The less-visited Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge is quiet in the fall, with plenty to see and do including hikes, winery visits, windsurfing and more. ByTan Vinh Seattle Times staff reporter
ALONG HIGHWAY 14, COLUMBIA RIVER GORGE — This river canyon looks majestic from the side of the road, with the sun outlining the Cascade Range in crimson hue and kayakers drifting lazily along the calm water below. It’s quiet on this recent Tuesday morning. It’s quiet later in the afternoon. And the day after.
It’s often this way in the fall, or at least much less hectic than Oregon’s side of the Gorge, locals say.
The magnificent Gorge stretches 80 miles between Oregon and Washington. Oregon is considered the sexy side, with tens of thousands of tourists annually visiting Multnomah Falls, Vista House and the windsurfing town of Hood River. Even the salmon-watching on the Oregon side of Bonneville Dam draws bigger crowds.
But the Washington side is no less spectacular — and more serene. The river isn’t flanked by freeway as on the Oregon side. It’s mostly a two-lane road where you can cruise in solitude on long stretches of asphalt, the banks of the Columbia a stone’s throw away.
On a recent road trip, I took the side less traveled, driving to Beacon Rock State Park, then to the belly of the Gorge, where the sun shines long and the vineyards are many, and finally to the desert landscape around Maryhill, getting acquainted with the many faces of this natural wonder.
Beacon for recreation
The leaves were feathering in the air near the town of Stevenson as I approached Beacon Rock State Park, named for an 840-foot volcanic plug that you can’t miss on the banks of the Columbia. The monolith is almost two-thirds as high as the Rock of Gibraltar.
Surrounding this landmark are more than 20 miles of hiking trails, including two new trails and seven new campsites, with 30 more campsites planned in the near future.
I see a dozen hikers in the parking lot, grabbing their jackets and tying their shoes, preparing to hike a mile on a cliff-hugging trail to the top of Beacon Rock. But park ranger Karl Hinze had other plans for me. We were hitting nearby Hamilton Mountain, the park’s highest peak, to view Beacon Rock and the 5,100-acre park from above.
Deer, elk, porcupines and cougars inhabit this forest of Douglas fir and cedar. There also have been countless reports of Bigfoot sightings in this area over the years. On our hike, Hinze looked for big, furry creatures of a different kind: black bears. He had spotted a mother and a cub weeks before and had hoped to catch another glimpse. “Wouldn’t that be cool?” he said.
Actually, no. We hiked by thickets of huckleberries and elderberries. From atop, by the sign, “Summit, Hamilton Mtn., Elev. 2480,” I could look down and see the mighty Bonneville Dam, built under President Franklin Roosevelt, along with Cape Horn and Crown Point.
“You can catch little snippets of the Gorge if you drive on the road,” Hinze said. But you can’t get the vastness and beauty of it “until you get up.”
Towns to visit, too
Nor should you miss the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum, nearby in Stevenson, to get a sense of how centuries of flooding carved the Gorge.
Many children — and some of their parents — remain more interested in Bigfoot sightings. Skamania County passed a law banning the hunting of Bigfoot in 1969 — on April 1. Some chuckle. But believers take this Bigfoot refuge thing seriously. I met Joe Robertson, owner of Ste