Camping Our Way Down the Columbia River Gorge

This week, my girlfriend Lisa was on spring break from grad school, so on Sunday we packed up tent, food, and cameras and drove out the Columbia River Gorge to spend a couple days exploring, hiking, and pretty much just seeing what there was to see. Leaving Seattle, we didn’t have any particular agenda, except that we wanted to drive through the Yakima River Canyon on the way down, and we wanted to visit the Goldendale Observatory on the first night.

When we reached the canyon, we found a little place called the Umtanum Recreation Area, where we pulled over for lunch. From the parking lot, there was a bridge over the Yakima River which led to a hiking trail, so after lunch we hiked across the bridge, over some railroad tracks, and into the canyon. There wasn’t much sign of Spring yet, sadly, except for a few flowers, a bumblebee, and some trees that were just beginning to bud.

As we made our way back along the trail, we wondered if the railroad tracks were active, given that they were so easy to access– a few minutes, a freight train rumbled down the line where I’d be standing a few minutes prior. It was an impressive sight, and trains would be a recurring part of our journey: the Columbia River Gorge is an incredibly active freight corridor, with BSNF trains rumbling past several times an hour. On our second night, camped at Beacon Rock State Park, the train tracks were maybe fifty feet away up a cliffside, and the rumbles and whistles of freight trains were a constant companion through the night.

We had planned on staying at Brooks Memorial State Park on the first night, based on some recommendations in Lisa’s guidebook, but upon arrival there we found that the whole park was still closed for winter. It was a bit of a letdown, given that it was 55 degrees and sunny (and also it wasn’t even actually winter any more). But it would be another recurring theme of our journeys– parks and scenic areas closed, mostly due to budget cuts that meant the parks could only afford to stay open during peak season.

So we pushed on, and found a campsite several miles down the road at Maryhill State Park. It was a nice place– our campsite was right on the Columbia River, and we spent a fair amount of time getting pictures of the river and the gorge. There was a truck stop right across the river, which spoiled the scenery a bit– although it did make for some nice night pictures. And in the morning, we were both grateful it was there, as we availed ourselves of the opportunity for a hot breakfast after spending a restless night on the hard, cold, almost gravelly ground of our tentsite.

On the second day, we made our way down the gorge, stopping for a little hike along the Deschutes River, then lunching at a roadside overlook near The Dalles, Washington after our first two choices (both nearby parks) were, once again, closed for the season. In the afternoon, we drove out of the gorge toward Mt. Adams, exploring the area a bit and getting some great views of the mountain.

At one point, in trying to get to the Big Lava Beds from Trout Lake, we found ourselves on a snowy forest road, and eventually had to turn back, leaving the lava beds for another time. We headed back down to the gorge and camped for the night at Beacon Rock State Park– this plan was almost thwarted when the main camping area there was also Closed For Winter, but luckily there was a year-round campsite right on the river that we were able to set up camp in.

We had originally planned on climbing Beacon Rock in the morning, but after two clear and sunny days, we woke up to the sound of rain on the tent. So rather than take a mile-long trail up a slick rock into a windy, misty, sky, we headed down the road a bit to the Bonneville Dam. We got a personal tour from the guide, saw the fish ladder (including the underwater viewing area, which was pretty awesome, although it was only sparsely populated by fish– we’re already making plans to go back during the peak season).

The rest of the day was mostly occupied by getting home, although we did stop briefly at the Mt. St. Helens Visitors Center to see what there was to see (answer: not much, given the weather). There was a neat little mile-long loop over boardwalks through the nearby wetlands, which we did before heading home.

It was a fun trip, although after two nights of hard ground (Lisa didn’t have a sleeping pad, and I’d forgotten mine) interspersed by nearby nighttime trains, we were both ready for a decent night’s sleep. I’m looking forward to going back in the summer, when hopefully more places are open, and we get to see the gorge in full summer foliage.

But we did get some pretty awesome Winter and Spring photos, if I do say so myself. Click Mt. Adams to check out the full set of pics on Flickr.