Saturday, April 4, 2020

Oregonians Abroad: Beacon Rock

One of the most well-known landmarks in the Columbia River Gorge, Beacon Rock towers 848 feet above the river on the Washington side. This enormous piece of basalt is apparently the core of an ancient volcano. The softer surrounding soil eroded away, leaving a marker where Lewis and Clark first noticed a tidal effect in the Columbia's water levels.



Once slated to be broken up for its basalt, in 1915 the rock was purchased by Henry J. Biddle (reportedly for $1) with one aim: he wanted to build a trail to the top. He was able to secure the aid of Charles Johnson, who had helped to engineer the historic Columbia River Highway. It took two years to build less than a mile of trail, but one look at Beacon Rock explains why: this volcanic plug's sheer walls necessitated a dizzying number of switchbacks and catwalks, and there was no way of planning ahead as they worked their way up the vertical rock face. Improvements were later made to his trail by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and Mr. Biddle's heirs donated his enormous rock to the state of Washington as a state park.

Today, Beacon Rock's trail still offers a short but steep hike as well as opportunities for rock climbers. To get there, take I-84 out of Portland to the town of Cascade Locks and cross the Columbia on the Bridge of the Gods (the toll is $2 at this writing) and head west on SR14. Alternatively, you can take the I-205 bridge and drive east on SR14 to the trailhead; this route is narrower and more winding than the freeway, but there is no toll. In any case, be prepared to pay a hefty parking fee ($10 at our most recent visit), but the fee covers the entire state park, so it's possible to make a day of your trip to this riverside retreat. There are even campgrounds for car camping, horses, and group camping.

You are likely to have plenty of company as you find a place to park your vehicle and walk toward the trailhead; this is definitely one of the top hikes in the Gorge, so it's no secret. The trail begins alongside SR14 and heads straight into the woods. Watch for wildflowers in season, and note the large boulders lying crumbled at the base of the rock. Begin to climb.

This is not a difficult hike; most people should be able to manage it if they pace themselves (our intrepid photographer managed it with a not-quite-healed foot fracture!). Sturdy boots with non-slip soles are a great help, as is a hiking staff. Hikers who suffer from vertigo may wish to rethink this climb, as the passage is narrow in places and the catwalks might prove unnerving.



The trail consists mainly of a series of switchbacks stacked on top of each other all the way up the side of the rock (at one point we looked down and counted 17 switchbacks visible below us). Views over the Gorge become ever more spectacular as the trail climbs higher. Looking across the river, you can see evidence of the massive landslide that dammed the Columbia long ago. This was later breached and became the infamous Cascade Rapids, now drowned by Bonneville Dam (also visible). Clear days offer spectacular views up and down the river, but on a damp day you climb silently into the mist. Either way, the top is a welcome achievement, with splendid views through the trees.

Having reached the top, walk back down the way you came, pausing occasionally to take more photos. Be sure to visit the adjacent park for views of the rock, as well as river and trail access. The short but unique Beacon Rock hike may not be quite in Oregon, but it's definitely worth a bit of a drive out of Portland. Mr. Biddle was right: a trail to the top was just what this big rock needed.

View of the rock from the lower park





Looking up the river, Bonneville Dam visible in the distance



Almost to the top!

The author pauses on the way back down



Note the switchbacks climbing up the face



A dollar well spent, Mr. Biddle!

Thursday, March 5, 2020

A Stop Along the Way: Cascade Locks

Cascade Locks from the Washington side of the Columbia

The wide, powerful Columbia River slices its way through the Cascade Mountain range, forming the dividing line between Oregon and Washington. Its home, the basalt-lined Columbia River Gorge, is widely known for its rugged beauty.  Somewhere around 1200-1400 AD, though, a huge landslide completely blocked a section of the Columbia's riverbed. According to Native American tradition, it was then possible to cross the mighty river with dry feet: clearly a gift from the gods. The original Bridge of the Gods came to an end, though; the river piled up behind the earthen dam until it was eventually breached. The new long, narrow channel became the infamous Cascade Rapids. Here the river was squeezed into what Captain Clark described as the "Great Shute" which necessitated a long portage of supplies during the Lewis and Clark Expedition. In fact, these boat-eating rapids were unrunnable even for skilled Native Americans in their canoes, although the narrow passage made the rapids an excellent salmon-fishing spot. Travelers on the Oregon Trail had to choose between braving the untamed Columbia or enduring Sam Barlow's rugged road over Mt. Hood. If they elected to float their way to the Willamette Valley, they faced a long, rough portage at the Rapids. Mules were brought in to help, followed in 1862 by the Oregon Pony, a little steam locomotive. The Columbia was the highway of the area, though, so in 1896 a set of locks was completed that allowed a detour around the rapids. Riverboats could now steam all the way from Portland to The Dalles in safety.

The now-submerged locks
A small town grew up beside these locks, aptly named Cascade Locks. Houses were built for the lockmasters who worked to keep river traffic flowing. The community grew to serve fishermen, workmen, and tourists. Then in 1938 the face of the Columbia changed: the new Bonneville Dam tamed the river and submerged the rapids. The locks were no longer needed, but the little town that had arisen beside them remained.



Today Cascade Locks still attracts river traffic, as well as travelers on I-84. Coming from Portland, take Exit 44 and follow signs; you will find it just off of the Interstate. Driving through town, watch on your left for the turn into the park. Here you will find a small boat moorage and a riverboat-themed children's play area. Look for a statue placed in honor of Sacagawea, the young Shoshone woman who guided the Lewis and Clark expedition while carrying her baby. The other end of the park holds an excellent historical museum, which makes a great spot to get out of the Gorge wind for a while and learn about the area. You will also find some well-preserved lockmaster's houses, a shed filled with antique farming equipment, and the actual Oregon Pony. Walk along the river to see the upper part of the original locks; the lower part, of course, is now submerged due to the dam. Next to the locks you will find a boat ramp and a modest campground.  Angling from the locks is a popular pastime here, and you will see several Native American fishing platforms perched above the water. Walk over a footbridge to explore Thunder Island, which was created when the channel for the locks was dug. Now a pleasant little park, the island is popular for parties and weddings. The Port of Cascade Locks also owns a sternwheeler which offers visitors a chance to get out on the river during the months of May through October.

Back in town you will find lodging and a few shops and restaurants. While we keep our blog commercial-free, no trip to Cascade Locks is complete without a milkshake or, better yet, a giant ice cream cone from a certain small cafe on the main street. Heading west through town, it's impossible to miss the modern-day Bridge of the Gods, a steel cantilever bridge spanning the Columbia. Owned by the Port of Cascade Locks, this toll bridge ($2 per vehicle at this writing) offers a vertiginous passage to Washington on its metal grid; however, the bridge has another claim to fame.

The Bridge of the Gods is, in fact, the lowest point on the renowned Pacific Crest Trail, and thru-hikers cross the Columbia on this bridge. The little community of Cascade Locks is the largest town on the PCT and it makes a welcome stopping place for hikers before they cross the river in their push towards the Canadian border. Stop in the small parking area just south of the bridge to walk over the river (pedestrians cross for free). Some visitors get a tiny taste of the PCT by hiking south from here to Dry Creek Falls; for more hikes, be sure to check the excellent website maintained by the Friends of the Columbia Gorge. Many of the routes in this area were heavily damaged during the Eagle Creek Fire of 2017, so you will need the most up-to-date information.


Driving through the Gorge on Interstate 84, it's tempting to breeze right by the modest community of Cascade Locks. Take a little time, though, and you will find a place that is quintessentially Oregon: history, trees, fishing, breweries, hiking, boating, incredible scenery...the list goes on. Stop where Native Americans walked across a mighty river dry-footed, then later netted salmon out of the rapids, where Oregon Trail pioneers paused as they floated the wild Columbia, where PCT thru-hikers pitch their tiny tents beside RVs in the waterside campground. Visit the locks where stairs descend into the water, going nowhere, their purpose gone, and yet visitors come from far and wide to see them. Plan to stop for a while in Cascade Locks, or, like us, plan to spend the better part of a day. Bring a jacket against the Gorge winds, bring a camera. Check out the museum. Go for a hike. Try the ice cream. You'll be glad you did.

Near Cascade Locks Marina





Sacagawea and "Seaman", Meriwether Lewis's dog

Overview of the locks and Thunder Island


Native American fishing platform


Old stone steps lead down to the flooded locks
Thunder Island



On the old locks



One of the historic lockmaster's houses, now port offices

Antique farming equipment near the museum

Excessive amounts of ice cream