quickly understand that you are climbing along the edge of Broughton's Bluff; sometimes you will hike on pieces of the bluff, scrambling over huge chunks of basalt that have tumbled onto the path. The cliffsides are dotted with anchors left by climbers. It is difficult to say just how long this trail is; it is as long as you want it to be, as it gets thinner, rougher, and harder to follow as you go along. A scramble trail leads the adventurous to the top of the bluff, which offers a glimpse of the Sandy River Delta, a beautiful area which will doubtless be the subject of a future post. While this hike doesn't end at the usual Gorge waterfall, it is a fun, challenging spring warmup just minutes out of Portland, but without the Gorge crowds.

"Lewis and Clark" is not just a historic-sounding name; the expedition camped here in 1805. They named this waterway the Quicksand River due to the sandy delta where it meets the Columbia, and the name shortened to just "Sandy" over time.

The river begins high on Mt. Hood and races toward the Columbia. Paddlers love the 38-mile Sandy River Water Trail, which features runs from class I to class V. The run from Dabney State Park is a popular class 1+ that is even run on float tubes in the summertime. The easiest run is from Lewis and Clark out to the delta where it meets the Columbia. Be aware that early spring brings high water flows; respect the river and don't overestimate your skill level.

This park offers easy access to the Sandy, with free boat launching and parking as well as paths beside the river. In the summertime the park and riverside can be quite a zoo as people flock from the metro area to cool off in the icy water. During the spring, though, it's much less popular, plus the nettles and poison oak so common in western Oregon haven't had a chance to grow tall yet. On your next trip out I-84, take a break beside the Sandy River, just like Lewis and Clark did.

Yes, this is the trail
Climbing ropes on Broughton's Bluff

Near the top of the bluff
Sandy River Delta

Friday, March 18, 2016

Exploring Salem's Waterfront

The Willamette River winds through its namesake valley for over 180 miles, connecting cities, towns, and farmland as it meanders from the Cascades to the Columbia. Our state capital grew up along its banks, and in recent years Salem has revisited its watery roots by developing public parkland beside the river.

Accessed from Front Street, Riverfront Park on the east bank offers fun for the whole family. The Gilbert House Children's Museum holds court in a collection of Victorian houses at the north end; this is a must-see for families with small children. There is some parking here, or along nearby streets on busy days. Walk south on the paved trail along the riverbank for access to a small public dock and views over the water toward Minto-Brown Island Park. A bridge over the slough is currently being built to connect the two parks, providing easy access to the miles of trails on the "Island." Riverfront Park has a children's play area, restrooms, and best of all, a beautiful carousel that is wheelchair accessible and only $1.50 a ride (free for people with disabilities). When the weather turns ugly, head for the carousel building; it's warm and cheery and staffed with friendly volunteers.

This a lovely park with acres of grass and mature trees, but the east bank is steep and water access is very limited. To really connect with the river, loop back around to the north end of the park and look for an old train trestle. This is the century-old Union Street Railroad Bridge, now repurposed as a popular footbridge over the river.

Riverfront Park has a city-park vibe that is quickly left behind when you walk or bicycle over the river to Wallace Marine Park on the west bank (or drive over the bridge to West Salem and take Wallace Road to Glen Creek Road). This park is known for its softball fields, but it also offers soft-surfaced hiking trails, a paved boat ramp, and a lovely riverside area with picnic tables and a stony beach for hand-launching small boats. On sunny days, this area is filled with families enjoying the river and lounging on the lawn. The water bobs with all manner of watercraft, from jet skies to sea kayaks to air mattresses, all somehow managing to avoid collision. In the winter and spring, however, the Willamette is an energetic force with strong currents and potentially rising water. Enjoy the parks, but respect the river.

Once in Wallace Marine Park, look for a paved path that heads north parallel to the river, turning into a woodchip trail, then dirt, and then eventually petering out near a surprisingly pretty water-filled gravel pit. Birds sing in the cottonwood trees and snarls of brush, interrupted by the occasional wail of a train; you are still, after all, in Salem.There are plans underway to develop this end of the park into a bike park, with a network of cross-country trails for all skill levels.

Those of us who get spring fever as soon as Christmas is over are looking for any chance to get outside while we wait for the sun to return. Salem's waterfront parks are a great way to get the family out without encountering huge puddles, mud wallows, and downed trees. When the Minto-Brown bridge is completed in the fall of 2016, all three parks will be connected, giving access to over twenty miles of trails.  Softball, an ampitheater, a dog park... all this, and a carousel, too.

A. C. Gilbert House Children's Museum
The Willamette Queen, a vintage stern-wheeler, often docks at Riverfront Park
Minto-Brown Island from Riverfront Park