Traveling back and forth between the Columbia Gorge and the Oregon coast in perfect spring weather was intoxicating. In three days, we barely scratched the surface of Oregon’s varied landscape, but we came home satiated.
Heading south on I 5 Friday morning with our cameras, binoculars, and lots of snacks, we tried to sort out where to go. I didn’t have time to plan the trip, but we had vague ideas about wildflowers at the Columbia Gorge and birds migrating up the Oregon coast. I had reserved a hotel room south of downtown Portland. I thought we would explore the city at some point, too.
As we approached Portland, reports of an accident and enormous traffic jam steered us east into the Gorge. We stopped at the Bonneville Dam to get oriented and stretch our legs. The dam is kind of a guy thing, you know? So I ran into the bookstore for a little research. Opening maps and quick-searching guidebooks, I memorized a few names to google later. And I picked up a Columbia Gorge wildflower brochure for a dollar.
The major wildflower displays seemed to be too far east to drive in the time we had left, but we had noticed trail signs at the dam exit so we went back across the road.
The Columbia Gorge gets very busy on weekends, but on this pleasant Friday we had our pick of parking spots. We started up the trail to Wahclella Falls through a softly fern and moss-laden canyon.
It was a short hike – we figured we would make it to the falls. But no. I was so distracted by the abundance of wildflowers, the rushing creek and the glory of spring light falling through the canyon that a slug would have beat me, hands down. Seriously? Only a mile to the falls and after an hour we’d hardly gone half a mile – every inch was too stunningly beautiful.
I do NOT understand people who race down beautiful trails.
Early on we came to a gushing waterfall, which is a teaser because the main waterfall lies ahead. But we lingered, soaking in that whole body rush you get standing by a waterfall – all that energy and noise, it was mesmerizing.
I brake – and halt – for wildflowers. They were blooming everywhere and I was having a field day – literally. The intensely blue larkspurs (Delphinium menziesii) made me crazy. They were perched up on the rocks, which was tricky, because with my 20 mm lens I have to go to the flowers, they don’t come to me.
So many delicate plants grew among the moss and rocks on the steep cliffs. This graceful flower, Heuchera micrantha, is bred as a perennial in the nursery trade (Coral bells, or alum root) – but here it is in the wild, lifting tiny branches to the light.
This little beauty is called Scouler’s corydalis. It occurs only in the Pacific northwest. Below, Bleeding Hearts (Dicentra formosa) gracefully intermingle with other wildflowers.
My favorite fern, Maidenhair (Adiantum pedatum) flourished in the moist environment.
It got late and we decided to turn back – we agreed to consider returning to see the waterfall on Sunday. Heading back on Rt. 101 to Portland, we detoured on the Historic Columbia River Highway, built a hundred years ago for commercial and recreational use. Within minutes I was clamoring to get out of the car to see a gorgeous waterfall. Horsetail Falls is a beauty but we were also impressed by the sturdy simplicity of an old reinforced concrete bridge, a lovely study of repeating shapes.
A colleague recommended a good neighborhood in Portland for restaurants, so we headed to Hawthorne and I googled area restaurants on my phone. I couldn’t come up with anything so we drove down the main drag and took pot luck. Gold Dust Meridian was very “Portlandia-esque” in decor, ambiance and clientele. And very busy, mostly for drinks and craft brews. We ordered dinner and waited for water, eventually realizing we were supposed to fetch our own water from a table near the busy bar. Interesting. I suppose that relives the wait staff and conserves water, too…
After dinner we made our way to the hotel, where I reviewed maps, googled bird watching sites, and checked with the concierge for the intel on weekend traffic to the coast. He looked at me dolefully and said, “This isn’t L.A., honey.”
We decided to head southwest on Rt. 18 towards the central coast in the morning. The route leaves you at the un-picturesque coastal town of Lincoln City; from there we could meander down the coast, stopping wherever scenic opportunities presented themselves.
Rt. 18 was relaxing as it wound across the northern end of the Willamette Valley with its rolling farmland. Many of the farms grow Hazelnut trees – who knew! I couldn’t resist snapping photos from the car.
The road snakes over the coast range before terminating at the coast. Along the way I saw a sign for a covered bridge; we followed it and enjoyed a delightfully pastoral scene, complete with pastured horses, a softly gurgling stream, forget-me-nots, and an old tack barn to poke around in. The covered bridge had been moved and rebuilt, and was not as pretty as some I’ve seen back east, but the overall scene was enchanting.
As we drove down Oregon’s central coast we found beautiful wide beaches, and equally beautiful and dramatic cliffs plunging into the noisy Pacific seas. Gunta’s work instantly came to mind – she lives near the Oregon coast and takes beautiful photographs in the area. Everywhere we went that day, flocks of shorebirds streamed north. Too far out to identify with binoculars, they were still an inspiring sight when you think of the immense numbers birds, the long journeys, and the reliability of this seasonal event that may stretch back into times before we humans were there to watch and wonder.
At a roadside pull-off we found Pelagic cormorants nesting precariously on the cliffs, three Black oystercatchers poking among the rocks, and a bird that was new to me – the Surfbird. There they were, doing exactly what they’re supposed to do in exactly the right habitat – perfect. There are no photos because I still have not purchased the long lens I would need. But trust me, it was cool.
On the beaches I noticed thousands of odd blue and white creatures were washing up. I made a note to myself to identify them.
It turns out they’re a little jellyfish relative called Purple sails (Velella velella). They float far out on the ocean surface, catching plankton with their tentacles. During certain strong wind patterns thousands can be stranded on shore because they rely on their stiff little sail to move and are at the mercy of the winds. The link takes you to a CNN story about the recent beaching of likely millions of them.
The day’s prize beach spot was spied from a roadside overlook. It’s the horseshoe-shaped beach towards the top of the photo below. We could see no way to get down to it, even with binoculars, but there were people down there so I knew a path must exist.
I saw a little restaurant on an overlook. I ran in and asked the waitress if she knew how to get to the beach far below. She did – it was just a few blocks away. We didn’t see any sign, so I thought maybe the tourists get the overlook and the locals get the beach! We parked and followed a gentle path to the beach, where a fierce winds blew sand in our faces with vengeful fury.
Down the beach was a large, colorful rock formation with a gash opening the way to the sea. Actually a sea cave whose ceiling had collapsed long ago, Devil’s Punchbowl was an exciting place to explore.
At the very back of the cave, Bullwhip kelp in a huge tangle made a quite a stink. But pretty rocks worn smooth by millions of waves seemed to have been arranged by a mysterious aesthetic force.
I found Giant Green sea anemones in sheltered spots among the rocks.
The setting sun made shooting the sea stacks nearly impossible, but I had to try anyway – sometimes you just want a record. I’ve noticed that my travel photos are a mix of pictures that record the sights I want to remember and images that follow certain recurring themes I look for – abstract patterns in grasses or window reflections, for example. Both have a place. Later I hope to post a series of photos of calligraphy that blown grasses and their shadows made on the beach at Devil’s Punchbowl.
Tired from the beach and overwhelmed with sensory stimulation, we looked for a place to eat. Our dinner was good at a little beach town Mexican place. As we headed back to Portland an almost full moon rose over the fields and I snapped one last picture from the car.
The next day we decided to complete the walk to Wahclella Falls in the Columbia Gorge. It was Sunday and the weather was spectacular so the parking lot was full. We pulled up on the roadside. We didn’t have the peace and quiet we had Friday but it was still a delight to gaze at the abundant wildflowers, the verdant cliff sides dripping with mini waterfalls and seeps, and finally the waterfall itself – a double falls cutting through narrow notches high up in the basalt cliffs.
As we approached the falls the air was damp and the moss grew thicker and thicker.
With the falls way back in the canyon, there was little light, and the misty air was another challenge. It was difficult to get a decent photo of the falls themselves without a tripod.
More Maidenhair ferns grew down from the roof of a moist cave near the falls. Last year’s dried fronds provided a stark contrast to the fresh growth.
High above, a mist of water sprayed over the cliff and caught beams of sunlight. For me, it was perhaps even prettier than the Wahclella Falls. We sat at the base of the cliff and chewed on protein bars. Spring azure butterflies flitted about. I saw more flowers and climbed up to get a closer look. There were quite a few people at the falls by then, but I didn’t mind – the children’s laughter only made it nicer.
Reluctantly, we wound back through the brilliant green canyon to our car. The hike was a satisfying end to three days of immersion in beauty. We crossed a over the Columbia River and worked our way west on the Washington side. I spied more blue larkspurs along the roadside, but you can’t stop for everything, can you? There will be another time…