Thursday, May 25, 2017

Larch Mountain Summit on our Last Oregon Day

On our last day in the Columbia River Gorge, we wanted to stay close to home and give our legs a rest. We had heard about the view from Larch Mountain, where on a clear day you can see the snowy peaks of the 5 tallest mountains in Oregon and Washington. That view is available by driving just 14 miles up a steep mountain road. That sounds like a great plan! The only problem with the plan is that there is a gate over the road at the ten-mile point. The only way to the summit was to hike over 4 miles up the road, so that's what we did.

We met some hikers coming towards us, who told us that the snow covers the road ahead, so they turned around. But we hiked on, because a little snow doesn't stop us.

Now a lot of snow can be a challenge. About 3.5 miles into our hike the snow got deeper.

As we reached drifts a couple feet high, we trudged on. We had met a bicycler who was planning to take a mountain bike trail from the top of Larch Mountain. But he took the time to give some wanderers from Oklahoma some great advice for our future travels. We saw his prints in the snow, evidence that he was still ahead of us and still pushing his bike through these drifts. When we got to the parking lot, we could see that it was covered with drifts as tall as four feet. Even a mountain biker will turn around here.

But we knew there was a trail to a lookout point somewhere under all this snow. Sure enough! We found a little patch of the paved trail, so we knew we were heading through the forest in the right direction. We know from listening to the local weather that on our recent rainy days, there was still snow falling on the mountains at elevations over 3500 feet. But this snow has a healthy layer of pine cones and needles on top of it. We walked about a quarter mile more through these drifts into the forest.

Suddenly we saw steps that took us straight up to the view point. We had made it to Sherrard Point!

We wanted to come to the top of Larch Mountain because this is one of the best spots to see the summits of the surrounding five snow-covered peaks. This was the best weather day of our week here, but we still have clouds scattered in our blue sky.

We have found that it is hard to tell white clouds from snow covered peaks when you are standing at a viewpoint. It's even harder to tell the difference in a picture. But that didn't stop us from taking pictures anyway.

The closest of the peaks we are looking at is Mount Hood. At just 22 miles away, it is a majestic sight from here. There are several ski areas on Mount Hood, and there is so much snow they are open eleven months each year. Locals told us that they usually have enough snow to ski year round, but they close in late summer for a month for maintenance. We never did get a completely clear shot of Mount Hood. But at times we could see the bottom and peak at the same time, with clouds covering the mid-section.

The tallest mountain is Mt. Rainier at 14,410 feet. But because it is almost 100 miles away, we can't see it on this partly-cloudy day. The next tallest is Mt. Adams at 12,307 feet. Our best picture of Mount Adams still has a generous cloud cover over its peak.

We kept waiting patiently for the clouds to clear. Mark found a perch outside the fenced viewpoint that gave a fence-less view of the mountains. That picture also shows off his new Keen hiking boots, that he really likes so far.

His perch also included a recliner-shaped rock that was quite comfortable. We are here to see the tall peaks, but it's also nice to see such healthy forests of evergreens below us. We have hiked through many forests riddled by damage from pine beetles, and we aren't seeing any of that in Oregon.

To get that view without the chain-link fence, Mark did have to climb over the fence and out of the view-point on top of Larch Mountain.

Denisa found that the cement floor can be soft enough for a nap. The weather was perfect and it was very quiet on the top of Larch Mountain.

We are planning a trip to Mount St. Helens, and that was another peak we could see this day. Actually, Mount St. Helens is just 8,363 feet high since it blew its perfectly conical top 37 years ago this month. But that jagged top was hiding in the clouds today.

The least known to us was Mount Jefferson, standing over 10,000 feet and about 60 miles south of here. It was the only mountain that we got a clear shot of while we waited on the top of Larch Mountain. On a completely clear day, this would be a spectacular view. Even on a partly-cloudy day we knew we had wandered into another of God's wonders.

With the trails covered in snow, only the heartiest of hikers will make it to this viewpoint. We visited with two of those hearty local hikers at length while they ate their packed lunch. They know these mountains and trails well. They suggested that instead of hiking back down the road, there is a trail that would take us back through the woods.

It was a great idea, and we enjoyed new scenery as we made this unexpected outing into a loop hike. We have to say that this was a muddier option than the asphalt road.

Our fellow hikers told us about a turn we need to watch for on the forest trail, and warned us there would be no signage to help us find it. Since they left ahead of us, they traced an arrow in the mud and also formed an arrow out of sticks to make sure we saw the turn. We have found hikers are great people!

After our tough hike and bike ride yesterday, this was supposed to be a resting day. We did take it a little easier, but we tallied up almost ten miles on this easy day. We had a picnic lunch at the viewpoint, but we decided we didn't want to cook anything else this evening. Besides, we really like the pulled pork sandwiches at the little grocery store right across the road from our campground. They absolutely stuff a large bun with smoked meat, then top it off with a generous mound of cole slaw. We have never repeated meals while we stayed in one place. But this sandwich is so good we ate this three different times during our eight day stay.

We did something else unique at Crown Pointe RV. We moved to three different camp sites during our stay at one campground. We wouldn't normally go to such lengths, but we really wanted to spend a good long time in the Columbia River Gorge. The campground manager here greets her visitors warmly. She has gifts for her guests--including homemade strawberry jam and a souvenir flashlight. We felt welcomed here! It was a good last day on the gorge, but we're heading across the border to a new state tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Dog-Tired after We Hiked Dog Mountain

We actually had a clear weather day in the forecast, so we made plans to soak in as much of that sunshine as possible. We headed east down Oregon's four-lane Highway 84 that runs right beside the Columbia River, and drove all the way to the charming little town of Hood River. Full of cute shops and restaurants, we didn't tarry in their historic old town. Instead, we headed up on the mountain for a bike ride. We are camped 44 miles away on Historic Highway 30 that was built in the 1930's. Many of the beautiful waterfall hikes are right along this old highway, but the section just east of Hood River has been closed to vehicular traffic. It is open to hikers and bikers, and that's where we are headed this morning.

We had a hard start to our bike ride. It seems that these months driving around in the salt-air of the coast and in the Oregon rain is taking its toll on our bicycles. The chains and brakes are rusty, and this morning Mark couldn't get his gear shifter to work.

But it was a beautiful morning, and we had a lovely place to ride bikes. We really like a paved bike path with no cars allowed.

Mark was working really hard pedaling up the hills stuck in sixth gear. Denisa prefers nice level biking trails, and this road had one rolling hill after the other. That was a bicycle leg-burner for sure.

It's a good thing there were some bright bachelor buttons blooming beside the road. We needed their cheery little faces when we were working so hard.

We also saw this red-blooming grass up close since we were pedaling so slowly going up the hills. We had noticed that the medians of the Oregon highways have a new red tinge to them that wasn't there a week ago. This grass is blooming everywhere now.

This is called the Twin Tunnels Trail, because (guess what?!?) there are two old car tunnels along the way.

Even struggling with one gear, Mark can still smile while taking a one-handed selfie while we were going through this part of the tunnel.

Right after the tunnels, we rolled into a rest area filled with wildflowers. So of course, Denisa needed to take a little rest.

We headed down the next section of the highway, and it was downhill. When Denisa remembered that she would have to pedal back up this hill, she decided to turn around. That means she could take more flower pictures.

Mark rode to the bottom of the hill to confirm that was the end of the trail. Then he had to ride back up-hill in sixth gear to find Denisa already rested from her extra time among the wildflowers along the Columbia River.

This was a lovely bike ride, but we were working pretty hard on the hilly sections of this piece of the highway.

We were glad that the last section back to the parking lot was down-hill, as Denisa is a self-declared flat-lander bicycler.

Our next destination today is the state of Washington. The Columbia River is the only thing that separates Oregon and Washington. We have been looking across the river towards this new state, and we finally drove there this afternoon. There are few bridges that cross the wide Columbia, so we paid the toll to cross the bridge at Hood River. On the other side, we could look back south to Oregon to get our first look at Mount Hood. The snow-covered mountain had a row of clouds across its mid-section. But we got our first look at the peak of Oregon's Mount Hood while we were standing in the state of Washington.

Just like Oregon, Washington has a highway that runs right along the Columbia River. There were beautiful views of the blue-green water of Drano Lake with the mountains behind it.

Based on the number of boats anchored in the narrow west end of the lake, we're guessing there is good fishing at Drano Lake.

But the real reason for our trip to Washington is to hike to the peak that is centered in the picture below. We're heading to the top of Dog Mountain.

The weathered sign board at the beginning of the hike maps two different routes to the top of the mountain. In all the trail maps we have seen, we have never seen route descriptive words like "more difficult" and "most difficult." We knew that this was a strenuous hike, and we guess this trail description verifies that.

We talked to several different hikers coming down the mountain, asking advice from people just completing the trail. We were surprised to meet a guy wearing an Oklahoma cap. Sure enough, they are vacationing here from Tulsa, Oklahoma. They recommended taking the steepest "most difficult" route up and the less steep "more difficult" route down to make a loop hike. At the time it sounded like good advice. But we have to say it was a grueling 3.7-mile trail with one steep switchback after another. We were completely enveloped in tall trees, so it was also a boring hike with no views. You know it was grueling, when we took only one picture in the two hours it took for our ascent.

But when we got to the upper meadow, suddenly the trees were gone and we were surrounded by fields of wildflowers.

Mark is still wondering if all that work was worth it. This hike has an elevation gain of 2,948 feet spread over only 3.5 miles. That's crazy steep!

Denisa is suddenly rejuvenated. She is running around snapping pictures of wildflowers like a kid. If we look close, we can see red paintbrushes, and tiny purple flowers.

But the star of the show are the radiant Balsamroot that seem to be at the peak of their bloom across the side of the mountain.

The view across that open meadow to the neighboring peaks dusted with snow was also pretty good.

After enjoying our triumph of making it to the open meadow, we had to face the steep trail on up to the summit. It was rocky and steep, but at least we had the beautiful views around us to enjoy. That's the Columbia River far below us now. We have wandered into another of God's wonders!

That trail hugs the side of Dog Mountain, but we are enjoying the blue skies and views around so much that we're not even complaining about how steep this section is.

We celebrate our victory of making it to the summit by eating our well-deserved picnic lunch. Re-fueled, we can now literally point out some of the views from the top. It's hard to tell the difference between white clouds and snow-capped mountains in pictures. So Mark is pointing out where Mount St. Helens is in the picture below. It was a beautiful sight this afternoon.

Likewise, Denisa is pointing to the snow-covered peak of Mt. Hood, barely peeking over the top of the tree-covered Oregon mountain that is between us now.

We add a zoomed in picture of Mount Hood. We have been stalking this mountain since we first saw it from Willamette Valley. Covered with a thick blanket of snow, it's a beautiful sight to see in person.

We did some bush-whacking at the summit to get a glance of the closest snow-covered summit--Mt. Adams at 12,307 feet. It's hiding behind the dead tree in the center of the picture, but that was the best angle we could get from Dog Mountain.

There were a few other people at the windy summit at this late hour. We swapped photo-taking jobs with a couple girls that had the 2017 version of a polaroid camera. We haven't seen one of those in a while.

Most people start this hike early in the morning when their legs are fresh. The couple from Tulsa that we met at the bottom of the trail started at 8:00 a.m., so they were finished at 2:00 when we were just starting. That's probably a much smarter plan than taking a bike ride before starting this hike.

We are starting downhill now, still enjoying the views and the flowers. It's at this point that we meet a young couple coming toward us on the trail. We're not sure if this is a compliment or not, but the young woman in her twenties tells Denisa, "You're one tough lady!"

Not as obvious as the big yellow flowers, these subtle chocolate lilies are an elegant addition to the wildflower garden in front of us.

We really aren't looking forward to starting that steep downhill slog through the forest, so we linger longer in the meadow on our way down.

Denisa found a sturdy hiking stick to help with the steep walk down. We're glad that our knees don't seem to mind the downhill walks, because we've heard from other hikers that it can be harder for them than going up-hill. We also can say that the "more difficult" side of the loop was less steep. We wouldn't have been complaining as much if we would have taken that route up-hill.

By the time we got back to the car, the trail head parking lot was almost empty. The sun was low in the sky, lighting up the mountains on the Oregon side of the Columbia River.

We pay our toll, and cross the "Bridge of the gods" that looks like something built from an erector toy set. Meeting a truck on these long and narrow bridges can be a harrowing experience.

By the time we made the drive back to the motor home, we were both dog-tired. It had been a nice bike ride and a beautiful mountain summit, but we definitely know that we should have separated those two activities on different days. But there's just too many beautiful things to see and do in this Columbia River Gorge, and we are running out of pretty days!