|Balsamroot blooms near the Crawford Ranch in the Columbia Hills|
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Washington State Parks Discover Pass required
Each spring, the sun-bleached grassland slopes of Dalles Mountain in Columbia Hills State Park come alive with a profusion of wildflower colors. This hike makes a loop across the wide grasslands on a bench above the Columbia River, passing near Crawford Ranch and providing views into Oregon and out to Mount Hood. The hike is not difficult, with gentle climbs and descents through the rolling hills and wide open views the entire way. While it is possible to start this hike from either the Crawford Ranch or from the Crawford Oaks Trailhead off of Highway 14, here I will describe the second option. Wildflower blooms in the area generally peak in mid-to-late May.
I visited the hills on a camping trip with a friend on an April weekend; after setting up at nearby Maryhill State Park, we followed Highway 14 west past the Maryhill Museum and Wishram to the Crawford Oaks Trailhead at Columbia Hills State Park, which was on the north side of the highway. On a day with overwhelming volumes of rain in Seattle and Portland, it was sunny near the Dalles and the parking lot was full.
From the trailhead, we followed the wide multi-use trail up towards the meadows. The trail here was really a gravel road, which we shared with plenty of other hikers and a good number of mountain bikers. After meandering up from the parking lot, the trail made a sharp switchback and began to climb along the basalt cliffs that defined the canyon of the Columbia River. The Columbia River came into view, with Horsethief Butte a notable nearby landmark; Mount Hood was visible far off on our return during a break in the distant storm. The columnar basalt walls of the Columbia River Gorge here were the result of massive volcanic eruptions that left extensive lava flows throughout the Columbia Basin about 15 million years ago.
|The Columbia River and Horsethief Butte|
The Vista Loop climbed uphill slightly before leveling out on the bench above the river, traversing open grasslands and passing beneath the power lines that ran through the park. Although few flowers were blooming here, the wide open views of the river and of the Dalles in the distance. Across the river, farmland covered the rolling hills of Oregon.
|The Columbia River and the Columbia Hills|
|Lake Celilo and the drowned remnants of Celilo Falls|
|Lupine and desert parsley|
I was glad we continued on towards the ranch, as the best of the wildflower show was on the slopes nearby the ranch. As we approached the ranch, we transitioned from scattered pockets of flowering balsamroot to fields in full bloom. In some areas, there were even a handful of blooming lupine and phlox scattered with the balsamroot.
|Views into Oregon|
|Balsamroot and lupine at Crawford Ranch|
|Phlox and balsamroot|
|Trail through the Columbia Hills|
The hike through the Columbia Hills is certainly worth it for the spring wildflower show; it made for a fun trip combined with visits to the nearby Maryhill Museum and the Maryhill Winery.