by Wilson Cady

revised by Wilson Cady

The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is a place of outstanding natural, cultural, and scenic interest. Traveling east through this near-sea-level break in  the mountains for some 80 miles, SR-14 provides a striking wet-to-dry transect, from Western Hemlock and Douglas-fir forests on the west to Garry Oak and Ponderosa Pine toward the east, and finally grasslands and shrub-steppe. Fifteen species of plants that grow in the gorge are found nowhere else in the world. The streams and rivers in the gorge flow from the mountains south to the Columbia River creating a south side to the Cascade Mountains. This and the sea-level break through the mountains makes for a lack of physical barriers that allows plants and animals from both sides of the Cascade Mountains to populate pockets of suitable habitats throughout the gorge.

Floodwaters released periodically from Glacial Lake Missoula rushed through the narrow gorge, creating the oversteepening of its sides one sees today. One result is the many waterfalls (mainly on the Oregon side). Another is slope instability, provoking large-scale landslides over the millennia since the floods subsided. In some places on the Washington side the road is built atop slide debris. The sites and trails in the National Scenic Area managed by the Forest Service require a Northwest Forest Pass or an America the Beautiful Pass; Beacon Rock State Park requires a Discover Pass.

Prominent mileposts line SR-14 (mile zero is at the I-5 interchange in Vancouver). These offer the most convenient reference points through the gorge. The route begins at milepost 19, just past the easternmost viewing pullout at Steigerwald Lake. From here, it is about 45 miles to the town of Bingen and south central Washington.

At milepost 25 is the Cape Horn Overlook, with one of the best views in the gorge. Peregrine Falcons nest below you on the cliff face formed by at least five separate volcanic flows, while Turkey Vultures and Cliff Swallows cruise by at eye level. The seven-mile-long Cape Horn Trail loop starts from a parking lot at milepost 26.3. The first half-mile of the upper trail passes through a mixed hardwood forest with a nice mix of birds and native plants.

The only remnant of the Saint Cloud Ranch, on the right at milepost 29.9, is the century-old apple orchard on the banks of the Columbia River. The trees while in bloom can be filled with migrant birds feeding on nectar and insects. During fall and winter the fruit attracts many species, and Red-breasted Sapsuckers bore sap wells in the ancient limbs.

Franz Lake National Wildlife Refuge is closed to the public, but there is a viewing platform above the lake at milepost 31.5. This large, shallow backwater of the Columbia River is completely covered with Wapato (also known as Indian Potato) in summer. This plant was a food staple of Native Americans and the starchy roots are a favorite food of swans. In winter, if the water level is low enough for them to be able to reach these tubers, over 1,000 Tundra Swans may gather here.

As you enter Skamania at milepost 32.9, exit to your right onto Skamania Landing Road. This one-mile loop crosses the railroad tracks and circles a small impoundment on Duncan Creek. The dam is opened and the lake drained during fall and winter to allow passage for spawning salmon and Steelhead. This creates a rare habitat type in the gorge—mudflats that attract shorebirds. Wooden pilings in the Columbia River at the private marina on the east end of the loop are used by Purple Martins.

Continue east 1.1 miles and turn right on the Doetsch Ranch Road railroad overpass and down to the picnic area and boat ramp at the base of Beacon Rock State Park, a prominent landmark (Discover Pass required). Watch for the Peregrine Falcons that nest on the southeast side of this monolithic volcanic plug. Return to SR-14 and continue east 0.8 mile to the parking lot for the trail that leads to the top of the rock, 840 feet above the river. The trail is steep but guarded by railings at all exposed points, and the views are great. Occasionally, one can hear Canyon Wrens calling from the rock. Across the road is the entrance to Beacon Rock State Park (camping and picnic areas). Trails from here go through the forest to Hamilton Mountain on the north rim of the gorge. Lazuli Buntings nest on the open, shrubby slopes. Use caution, as one of the most common shrubs on the exposed hillsides in the gorge is Poison Oak.

At milepost 38.5 is Dam Access Road. After leaving the highway, turn left at the stop sign and follow the road to Bonneville Dam, where an underwater viewing room allows you to observe American Shad, salmon, Steelhead, and other species as they travel through the fish ladder. Walk up the short trail from the upstream end of the visitor parking lot to the viewpoint. Look for loons, grebes, gulls, and rafts of ducks on the calm waters above the dam in the winter. A right turn after coming off the highway leads to Strawberry Island (aka Hamilton Island) with open grasslands, a pond and river views. Return to SR-14, turn right and continue east.

As you enter the town of Stevenson (see map on next page), stop at the pullout on the south side of the road at milepost 43.6, just before crossing the bridge over Rock Creek, to scan Rock Creek Cove. This shallow, weedy, wind-protected backwater is closed to hunting. Large flocks of waterfowl feed here, including both dabbling and diving ducks. Canvasbacks and Redheads are regular. The mudflat at the mouth of Rock Creek is one of the few spots in Skamania County where shorebirds can be found in migration. At the county fairgrounds across the cove, geese and ducks can be observed closely as they feed on the lawn or come for handouts.

Stop at the mouth of the Wind River at milepost 49.2. Harlequin Ducks nest higher up the river but may be seen near the mouth in spring and early summer. Home Valley Waterfront Park is on your right at milepost 50. As you enter the park take the road to the right toward the sailboard beach, where a small wetland and thick riparian woods are worth a check in migration. There are a few primitive camping spots at the east end of the park, past the ball fields. In fall and winter, the bay upstream holds diving ducks—best observed from the highway shoulder just past the park.

Park at the Dog Mountain Trailhead at milepost 53.7 and check the rafts of Ring-necked Ducks and Lesser Scaup for Canvasback, Redhead, and Greater Scaup. The trail to the top of Dog Mountain takes you to one of the most spectacular wildflower displays in the gorge. Differences in soil depth, slope, and aspect, and the 3,000-foot elevation gain, create an extended bloom time. Lazuli Buntings nest in brushy patches near the top. Watch for Poison Oak along this trail, which also marks the western limit in the gorge for rattlesnakes.

On the west end of Drano Lake at milepost 56.9 is the one-mile spur to the Little White Salmon National Fish Hatchery. Common and Barrow’s Goldeneyes winter where the Little White Salmon River enters the lake, along with Hooded and Common Mergansers. The falls at the hatchery are a good spot to find American Dippers, and Harlequin Ducks nest just upstream from the hatchery building. At the end of the fall salmon run, Bald Eagles and gulls gather on the sandbars to feed on the spawned-out fish. Drive back to SR-14, turn left, and park on the wide shoulder on the south side of the highway opposite the boat launch (milepost 57.2). Drano Lake—the wind-sheltered impoundment north of the road—usually has Canvasbacks and Redheads in the mixed flocks of ducks. Scan the lake from the shoulder.

When you reach the White Salmon River bridge and Alternate SR-141 in about six miles you are entering South Central Washington. See page 328 for the continuation of the Columbia Gorge route on the Dry Side.