Sunday, September 25, 2011

Hikes Past: Memaloose Hills

I’m looking at the weather forecast and for the first time in a while, it’s supposed to rain throughout my weekend, all across the state. I’m sure I’ll go hiking, but it won’t be the clear, brisk fall weather I hoped for. Feeling nostalgic, I’ve been thinking about a warm, sunny hike from back in May. At the time, the Memaloose Hills near Mosier were in full bloom, with acres of balsamroot, lupine, and paintbrush splashing the spring grass with color.

Sadly, Russ Jolley, author of the incomparable Wildflowers of the Columbia River Gorge, recently passed away. Along with Friends of the Columbia Gorge founder Nancy Russell, Jolley successfully fought to preserve the Memaloose Hills within the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area, and open the land to public access. Today the hills are owned by the Forest Service and yet remain little known, despite a superlative wildflower display without the crowds drawn to nearby Rowena Plateau or McCall Point.

I hiked the Hills for the first time this year, and the wildflowers were incredible. The trail leaves the old Columbia River Highway and meanders through oak to a stream crossing. A side trail leads to an open meadow filled with balsamroot and a view from McCall Point in the east to the cliffs of the Gorge in the west. Back on the main trail, the path approaches private land before heading uphill through flowers to the summit of the southern-most hill.

The air was filled with the scents of spring, the hum of bees, and the shadows of raptors gliding above the fields. Mt. Hood stood on the horizon, mantled in snow. The sky was a dome of deep blue. And the wildflowers were as thick as I’ve ever seen.

When I hiked in, just before the creek, I spotted movement ahead of me. Five deer wandered a nearby meadow, unconcerned with my presence. I watched them for a while, then continued on. On the way back, I walked quietly towards the meadow to see if the deer were still there. They were: four healthy-looking blacktail does, sleek with brown coats and big eyes and ears turned towards me. The fifth doe was sickly and thin with a matted coat, and traumatic eyes. It must’ve been a hell of a winter for that one.

I spent a few hours among the deer and flowers and then jumped in the truck to head to an afternoon hike at Stacker Butte farther east. The weather stayed clear all day – not at all like the gathering clouds this evening. It feels like autumn now, with today’s rain, but though autumn is probably my favorite season, I’m not ready to give up the sun. Fall is a time for ritual and celebration, remembering and reflection. But I’d like a few more nice days in the mountains. There’s nothing quite like hiking Cooper Spur or Indian Heaven when the air is clear and crisp, there’s frost in the shade, and the meadows and alpine trails are lined with amber and scarlet huckleberries and mountain ash. Something to hope for, I guess - though, if it keeps raining, I can always go back to Memaloose, and hoist a beer for Russ.

Trail Info:

Distance: 3 miles

Elevation Gain: 450ft
Region: Columbia River Gorge - East
Information: No fees, no facilities. Watch for poison oak.

Recommended Guidebooks: Curious Gorge, 3rd ed., by Scott Cook; Wildflowers of the Columbia River Gorge, by Russ Jolley.

Directions: Drive I84 to Mosier (exit 69) and continue west on the old Columbia River Highway. After 3 miles, park in the Memaloose Overlook pullout. The unsigned trail begins across the road.

More Photos Here!

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