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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Catherine Creek, a beautiful blue day

Finding time to escape on the weekends seems to get waylaid by bad weather or the "needs of the many" at work.

Yesterday I escaped to a long delayed visit to Catherine Creek. This area first came to my attention via Flickr. A member had posted a photo of a wildflower the likes of which I have never seen.

Catherine Creek is located between the towns of Lyle and Bingen on the Columbia River. It is part of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

I hit the road super early. The drive is long and I knew I-5 was closed down to one lane at Olympia. The weather, however was spectacular. It was nice to see the sun rise and the weather was crystal clear all day.

Driving east on Hwy 14 is a bit of an adventure. Once I got outside of Vancouver, I experienced the winds the Gorge is famous for. The two lane highway is full of bends and twists and very soon you start climbing to the Cascades. While the mountains are not as high here owing to the effect of the river upon the geology, higher mountains are very near and snow is present in many bare areas. Across the river you can see waterfall after waterfall. The drive from Portland to Hood River is famous for the number of waterfalls. Unlike the Washington side, the Oregon side of the river supports and Interstate which is fast level and an easy option for those in a hurry.

At the highest point of the climb I pulled off at a place called "Cape Horn" to take in the view. Well named, the winds were howling and the trees whipping to the west.

Off in the distance I could see Beacon Rock , a basalt monolith that sits right in the river. It is a famous hike and climb site. There have been Peregrine Falcons nesting here in the past and sometimes the access to the climbs are restricted. You can see Beacon Rock just to the center below.

In a very short time you can tell you are in "eastern" Washington. Pine trees show up in the woods and balsamroot flowers dot the roadside. In Bingen the hills look nothing like one sees in western Washington.

Indeed the whole of this area is a geology wonder. The Columbia River, with its power and age as cut a typical river canyon. Much of this is lost now that the river impounds behind dams and runs much slower and deeper than when Lewis and Clark floated through. One can find evidence of the catastrophic Bretz Floods of 10000 years ago. These floods carved and formed the geography of eastern Washington. Notice how the rolling hill suddenly is lost to a carved out rock face.

Smoothly descending hills abruptly become cliffs. River valleys end and become sharp waterfalls. Hanging valleys were key in Bretz's evidence of catastrophic erosion of the gorge.

Catherine Creek has a paved trail system that allows visitors of all abilities a chance to experience the native plants. There are also wonderful benches that permit sitting and enjoyment of the sweeping views of the river,

and the small but stunning waterfalls of Catherine Creek. The basalt walls of the little mini-canyon were filled with flowers and plants that would be the envy of any rock gardener. A perfect picnic spot.

I will say however, for the best flowers one should climb and ramble in the area across the road. There were many groups of folks present. Hikers and photographers. A group of students from an Oregon college and many people with dogs.

The footing was a challenge as the soil is thin and basalt rock footing is sharp and often loose. Many areas were seeping wet rather than forming runoff channels or soaking in. There was a lot of grasses and mosses and often the moss growing directly over rock made for tricky footing.

The area supports a mix of pine trees and oak trees. Oak is a rare tree in the state and this area around Lyle supports some ( if not the only) Acorn Woodpeckers in Washington.

It was wonderful to be able to ramble the informal hiking trail and I had some great views of the geology of the river area. Mt Hood gradually appeared through burning off haze.

I didn't encounter many people once away from the parking lot. I had a chance encounter with a skunk, my first "live" viewing. It did not stick around for a photo-op. I also saw a Blue-tailed Skink who had the same opinion on having a photo taken.

But these bugs were very obliging. There is no better opportunity for bug photos than the balsamroot , buckwheats and agoseris of eastern Washington.

I did not have a map so without knowledge of the trail length or timing, decided to cut across country and follow a power line back down to the highway. Along this route I found two samples of the unique plant that brought me here ; Grand Hound's Tongue. It was another one of those lucky hits simply because I decided to ramble downhill where I did.

The clustered buds open to become this

Blue also dominated the landscape with fields of Camas. Shooting Stars were everywhere and they were mixed with Death Camas. Upland Larkspur were quite thick and in many places associated with the Oak trees.

I found some Brodiaea, a new flower to learn. I loved the detail of the pale blue stripe. This flower can be found in a dark blue form, depending on the quality of the soil it grows in.

I wish I could have had time for an overnight and a chance to fully explore this lovely area. Klickitat County is said to have the most diverse plant life in the state. It is easy to see that this is possible due to the meeting of east and west, wet and dry low and high altitude.


  1. So many beautiful flowers! I look forward to Mondays, because I know that there is a good chance that you will have put one of your rambles up.

  2. Thanks Louise. I was too pooped out Saturday night to get to it. It usually takes me 1 to 2 hours including picture wrangling

    I have other pics on my Flickr page.

  3. Thanks for the enature site, also, though I still couldn't find my spikey flowered little plant. I've looked on every site I can find. Probably it's just to undistinguished to get any notice. I did love looking through all of the flower pictures, and, I think I'm off to Amazon to see if I can find a flower book, to take along with me.

    These hikes back there do me so much good, even if I am puffing and kind of purple faced when I get back to the house.

  4. I bet there is a good solid detailed book for NY state or western NY via the university press.

    My two favorites are out of the University of BC and very usable.

    Plus there is an on line Herbarium at U of W for the state, check out the cornell university and see if they have an Herbarium

  5. Thank you John. It is a new hobby and I have been having a lot of fun exploring with camera. It is a great way to figure out new plant species.

  6. Great post. Cool photos and plant life information.

  7. Thanks Dan By your address you must be a lucky local over there. What a stunning area. I hope to swing through for a long weekend in the next month. I know there are acorn woodpeckers to be found and many more diverse ecologies in the higher elevations.

    I have a soft spot for acorns and oaks, I would love to photograph some in leaf and setting acorns

  8. Gorgeous photos, and educational commentary, as always. :)

  9. Sorry, I'm kind of late commenting, but your blog posts deserve one's full attention and I took the time this morning to follow you on your trip and hike. Thank you so much for sharing this day with us.


  10. Inger, Thank you for taking the time. I was wondering how things are in your "backyard" after the snow your had recently. I have to imagine that really pushed things into bloom?

  11. Thanks for the Butterfly book recommendation. Someone suggested a Cabbage White, so I will check for the spots when I see them again. You can see the grass grow in my yard together with the wildflowers/weeds.