MOSIER, Ore. — They are nature’s fireworks display, but instead of exploding in the air, they come up through the ground.
Blooms of wildflowers that arrive with spring provide a great reason to get outdoors, and few places in the Pacific Northwest offer a better showcase than the eastern side of the Columbia River Gorge.
Entire hillsides transform into fields of gold during peak blooms, turning already great hikes into memorable, once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
For this Top 5 feature, we’re focusing on the best easy wildflower hikes of the Gorge. These are lower elevation spots that generally peak in late March, April and May. (The bloom is a few weeks ahead this year due to the warm winter).
I visited all five and found, for the most part, all to be in beautiful shape.
My suggestion before setting out is to check the website OregonWildflowers.org. The creator, Greg Lief, has a map showing the hikes in bloom (or not in bloom), along with trip reports, pictures and helpful directions and links.
If you’re camping, a good bet is Memaloose State Park (Oregon) or Columbia Hills State Park (Washington). If you’d rather stay in a hotel, consider Hood River, Mosier, White Salmon or The Dallas. For breakfast, I recommend Egg River Cafe in Hood River. For a celebratory brew and pizza, my favorite is Double Mountain Brewery.
This list is about easy, family-friendly hikes, which is why you won’t see excellent but more challenging wildflower hikes such as Dog Mountain or Cape Horn (they won’t bloom until later, anyway).
This hike is on the steep end of “easy,” but it’s very pretty, and the fact that it starts right within the wonderful town of Mosier is a bonus.
The Mosier Plateau Trail climbs 600 feet and travels 3.5 miles round-trip, heading through a park, following a creek, passing a waterfall and ending on a plateau with beautiful Gorge views.
Peak wildflower season is normally mid to late April (but it’s early this year). The ubiquitous balsamroot is the star of the show, but the hike alsos feature buttercups, blue-eyed mary and others.
Directions: From I-84 near Hood River, take Exit 69 toward Mosier. Head south off the exit and head into the town of Mosier. Park at the totem pole in town or at a gravel pullout. The trailhead is on the south side of Historic Highway 30, just over the historic bridge. You’ll see a bench just after crossing the bridge and a trail. This is the beginning of the hike. Coordinates: 45.684774, -121.393734
Two different hikes begin at this popular viewpoint on the Historic Columbia River Highway.
The easier of the two traverses the flat Rowena Crest in the Tom McCall Nature Preserve in a landscape carved by ancient lava flows and floods.
Dogs are not allowed on this 2.5-mile out-and-back hike, and there isn’t any shade at the trailhead, so leave Fido at home for this trek.
The views are almost nonstop from the beginning of this hike, and in April and May, balsamroot and lupine are the highlight. Excellent views down onto the Columbia can be had at viewpoints along the trail.
If you’re seeking a more challenging hike, the trail to Tom McCall Point leaves from the same trailhead and shoots uphill 1,070 feet on a hike of 5 miles round-trip (the trail is currently closed at the 0.6 mile mark for reconstruction, but many reopen soon). Balsamroot and lupine also highlight this trail, along with desert parsley. And the view of Mount Adams and Hood at the top are memorable.
Directions: From I-84 near Hood River, take Exit 69 into Mosier and continue on the Historic Columbia River Highway 30 east through the town. In 6.6 miles, you will see the Rowena Crest Viewpoint parking area on your right. Both trails start here. Coordinates: 45.68259, -121.30065.
Truth be told, the top three wildflower hikes starting here really stood out above the others. They were all spectacular in their own way, and ranking them was a challenge. All three are must-hikes.
It wouldn’t be quite right to call Memaloose Hills a secret — it appears in a book and a handful of websites — but it’s still unmarked and less traveled than most wildflower hotspots in the Gorge.
The trail begins at Memaloose Viewpoint, just across the highway. It’s unmarked throughout but easy to follow a total of 2.2 miles and 629 feet to the top of Marsh Hill. Balsamroot blankets the entire hillside at the top with a touch of lupine, and views extend to Mount Hood.
The trail winds through oak savanna where other wildflowers stand out, including blue-eyed mary, gold star, larkspur and many others. Apparently there are longer options, but I didn’t hike them.
Directions: From I-84 near Hood River, take Exit 69 and continue on the Historic Columbia River Highway 30 east through the town of Mosier. In a little more than 3 miles, stop at the Memaloose Viewpoint. The trail begins just across the road. Coordinates: 45.693433, -121.350767.
Of all the hikes on the list, this one is my personal favorite.
The Catherine Creek area on the Washington side of the Gorge is spectacular in so many ways. The towering basalt formations and canyons, old homesteads, views of Mount Hood and the smell of ponderosa make me want to stay for days rather than hours.
The Arch Rock Loop is the best easy hike here and requires a bit of navigation. The loop is 2.1 miles with 481 feet of climb.
From the trailhead, the route follows a combination of trails and closed roads past a rock arch, a bubbling creek, an old homestead, epic views of the canyon and Mount Hood, along with more types of wildflower than you can count.
The best time to hike is March to May. Right now, the bloom is excellent, with camas lilies, balsamroot, lupine, prairie stars and many others.
Directions: From I-84 in Hood River, take Exit 64, and drive north across the Hood River Bridge ($1 toll for passenger cars). Turn right onto Washington Highway 14, and drive east for 5.8 miles. Turn left at Rowland Lake onto County Road 1230 (Old Highway No. 8), which follows the north end of the lake. In 1.3 miles, a large and well-marked trailhead arrives on both sides of the road. The hike starts on the left trailhead (a paved trail down to the Columbia is on the right). Coordinates: 45.710483, -121.362067.
Columbia Hills State Park
Entire hillsides are transformed into fields of gold during the height of wildflower season at this state park on the Washington side of the Gorge, just across from The Dalles.
Access into this paradise requires a Discovery Pass for $10 per day or $30 per year (they can be bought at the trailhead). Camping is possible as well.
To enjoy this epic display of wildflowers in April and May, there are two options. The easiest is to start at the upper trailhead, near the original Crawford Ranch on Dalles Mountain Road at a paved trailhead.
From here, you can hike the spectacular lower meadows on trails like the Vista Loop and 8 Mile Alternate for 2 to 3 miles. These were in full bloom during my trip, so thick with balsamroot and lupine that the air was perfumed.
Later in the season, as the bloom moves up the mountain, you can hike uphill toward Stacker Butte from the same trailhead.
A final option is to begin at the lowest trailhead, the Crawford Oak Trailhead, and hike uphill past a nice waterfall and into the wildflowers. This is steeper, and there weren’t many wildflower blooms until you reached the meadows, but it’s hard to complain when the views are this good.
Directions (Crawford Ranch Trailhead, Upper): From I-84 near The Dalles, take exit 87 and turn left on Highway 197 and the Columbia River on a bridge. Drive 3 miles to Highway 14 and turn right. Go half a mile and turn left up Dalles Mountain Road. Continue 3.7 miles on the gravel road, passing the Crawford Ranch, to a well-signed trailhead and parking area. Coordinates: 45.6801, -121.088467.
Directions (Crawford Oak Trailhead, Lower): Instead of turning onto Dalles Mountain Road, continue on Highway 14 to milepost 87.2 and turn left into a large trailhead and parking area. Coordinates: 45.6571, -121.087783.