Snowy Mt Hood catches the first rays of the sun as it presides over rural Hood River Valley, Oregon.
America is still largely a rural nation. And not just in terms of area. Many states lack major cities and most people still live rurally. In states with metropolises, a well-documented trend, the return of Americans to city centers, has been going on for some time. But another trend has continued unnoticed, and it involves far greater numbers of people. Suburbs have expanded into more traditional rural areas, places once dominated by farming and ranching. These so-called exurbs sit some distance from a city but are still connected to it in many ways.
While some of the exurbs resemble true suburbs and should probably be described as quasi-rural, many actually have a strong countryside feel. They’re usually centered around small towns that retain much of their original character. As mentioned in the last post, those living here are an important political force these days, as witness the last election.
In many exurbs it is only a matter of time before they lose any remnant rural feel. A progressive expansion, fed in large part by retiring baby-boomers but also by steady population growth, is pushing aside America’s original rural character. But this blog series is not about bemoaning that loss. I prefer to celebrate what is left, which while inevitably changed from the old days, is still very much intact.
Seeing Rural America – The Pacific Northwest
Let’s start out in a part of the west that will always be special to me. If you have read this blog for awhile, you know that Oregon is where my heart lies. It’s a place I’ll always call home. I was born and raised on the east coast, but I’ve lived by far most of my years there. I’m currently living in Florida, in self-imposed exile. But I’ll return someday.
A farmhouse sits in the Willamette Valley south of Portland.
DOWN (UP) THE WILLAMETTE
In order to see some of the prime farmland of that drew early settlers to this territory on the Oregon Trail (see the Addendum below), start in Portland and drive south up the Willamette River. I know, south upriver sounds strange. Avoid Interstate 5 wherever possible. Instead take the back roads, hopping back and forth over the river using the few ferries that remain (Canby, Wheatland). Visit Aurora, and Silverton, stretching your legs and being wowed on a hike in Silver Falls State Park near Silverton. Continue south past Eugene, saying goodbye to the Willamette as it curves east into the Cascades. The Cottage Grove area is famous for its covered bridges, so get hold of a map and enjoy the photo opps.!
Keep going south, making sure to stop at the Rice Hill exit off I5. Here you should partake of Umpqua ice cream the way it should be eaten. Delicious! Visit the little town of Oakland just north of Roseburg, where I lived for a time. Then divert west from Sutherlin on Fort McKay Road. to the Umpqua River. Then wind down the river on Tyee Road. Drive slow or better yet, do this on a bicycle!
You can keep going to the coast or return to I5 on Hwy. 138. Another detour takes you east from Roseburg up the North Umpqua to Diamond Lake and the north end of Crater Lake. If you’d rather stick with the rural theme and save nature for later, keep going south and visit the rather large but still charming town of Ashland, where a famous Shakespeare Festival happens every summer.
It’s difficult not to include Mount Hood, Oregon’s tallest peak, in photos of rural bliss.
THE OLYMPIC PENINSULA
Let’s not forget the great state of Washington. One of my favorite places in the world is the Olympic Peninsula. It can be visited on a road trip that takes in both nature and rural charm. The towns are spaced far apart here and Olympic National Park covers much of the northern peninsula. But lovely farms still lap the slopes of the Olympic Mountains and talkative waitresses serve pie at cafes in towns like Forks, which retain much of their timber-town flavour. Everybody still knows everybody in these towns.
Lake Crescent (image below) is incredibly scenic and a great place for a swim. At dusk, in certain light, you can sit lakeside and easily transport yourself back to quiet summer evenings at the lake. I wonder when vacations stopped being full of simple pleasures like jumping off a tire swing, fried chicken on a screened porch and word games in the dark, and became all about ticking off bucket lists and posting selfies?
Even areas quite close to the metropolis of Seattle retain much of their charm. Take the back roads directly east of the city and drop into the valley of the Snowqualmie River. Take Hwy. 203 north or south through Carnation, site of the original dairy farm of the same name (remember?). Generally speaking you need to travel either east or, overwater via ferry, west of Seattle and the I5 corridor in order to experience rural western Washington.
Lake Crescent on the Olympic Peninsula in very interesting dusk light.
I’d feel bad if I didn’t mention the forgotten half of the Pacific NW. It encompasses an enormous region east of the Cascades, one that retains in many places nearly all of its rural character. The Palouse is a perfect example. Lying in southeastern Washington and far western Idaho, the Palouse is wheat-farming at its purest. It is an expansive area of rolling hills, backroads and picture-perfect barns. Despite having become very popular with landscape photographers in recent years, its size means it always feels quiet and uncrowded. I won’t say anymore about it since I posted a mini-series on the Palouse geared toward anyone contemplating a photo-tour. Check that out if you’re curious.
There are so many other routes to explore in the Pacific NW that will allow you to experience the unique flavour of each region. For example a fantastic road trip, again from Portland, is to travel east over Mount Hood. But instead of continuing to Madras, turn off busy Hwy. 26 at easy-to-miss Hwy. 216. Drop into the high desert and visit the little burg of Tygh Valley. Continue east to Maupin on the Deschutes River, famous for its trout fishing and whitewater rafting. Then drive over Bakeoven Road to historic sheep central, Shaniko. Then drop east down twisty Hwy. 218 to Fossil and on to the Painted Hills. This tour, by the way, is popular with motorcyclists in the know. Thanks for reading and have a fun weekend!
A patriotic barn in the Palouse of Washington state.
Addendum: Pacific NW History
I’ve always vaguely resented the fact that the Pacific NW is divided into two states. I think the Oregon Territory should have been left as Oregon, no Washington. To make 50 states we could have split off northern California (plus far SW Oregon) and called it the state of Jefferson. I know a bunch of people who would be very happy with that!
Native tribes have occupied this region for thousands and thousands of years. In fact some of the earliest remains of paleo-indians in North America come from eastern Oregon and Washington. Now a semi-desert, back then it was significantly wetter, with large lakes full of waterfowl, and the rocky hills bursting forth every spring with all sorts of edible plants.
White Europeans began to take an interest in the area very early on in the 1700s. But they only visited by sea. To the north, British fur trading companies sent parties into the Canadian part of the Pacific Northwest eco-region. But it would not be until Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led a party of young, energetic men down the Columbia River to the Pacific Coast near what is now the little town of Astoria, Oregon in 1804 that the young country signalled its intention to make the region part of America.
Edgar Paxson’s famous painting of Lewis, Clark, Sacajawea, Charbonneau and Clark’s slave York at Three Forks.
In the mid-1800s mountain men of the west, with beaver all but trapped out in many areas, turned to guiding settlers west along the Oregon Trail. The destination these hardy families had in mind was the rich farmland along the Willamette and other rivers of the Oregon Territory. Some never made it all the way, instead stopping in cooler, drier areas like the Baker Valley of eastern Oregon and the Palouse, a dryland farming area in Washington.
Timber harvesting, farming and ranching have long been the mainstays of the Pacific Northwest. If you’ve never read Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Keasey you should do so. It is expertly written and imparts an authentic look at traditional family-based logging in Oregon. The movie is top-notch as well.
But times have changed. The mills are shut down in most places. Private timber lands are still harvested but with few exceptions federal National Forests are for reasons both environmental and economic no longer being cut. The ways in which people here make a living have largely changed from natural resource-based to a mix of technology, tourism and a variety of service jobs.
I often go through these little obsessions with photography. My mind just keeps coming back to a specific image I want. Lately it’s been getting a great picture of Beacon Rock, a famous landmark in the Columbia River Gorge near home in Oregon. Lewis and Clark and their men, the first whites to explore the Pacific Northwest extensively, make mention of it in their journals. This to date is one of only two good shots I’ve gotten of it.
I’m not satisfied yet; I want a great picture not a good one. I have another place in mind; I went there once but the river was too high to get a view. You need to sneak across private land to get to it. The great thing is that once you’re there you are technically legal. All Oregon rivers navigable by boat are public property up to the high-water line, a legacy of the great environmentalist and outdoorsman governor Tom McCall. Still don’t want to get caught though. I have in my mind a picture of fog parting at sunrise, framing the rock in golden light. Wish me luck!
One of the problems with Beacon is that it is difficult to get access (without a boat at least) to a good viewpoint of it. You can get very close to and very far from it quite easily. But that sweet middle distance? Not so easy. This was shot awhile back from a point directly across the river from it, one of the very few views of it from this distance. It lies in Washington and I’m standing on the Oregon side.
I like using Sunday to post a single shot that illustrates the topic on the previous Friday’s Foto Talk. In this case it was on whether to convert to black and white. The light was pretty nice, a low sun in the west (left) giving some depth to an image that badly needed it. In other words it is not a bad color image.
I converted to black and white using Nik Silver Effex It has a very subtle sepia tone, which lends a bit of warmth, not too much. The color version has what I call a russet warmth and I wanted something a little different. I also gave it a narrow dark vignette. I don’t know about you, but when I take a color image and make it black and white, I always mourn a little at the loss of certain colors. In this case it is the deep green of the trees and grass in the foreground, plus the nice orange-brown of the clouds. With black and white, you have to give something up to gain something. Please let me know if you like it or not. Thanks a lot!
A view across the Columbia River to Beacon Rock, Washington.
The sunflower-like balsamroot blooms in profusion along the dry rocky terrain of the eastern Columbia River Gorge in Washington.
This is the second of two parts on the Columbia River Gorge in the Pacific Northwest. This part focuses on the sights. The Gorge is truly a playground, one that everybody in the Portland/Vancouver (WA) area treasures. We often take it for granted, but we love it and want it to remain as it is. For a great introduction, you can drive up the Historic Highway, exiting I84 at Corbett and climbing up the hill to Crown Point, the landmark overlooking the west side of the Gorge. Keep going to Multnomah Falls, and past that, to hike the Oneonta Gorge. Oneonta Creek can be waded in summer, going a half-mile or so up to a waterfall. Prepare to get wet. Just past Oneonta is Horsetail Falls, where you can take a moderate hike to Triple Falls, up Oneonta Creek, to view from above the gorge you just waded. Keep going, lunching in the town of Cascade Locks, overlooking the Bridge of the Gods at the Charburger (on your left right after you exit).
You can either cross the Bridge of the Gods at Cascade Locks, perhaps taking another shortish hike at Beacon Rock on the Washington side, or simply follow Hwy. 14 back to Vancouver. At Beacon Rock you can either hike up the rock itself (leave your fear of heights in the car), or up the Hamilton Mtn trail to “pool of the winds”, a waterfall only an easy 3-mile round-trip. Back on Hwy. 14 westbound, there is an awesome overlook at Cape Horn, but only room for a few cars along the steep cliffside road. Many think this is a better view of the Gorge than Crown Point.
If you have more time, you can continue from Cascade Locks up to Hood River, crossing the river there to follow Hwy. 14 back down. Hood River has great brew-pubs, restaurants and an outdoors sports vibe. If you want to stay, Skamania Lodge on the Washington side is fantastic, if a bit spendy. There is a hotspring at Bonneville, on the Washington side, if your hike made for sore muscles.
Faery Falls in the Columbia River Gorge.
Many people just drive up to Multnomah Falls, Oregon’s most popular tourist spot, grab a few pictures, and drive back to Portland. If you’re short on time, this is fine. But at least drive the Historic Highway, getting off at the Bridal Veil exit, where you’ll pass both Wahkeena and Horsetail Falls, both gorgeous, along with Multnomah. And set aside time to hike to the top on the mostly paved trail. I don’t often do this (too many tourists), but I will do the loop hike from Wahkeena Falls, climbing to the top past a gorgeous little cascade called Faery Falls (image above), taking a left on the tie trail and dropping down to Multnomah Creek. From here, take another left and descend past spectacular cascades to Multnomah Falls. I hope you don’t think me a snob, but this way I only experience the tourists hiking in high heels when I’m almost done.
Dramatic clouds pass over the Columbia River Gorge along the Oregon-Washington border.
Another touristy sight that is nonetheless very worthwhile is Bonneville Dam, where you can see huge sturgeon close-up, and watch salmon swimming upstream through the fish ladder. There is an underground viewing area where you look through glass into the fish passage. The Washington side has a visitor center on the dam as well, and here you can see more of the inner workings of the dam than you can on the Oregon side. But here as well, you’ll have a close look at the fish ladders. If you travel east of Hood River in the Spring, gorgeous flower meadows invite photography at Catherine Creek on the Washington side, and at Rowena Preserve on the Oregon side. Sunrise is the best time to photograph in these places, and May is the typical blooming time for balsamroot, paintbrush, grass widow and other wildflowers.
A hiking option near to Portland is Cape Horn, which you access by crossing over to Washington on the I205 bridge, then driving east on Hwy. 14 until you pass over the high point at the Cape Horn overlook. Just past this you will begin to descend; after just a mile or less you will see a gravel pull-off to the right. Park here and you can do an amazingly uncrowded loop hike that takes you along the cliff edges, with great views down to the river. Many people head to Angel’s Rest on the Oregon side for a quick hike, and if you follow suit be prepared for a crowd on the weekends. But allow a bit more time and you can hike the slightly longer but just-as-nearby Cape Horn trail on the quieter Washington side.
At Celilo, native American culture was traditionally and still is today centered around salmon. At the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition, which explored this region in 1805-6, Celilo was the site of an enormous cataract, and there were rapids all through the center of the Gorge. The era of dams has changed all that, making the river look more like a long lake than a river. Other places mentioned by Lewis and Clark are Beacon Rock and the mouth of the Sandy River at the Gorge’s west end. Here, the explorers mentioned the extremely silty and muddy water pouring out of the Sandy. It’s now known that Mount Hood had recently erupted, sending mudflows down the Sandy River and into the Columbia.
I hope if you visit the Pacific Northwest that you set aside at least one day for the Columbia River Gorge. It is really a fantastic opportunity to see a cross-section through the heart of the Pacific Northwest. You can examine the palisades and columns of flood-basalt lavas in detail, hike fern-draped grottoes where waterfalls thunder, and enjoy fantastic scenery & photography.
Lovely Multnomah Creek in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge takes on a glow just above Multnomah Falls.