Trails for everyone, forever
A weekend on the Columbia Gorge offers an opportunity to leave behind the busyness of daily life and experience a slower pace along its scenic beauty | by Shannon Leader
Twenty minutes into the drive to our weekend getaway, I realized I did not have my phone in the car. For a minute or so I pondered whether or not it was possible to go away for 2 days without it. Taking it as a challenge to truly “get away,” I said nothing as we continued on down I-5.
A couple of hours later, we turned east on the Lewis and Clark Highway, Highway 14, close to the Washington/Oregon border. We were in the area for a talk in Portland and we’d opted for more remote lodging an hour outside the city on the Columbia River. I had heard about Carson Hot Springs Resort during my Pacific Crest Trail hike. I’d always said I would come back to visit. This was the perfect opportunity — and would allow us to take a few hikes along the Columbia River Gorge.
Our drive had the feel of the twisting Highway 101 on the Pacific Coast; both roads are carved where the land meets a great body of water. The Columbia is known as “Nch’i-Wana,” the “Great River,” by Native Americans of the area and for good reason. The Cape Horn viewpoint offered our first expansive panorama of the occasionally milewide river once known for the fur, timber, wheat and salmon trades.
The Columbia River National Scenic Area was established in 1986, but it has served as sea-level passage through the Cascades for thousands of years. As we traveled along the path of many before us, we had our first glimpse at the scars of the 2017 wildfire that burned through more than 48,000 acres of the surrounding topography. A carpet of trees once stood proudly on the ledges of ebony basalt cliffs; now exposed cascades of water littered its surface between the blackened pines.
Beacon Rock, the 848-foot-tall remains of a volcanic cinder cone estimated at 57,000 years old, made for a short hike midway through our drive. Climbing up the steep trail, we shared the summit with other travelers gazing down the Gorge as the river traveled on its journey from the dry interior of Washington and Oregon toward the Pacific Ocean.
After our hike, we headed to the small town of Stevenson. We were not quite hungry for a full meal, so we stopped at A&J’s Select Market. The market has an upscale feel, with a wine-chilling station and fresh salads in the deli. I selected some organic vegetables and poured kombucha from the tap while my friend had a sandwich made at the deli.
Stevenson offered good opportunities for wandering the banks of the Columbia River, including a paved waterfront trail with picnic tables, barbecues, an off-leash dog area and grassy hills to rest on. An old ski-lift chair under a shady tree was perfect for watching colorful windsurfers sail by. Nearby, the breeze twirled a kinetic galaxy sculpture by Andrew Carson in the riverfront park.
From Stevenson, we made our way to Carson, just 4 miles farther east. We soon reached Carson’s one four-way intersection lined with a hardware store, antique shop and other small businesses.
The Carson Hot Springs Resort was another mile east. We arrived as the sun was setting on the idyllic location in the Wind River Valley. It felt as if we’d stepped back in time as we checked in at the restored Hotel St. Martin, which was built in the early 1900s. People have long come for a dip in the mineral waters and can still visit the authentic bathhouse for a soak in claw-foot tubs and a massage.
After settling in and walking the grounds, we opted for a mellow evening and took the short drive back to Stevenson for dinner. We slid into a wooden booth at the Walking Man Brewery, a small pub filled with locals and families. We sampled the weekend special of gumbo and a house ale along with delicious fish tacos and cider. (We may have also partaken of their fragrant truffle fries.) Although the inside seating was humble, there was a spacious outdoor area with tables and a fire pit I knew I would enjoy on a warmer visit.
Back at the hotel, we donned fluffy white spa bathrobes and walked in the crisp night air to the humid pool house a short distance from our room. Soaking in the warm water with whirlpool jets, any residual tensions from the week melted away. I found I wasn’t missing being plugged in as much as I thought I might at the beginning of our trip.
The next morning, we woke with the sun and drove across the Bridge of the Gods to Cascade Locks and Oregon, paying the small toll. A second hike seemed the perfect way to end our time at the Gorge, and we opted for a stroll on the Latourell Falls Trail — a lovely spot, although it can get busy and the parking lot often fills up. (Dry Creek Falls is another option for a hike — right at Cascade Locks. The trail passes through the burn zone. The fire cleared the understory, opening up the views and leaving blackened pillars of mature trees protected by their thick bark.)
Afterward, we continued west on the Historic Columbia River Highway (Highway 30). The route features weathered masonry bridges and guard walls with mossy branches arching overhead. We made one final stop at the Vista House of the Crown Point Scenic Corridor. From 733 feet above the water, we enjoyed one last look down the vast Columbia River. Then we were on our way, refreshed and rejuvenated, ready for the bustle of downtown.
Carson Hot Springs & Resort: Enjoy a rustic (but rugged) getaway with a variety of lodging options, including studios and suites with your own hot tub. The Elk Ridge Bar & Grill serves a hearty breakfast and you can soak in healing mineral waters or schedule a massage.
Skamania Lodge: The Skamania Lodge in Stevenson offers traditional rooms with views of the Columbia River along with treehouse accommodations in the woods. A variety of activities from golf and spa packages to zip lining and an aerial park will keep everyone busy.
Beacon Rock Campground: This historic campground in Skamania is open year-round with campsites designated for tents, equestrian and hikers and bikers. The newer Woodard Creek area also offers RV hookups. There is access to Hamilton Mountain and a variety of hiking and biking trails in addition to a boat launch.
Riverside Lodge: Next to Stevenson’s waterfront park, this log-cabin-style lodge offers kitchenettes and soaking pools. Two electric-car charging stations are next door at the riverfront park.
Carson Ridge Luxury Inns: Stay in cozy log cabins conveniently across the street from Backwoods Brewing Company.
Panther Creek Campground: You can camp during the summer months 8 miles outside Carson in one of 32 sites. Potable water and vault toilet available.
Lyle Hotel: Turn back the clock at this European-style historic railroad hotel with 10 private guest rooms. Listen to live music on Fridays; dinner is served Thursday to Saturday.
Klickitat Fisher Hill: About 5 miles from Lyle, this primitive campground along the Klickitat River provides access to hiking and mountain biking on the popular Klickitat Trail.
Beacon Rock State Park: The park offers more than 26 miles of trail, from the ADA-accessible Doetsch Trail that’s a mile long to linked-up loops in the park’s “backcountry” that could cover 20 miles. To extend your hike up Beacon Rock, consider starting at the Doetsch Ranch picnic area and walking over to the River to Rock Trail (built by WTA youth volunteers).
Columbia Hills State Park — Horsethief Butte: This park offers 12 miles of hiking trails, including a relatively short hike up to Horsethief Butte. Look for wildflowers in the early spring. The end of the trail gets into a bit of scrambling, but the earlier parts are easy walking.
Dry Creek Falls: The Pacific Crest Trail leads you to the secluded gem of Dry Creek Falls just a few miles away from the noise and bustle of I-84. The trail passes through the burn zone, giving an interesting look at what fire recovery looks like. The trail starts at Cascades Locks — try visiting Bridgeside Restaurant or the Thunder Island Brew Pub for a post-hike meal. 4.6 miles roundtrip.
Lyle Cherry Orchard: This little-known gem offers spectacular views of the Columbia River, amazing spring wildflowers and an old Garry oak forest of gnarled old trees. WTA is working to add new loop options to the area. 5 miles roundtrip.
Sams Walker: This mellow loop through a meadow near the shores of the Columbia is a great way to stretch your legs about halfway from Vancouver to Stevenson along Highway 14. 1.1 miles roundtrip.
Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge: A birder’s paradise, the refuge includes mixed wetlands and pastures with riparian strips lined with cottonwoods and white oak trees. Part of the loop is closed for wildlife from Oct. 1 to April 30, but there’s an alternative to the loop. 2.8 miles roundtrip.
Whistle Punk: Near Carson, this trail is off the beaten path and tells a bit of history. Using interpretive signs, this trail illustrates what it was like to be part of a logging operation. (Whistle punks were men tasked with operating the signal that let other loggers know a log had been hooked up and was ready to be moved.) 1.5 miles roundtrip.
Note: The Skamania General Store sells Discover and U.S. Forest Service passes.
Backwoods Brewing Company: Enjoy a handtossed pizza, grilled sandwich or hearty salad and a flagship Logyard IPA or Gifford Pinchot Pilsner while watching the game with the locals. The brewery is next to the post office in Carson.
Big River Grill: Stop by this “Modern Day Roadhouse” in Stevenson for breakfast and try the chicken and waffles or sweet-cream griddle cakes.
Everybody’s Brewing: Listen to live music while you sample a Country Boy IPA or a seasonal ale and savor a generous burrito with homemade chips and salsa or some bratwurst and spaetzle while gazing at Mount Hood from their outdoor deck. In White Salmon.
La Gula: For the hungry hiker in a hurry you can’t beat La Gula, the Mexican food truck that is found most days of the week opposite the lumber mill in Carson.
For beer lovers: Check out breweries in The Gorge for even more options.
Shannon is a Washington native who can usually be found hiking or wishing she was. She shares her love of nature and the outdoors through stories and recipes at www.musthikemusteat.com.