The Gorge I   Leave a comment

The Columbia River Gorge stretches east from Crown Point in Oregon.

I am taking a two-post break from my African adventures to give some love to a reliable friend.  Close-by, always prepared, consistent and mellow but always ready for adventure.  It’s the Columbia River Gorge, the closest truly natural area to where I live in Portland, Oregon.  I can get to the near western end in under a 1/2 hour, and from there can take trails both mellow and super-hardcore steep.  It is accessible year-round, though the dead of winter involves icy trails.  In the heat of summer it offers cool, narrow side-gorges where you can walk through delicious streams up to waterfalls.  If you want to climb in the Cascades, you can start very early getting in shape, say February, getting in shape by climbing steep 4000 feet goat trails in the Gorge.  Driving, motorcycling, or bicycling the Historic Highway, which was built by the CCC during the depression, is a joy.  In short, it has something for everybody.

The top image is from “Women’s Forum Park”, an overlook along the Historic Hwy. near Corbett.  The building is Vista House, at Crown Point.  The image below was taken from the parking lot of Charburger in Cascade Locks, looking downriver through the heart of the Gorge.  The third picture is Multnomah Creek, just above Multnomah Falls, and you can easily hike the mostly paved trail from the tourist hotspot of Multnomah Falls.  The last image is from the hiking trail at Horsetail Falls.  All of my images are available for licensing and purchase as prints.  I personally perform quality printing and mounting on archival papers, using professional techniques.  If you click on an image and it takes you to my website, you can purchase directly from there, or contact me.  For those images that don’t take you directly to my site, contact me to buy a print or license to use.  Otherwise, for these images only, you can use them if you like, for personal use only please.

The Bridge of the Gods at Cascade Locks in the Columbia River Gorge, Oregon

The Columbia River Gorge cuts a near-sea-level path through the Cascade Mountains in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S, running right along the border between the states of Oregon and Washington.  It’s story starts about 17 million years ago when huge fissures opened in what is now eastern Washington & Oregon, emitting tall lava fountains for months at a time.  This happened repeatedly over the next several million years, until the entire area was covered in thousands of feet of lava, which flowed all the way to the coast.

This cooled and hardened to become basalt, the same type of lava-rock the ocean floor is made of.   Eruptions came streaming straight up through the crust, so the fissures ran very deep indeed.  The lava-flood formed the Columbia River Plateau, a significant pile of rock for the Columbia River (which existed but well to the south of its present course) to cut through.  It is one of the world’s few “flood-basalt” provinces.  The largest such plateau lies in Siberia.  Some geologists believe it might have been created by a giant meteor impact, but most think it probably had more to do with the start of rifting along the western edge of North America, a tearing apart that continues today in the form of the Basin and Range of Nevada and adjacent states.

The rise of the Cascades pushed the Columbia River to the north, and it began cutting through the lavas.  That process was happily proceeding at its own slow pace when, some 12-20,000 years ago, a series of huge glacial floods tore down from western Montana (where a dammed glacial lake was filled and breached many times).  These floods, called the Bretz floods (Bretz was the geologist who first recognized it), formed the channeled scablands in eastern Washington, and lower down, cut the Gorge.  They also filled the Willamette Valley with the silts that make up the rich farmlands there today.  So next time you bit into a juicy Oregon strawberry, think of the ice ages and the Pacific Northwest’s version of Noah’s story.

Multnomah Creek tumbles down the last step before plunging over the 600+ feet to the bottom.

When the floods over-steepened the valley sides, the hard basalt lavas resisted further erosion, forming cliffs.  But the valley walls often let loose in huge landslides, and that process continues today during wetter periods.  The landslide debris was carried away by the river, further deepening and steepening the Gorge.  It is really these landslides, along with the floods of course, that are responsible for the broad-bottomed, cliff-rimmed gorge we all gape at today.

The Gorge is a place to hike, rock-climb, picnic and boat, to windsurf and sail, to photograph and bicycle.  Waterfalls, made possible by the floods and landslides, along with the Northwest’s wet climate, are abundant, beautiful, and accessible.  The Oregon side is much wetter and more heavily forested (because it faces north, away from the drying sun).  So if you want a forest hike with waterfalls, stick to the Oregon side.  If you want more sunshine and open vistas, go to the Washington side, especially to the east where you begin to enter semi-desert climate.

A key advantage to the Washington side?  It is quieter, literally.  Interstate 84 follows the Oregon side, and it is quite audible until you hike a few miles back from the river.  Hood River, an hour east of Portland, is wind- and kite-surfing central.  The winds blow almost constantly through the Gorge, because climatic conditions are very different on the east side of the Cascades.  Often the west side has lower barometric pressure than the sunnier and higher east side, so winds funnel westward through the gorge from high to low pressure.  Next up is info. on visiting this excellent destination.

The Columbia River flows past Mt Hamilton and Beacon Rock in the Columbia River Gorge, viewed from the Oregon side.

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