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BRIDGE of the GODS Magazine

The East End of the Gorge

Oct 26, 2020 03:56PM ● By Robert Joseph
Autumn view of the Columbia River and rainbow

ROWENA AUTUMN RAINBOW © Robert Joseph

The most fun I ever have is the fun that finds me around the outside edges of my comfort zone.  In fact, for me, most positive things are hovering just outside that zone. The most knowledge I gain is when I am forced to listen to somebody who I disagree with and view things that are difficult for me to face. The healthiest I have been in my life is when I have pushed my body the hardest.  The greatest love I have experienced has been when I have sacrificed for that love. The eastern edge of the Columbia River Gorge has a way of encouraging me to take multiple steps away from the safe confines found within my comfort zone.  

The Gorge is, without argument, jaw-droppingly beautiful.  The forests, the waterfalls, and the river itself, from Troutdale to the little hamlet of Hood River, provide well-known opportunities to explore and recreate.  That 45 mile stretch of the Gorge is one of the primary playgrounds for Portland’s ever-growing community. Nothing is boring about any inch of the Columbia River Gorge. Traveling pastHood River, though, the landscape of the east end of the Gorge swiftly transforms into something less tame.  Trees seem to evaporate from the earth, leaving the scarred land open to forever views.

Travelers to this area are often simply passing through on I-84. In normal, non-COVID, times they drive 70 mph on their way to visit Pendelton, the Wallowas, Hells Canyon, or beyond.  While this fact pleases me in that I often get this playground to myself, I am also saddened that more people don’t spend the time getting to know the grandeur and beauty of this overlooked section of the Gorge.

Making a list complete with things to do and see in the East Gorge is nearly impossible. At the very least, it would take many more pages than what has been granted to this story.  There are some gems, though,  that might act as a primer to visiting the area. 

MOSIER SWIMMING HOLE

There’s a beautiful little box canyon impossibly carved by little Mosier Creek as it descends into the Columbia River. Just a couple of miles off of I-84 at the Mosier exit, you can park your car and walk down to a nearly perfect little swimming hole during the hot summer months.  This area becomes even more interesting to visit when autumn’s coolness leaves this area devoid of people.  The trees adjust their color rapidly in October and November, and the water clears from their heavy use in the summer. There is a great hike here along the Mosier Plateau Trail. It hugs the steep canyon walls of Mosier Creek until you climb onto the plateau where Gorge views will leave you speechless. At the time of this writing, the trail is closed. Look for it’s reopening in the coming months.

ROWENA CREST VIEWPOINT

There are countless iconic spots in The Columbia River Gorge.  Rowena Crest Viewpoint is one of the top five, to be sure.  It is less visited than others, but it is every bit as magnificent as all of them.  There is a reason why car commercials are filmed on the windy roads leading to and from this spot.  The trails that lead from the area around the viewpoint are quieter but are just as spectacular as trails further to the west.  Go during the eruption of wildflowers in April, and you’ll scratch your head, wondering why you have never been here.

ROWLAND LAKE FALLS © Robert Joseph

 ROWLAND LAKE FALLS & COYOTE WALL 

This beautiful waterfall near the beginning of the trail that ascends Coyote Wall takes you by surprise.  It is directly above SR14 on the Washington side of the Gorge. It is 5 minutes into the hike before you turn north and head very much up the hill.  I think people overlook or at least talk little about this waterfall because of that initial surprise and the beauty to come on Coyote Wall.  It’s a pretty little waterfall in an otherwise barren landscape.  The hike up Coyote Wall itself is dizzying.  The views from the edge of the wall are expansive and sometimes unnerving. You can plan a hike in this area that lasts an hour or 12 hours.  Regardless of the path you choose, your time won’t be wasted.

THE DALLES FROM SEROSIS PARK © Robert Joseph

 THE DALLES

The Dalles is an economically and culturally up-and-coming small town that offers visitors to the East Gorge a friendly place to nourish their bodies and rest their heads between adventures. I could write an entire magazine about this historic and scenic town.  There are numerous museums, landmark buildings, beautiful parks, great restaurants, and hip little pubs with live music and local beers spread throughout its beautiful location along the shores of the mighty Columbia. Stop-in to Sunshine Winery to grab a glass of wine and peek around the only designated skyscraper in the Columbia River Gorge that just happens to also be a 130-year-old mill. Walk through downtown visiting the apothecary, or one if it’s boutique clothing stores, or find a book in Oregon’s oldest bookstore.  There are enough art galleries, museums, shops, and restaurants to keep you busy for at least an entire weekend in The Dalles.  

COLUMBIA HILLS STATE PARK © Robert Joseph

 COLUMBIA HILLS HISTORICAL PARK

Just across the Dalles bridge in Washington lie more treasures for those willing to make the drive beyond Hood River.  I have personally spent countless days in Columbia Hills State Park.  I have walked its numerous trails.  I have driven the roads through it and beyond.  I have felt the coolness of its ancient Oak filled ravines. I have witnessed the colors of its spring flowers.  I have gone swimming and paddle boarding at Horsethief Lake. I have climbed to the top of Horsethief Butte, where I marveled at what I could see from that vantage point.  I have viewed all of the remarkable ancient petroglyphs in the area. There is a quiet solitude and a heart-racing adventure to be had simultaneously at this park.  Don’t be fooled by Google Maps. This park is on both the north and south side of SR14.  Many people visit the south side.  Few people explore the north.   

MOODY ROAD © Robert Joseph

 OLD MOODY ROAD

There are hundreds of roads that vein the hills of the Columbia River Gorge.  These roads are often only traveled by ranchers and others who work and live here.  Many of these roads in any lesser location would be major tourist attractions.  I can’t point you towards all of them.  If you enjoy the kind of adventure that takes you off the highway, off-pavement, onto roads that are themselves the viewpoint, you can find that in spades in this area.  One such road is Old Moody Road.  This road traverses a hill high above the Columbia River until it is forced to descend into the Deschutes.  For those that enjoy this sort of thing, this should be enough information to help you find it. 

DESCHUTES RIVER &  FREEBRIDGE ROAD

The United States Congress has designated The Deschutes River a Wild & Scenic River. While this 

FREEBRIDGE ROAD © Robert Joseph

 designation afforded it, and the canyon that contains it, much-needed protections, anybody with eyes or ears or nerve endings in the soles of their feet could tell you that The Deschutes is a wild and scenic river.  There are few access points for non-floating vehicles on this section of The Deschutes.  The trails are sometimes tough because of rattlesnakes and poison oak.  They are always worth it because of that river and the canyon she has carved for herself.  There is no better place to understand this river than at the bottom of Freebridge road.  You will most likely be alone on the river here.  Only a vehicle specially designed for this road could make it to the bottom, so you’ll have to park at the gate and walk your way down.  At least up to this writing, you would be one of the very few to walk down to the Deschutes on this road.  

MARYHILL MUSEUM OF ART

MARYHILL MUSEUM © Joe Wolf

 Maryhill Museum of Art is one of the better-known museums in the Gorge. I realize that I am not telling you anything you don’t know already.  I am listing it here because it deserves to be here.  If you have put visiting this landmark on your back burner or don’t know about the Maryhill Museum for some reason, stop reading right now, and find your way to it. This is a big-city caliber museum in an absolutely remarkable location.  This museum holds The Thinker by Auguste Rodin.  It isn’t easy to wrap one’s head around how some of Rodin’s most important work is being housed in a museum two hours from any metropolitan area.  There are so many important exhibits beyond Rodin located here.  The surroundings, architecture, and the building itself are worthy of a visit even without the museum’s amazing content. Maryhill Museum is truly a world-class museum of art.  

JOHN DAY RIVER & BIGLOW CANYON

Not far east of the Wild and Scenic Deschutes River, The John Day Wild and Scenic River opens its canyon walls to release its well-traveled waters into the Columbia River.  At their headwaters, these two rivers are wildly different, but as they cut their way through the Columbia River Gorge’s rigid interior walls, they become increasingly similar.  They both cut rugged and deep canyons through the basalt.  Roads leading to the canyon edges of the John Day are few.  The ones that I have found pass through ranches. You have to spend time building a relationship with the owners of those ranches to gain access to those roads - very few of which lead down to the water.  There is an exception, though.  Fox Rd leads right down to the bottom of Biglow Canyon on the John Day River.  You will have to open and close a couple of cattle fences.  You’ll probably have to wait for cows to get off the road.  You might even have to endure a local or two looking at you like you’re crazy for being there, but the reward in the journey down and the destination at the bottom are far more than worth it. Bring a tent, a fishing pole, and a camera.

All of these destinations in the eastern portion of the beautiful Columbia River Gorge are just a couple of hours from the Portland/Vancouver metro area.  There are hundreds of other locations that I could have listed here. The east end of the Gorge is ripe for discovery, adventure, and solitude.  There are roads to be driven.  There are trails to be walked.  There are towns to be discovered and friends to be made.  You won’t be on the road or the trail with everybody else.  After all, the east end of the Gorge isn’t a place to be seen.  It’s a place to see.

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Robert Joseph lives in The Dalles, Oregon, with his fiance’ and 5-year-old daughter. When he is not hard at work helping Fortune 500 companies with their marketing technologies, he’s a photographer, a writer, a wanderer, and an adventurer. He operates an NPO called The Dalles Adventures, where he shows passion for creating opportunities and introducing people to the plethora of adrenaline activities in the East Gorge. He is also a newly appointed board member of The Dalles Main Street, where he is actively working to improve the commerce and culture of downtown The Dalles. You can reach Robert at [email protected] Visit his site at thedallesadventures.com and/or follow The Dalles Adventures on Instagram and Facebook.