Nine days of vacation in the Northwest down, one to go. We get to hike in places most people only know about from eighth grade geography (Mount Rainier, the Olympic Peninsula, and the Oregon Coast). When hiking at Beacon Rock yesterday, a couple told us that the Eagle Creek Trail across the river in Oregon is the hike of the Columbia River Gorge. That’s all the encouragement we needed to give it a go.
Awaking in The Dalles, a town some 90 miles to the east of Portland, Oregon, we drive east on I-84 along the Columbia River Gorge heading for the Eagle Creek Trail where we are promised falls and more falls. On a Tuesday morning in early June, we believe we will not be inundated by the hiking public as we would be on weekends or all summer long.
The Eagle Creek Trail lies 20 to 200 feet above, as you might imagine, Eagle Creek. With soft packed dirt covered with pine needles on this easy-to-follow trail, we set our sights on Metlako Falls. Covered by the forest canopy, we find the mid-70s temps most comfortable in our tee shirts and lightweight shorts. Sun sparkles on the falls some 200 feet away; as such, the dark of the forest contrasts with the sun to make it nearly impossible to get a picture of these first falls, or if truth be told, be impressed by them.
At this point, the trail turns rocky, similar to the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania. Two miles into our hike, we see the sign for the Punchbowl Falls side trail, which we use to descend to the river bottom.
There we find a party atmosphere of kids splashing in the mountain pool at the base of the falls. Twenty some people lounge about on what we learn is the typical end destination for day trippers seeking to beat the heat.
Even on this Tuesday in early June, we see many hikers in groups as we are now only 40 miles from Portland, with a million people in its metro area. While many appear to be college kids on summer break, we do see a group of high schoolers here for some nature study. These falls are not drop dead gorgeous or National Geographic memorable as the ones we have seen over the past week at Mount Rainier and Olympic National Parks, but they’re fine.
To escape the heat, college women in threes and fours are here; some amazingly in flip flops on this very rocky trail. These 80s and 90s are unusual for Oregon in June which typically gets its Arizona heat in August. Drought has come to the Northwest, though you can’t tell if from Eagle Creek Canyon with its lush vegetation, ferns without end amen, and shaded forest.
We return to the main trail with our destination of the High Bridge a mile and a half away. As the rocky trail returns, we see far fewer hikers venturing past the Punchbowl Falls. There are overnight backpackers who have come from Tunnel Falls and beyond with their heavy packs on a warm day, which just makes me shudder. I am soft.
Throughout the trail there are braided strands of one inch thick wire anchored into the mountainside; they indicate where the steep drop offs are. The vegetation is so lush that we are not always aware that we are hiking within feet of 70 to 100 foot drop-offs. It’s never scary, but we remain aware. I wouldn’t take our grandsons Owen and Max here until they are older, but then I’ll be all over getting them 0ut on this trail.
We pass another waterfall just before High Bridge. Clandestinely, young people have climbed down into the river canyon for some sunning and cooling off under the waterfalls. There is no obvious trail down; the one place that might be a trail is steep and treacherous and says “no way” to those of us north of 65.
At High Bridge, a volunteer work crew has carried twelve foot planks three plus miles to recondition the bridge across the canyon fifty feet below. We thank them for their service as if they are military. In a way, they are – another group serving the American people.
Due to the side trails we took to the earlier falls, it’s nearly two hours of hiking to the High Bridge. As we head back for the trailhead, we now are passing gaggles of early afternoon hikers at most every turn. It’s not overwhelming, and one even takes our picture. One can only imagine what summer weekends are like.
Before we head east to Portland, we wash down our lunch with a Dos Equis at the picnic area by the trailhead. Warm days are why beer is brewed. We then drive east towards Portland with a slight change of plans due to my “Rental Car Tip.”
Rental Car Tip – Know the hours of operation if you rent from off-site budget-priced car rental companies. We got a burning deal at Payless Rental Car: $231 for ten days! The Volkswagen Beetle was a dream. What we didn’t realize is that Payless’s away from the airport rental center is only open from 7A to 11P.
Since we need to be at the Portland Airport at 530A Wednesday morning for our nonstop flight to Boston, we are unable to drop the car off early enough to get the Payless shuttle van to the airport for our flight.
We scramble for a plan B that has us dropping the Volkswagen Beetle off the afternoon before at Payless and finding a Quality Inn (we were going to need a motel room anyway) with shuttle service to the airport any time of day or night. It turns out not to be a big deal, but it could have been messy if we had assumed Payless Rental Car is open at all hours.
And then we have a things happen for the good moment. After dropping off our car at Payless on a warm Tuesday afternoon, we figure the Payless shuttle driver will take us back to the airport; then we’ll call the Quality Inn to pick us up there, spending up to an hour in this transfer process. But the sun is shining on Dan and Hannah as the shuttle driver takes us directly to the Quality Inn. We over tip him and toast his good health with a last-night-of-vacation glass of wine.