Image: Mike McCune

lyle cherry orchard: 5-mile out-and-back, Columbia River Gorge

Once upon a time, the Lyle cherry orchard was just that. But when farmers stopped irrigating, the orchard died—save for one tree, whose survival no one can fully explain. The solitary deciduous denizen echoes the solitude you’ll likely have on this hike: No road signs announce the trail’s existence, so you have to know where to look.

ROUTE: From the simple roadside pullout, step over the pyramidlike ladder and continue walking until you’ve reached the Cherry Orchard Trail sign about a quarter-mile from the turnout. The first mile up a rocky cliff abounds with steep switchbacks, total elevation gain is 1,500 feet, before flattening onto an open bluff with prime Gorge views. Continue up the ridge and weave through head-high grasses and scrub oaks, and when you think you’ve come to a viewless end, keep on trekkin’ through the trees until you reach a spectacular sheer with sweeping vistas. Look for the cherry tree on the eastern edge, where the hill dips toward The Dalles.

DIRECTIONS: Travel east on Rte 14 through Lyle. The trail begins at a small gravel turnout on the left (north) side of the highway about a half-mile after the double tunnels. Park in the turnout and look for the small trail opening.

A Sea of Blue: Camassia Natural Area
Image: Kate Bryant
A Sea of Blue: Camassia Natural Area

Camassia natural area: 1.4-mile loop, West Linn

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Dog Mountain: 6.9-mile loop, Columbia River Gorge

It may seem that winter’s gloom clings tenaciously through May, but on Dog Mountain the abundance of wildflowers proves that spring has sprung. Blooms on this popular Washington trail are at their peak in May, when the slopes seem practically spray-painted with fantastic colors. The summit offers a wildflower bonanza, plus fantastic views of the Columbia River Gorge, Mount Hood and Mount St Helens.

ROUTE: You’ll work for it: The entire way out is uphill, beginning with a steep 700-foot climb of no fewer than 10 switchbacks, from which sharp eyes may spot wild strawberry or coral root orchids. At the half-mile mark, veer right for better views; the left trail goes through a dense forest and is more strenuous. At the next major junction, take the left-hand spur for a more direct route and spectacular views, or the right-hand spur for wooded paths and rarer blooms. No matter how you ascend, you’ll end up at the open slopes at the top, which by mid-May are a riot of lupine, yellow balsamroot, larkspur and paintbrushes—a sight certain to put the spring back in your step.

DIRECTIONS: From Portland, drive east on I-84 to Cascade Locks Exit 44 and cross the Bridge of the Gods. At Rte 14, head right for 12 miles. The Dog Mountain Trailhead is between Mileposts 53 and 54.

Tom McCall Preserve: 3.6-mile out-and-back, Columbia River Gorge

Wildflower lovers take note: The three miles of trails winding through this 231-acre preserve seem to have been carved out with your point-and-click camera in mind. In all, more than 300 species of plants grace the wide-open meadows and windswept hills found here, and thanks to the refuge’s high perch along on the Rowena Plateau near the eastern edge of the Columbia River Gorge, you can fill your frame not only with a natural carpet of blue-hued lupines and yellow glacier lilies, but also with unforgettable panoramas of Mount Adams, Mount Hood, and the Columbia River.

Route: From the parking area, head south on an old dirt road through open prairie thick with sunflowerlike balsamroots and purple-stemmed Columbia desert parsley. After about one-third of a mile, you’ll see a large wooden sign marking the McCall Point Trail. Head up the trail to the right for the short but intense 1,100-foot climb to the summit. If you’re not quite ready to tackle McCall Point, the Rowena Plateau trailhead (which lies just west of the parking area) marks a relatively level one-mile stroll perfect for anyone looking to snap a few pics amid the colorful grasslands without dusting up their Sunday best.

Directions: From Portland, head east on I-84 for 64 miles. Take exit 69 and turn right onto Highway 30. Travel for 6.5 miles (through the town of Mosier) and make a right into the Rowena Crest Viewpoint area. Park along either side of the road. No fees or permits required.

Lacamas heritage trail: 7-mile out-and-back, Camas, Wash.

The 312 acres here pack in conifer groves, fetching waterfalls, fir-fringed Round Lake, and, in spring, tiers of rocky meadows electrified by scores of camas lilies. Mountain bikers fawn over challenging patches of rooty singletrack and lung-burning chugs up dirt roads. Birders favor the adjoining Washougal River Greenway for a 1.5-mile tour of avian-rich wetlands. Need a skinny-tire cruise? The Lacamas Heritage Trail stretches 3.5 miles alongside Lacamas Lake, offering chance encounters with herons, doublecrested cormorants, and bald eagles. Access: 2700 SE Everett St, Camas

Catherine creek state park: Columbia River Gorge

More than 90 species of wildflowers bloom between February and July at this beloved Washington state park, providing a photographic bonanza. The moderate and well-maintained trails also make carting equipment (tripods, for instance) a cinch. And be sure to pack your macro lens, Cobb notes: that cluster lily is ready for its close-up.

Hood river mountain: 3-mile loop, Columbia River Gorge

Yodeling rarely feels so appropriate as atop this 2,000-plus-foot rise south of Hood River where alpine panoramas unfold as if spliced from The Sound of Music. Mount Hood’s craggy spire dominates a yawning valley populated by farms and orchards, rustic barns, and grazing livestock. And come May and June, flowers take center stage. After a short climb through thick woods, the narrow trail breaks into an open double-track path surrounded by one of the area’s brightest wildflower displays. Shoots of lupine, larkspurs, and red paintbrush complement a sea of pinwheel-like yellow balsamroot. Adding to the trail’s appeal is an off-the-beaten-path, locals-only feel: the trail skirts through SDS Lumber Company land (the company has traditionally taken a benevolent view of hikers), with little signage. Still, the route is straightforward. Once atop the ridge, continue along dirt tracks to a trail intersection near a small, gated structure. Follow the path to quiet, bucolic Old Dalles Road, which loops back to the trailhead, or retrace your steps. 

directions: From Portland, take I-84 east to Hood River. Take exit 64 and head south on Highway 35. Drive .4 miles and turn left on East Side Road. Continue 1.5 miles and turn left on Old Dalles Road. Go approximately 2 miles and look for the trailhead on the right side of the road. A small SDS Lumber sign marks the path. No fees or permits required. 

cape horn: 6.8-mile loop, Columbia River Gorge

Until recently, the only way to take in the spectacular east-facing Gorge views from Washington’s Cape Horn was to pull over on Rte 14 and stare upriver. With the traffic whizzing at your back, it was more nerve-wracking than soul-stirring. But now Cape Horn hosts one of the Gorge’s most secret trails, making it possible to stand atop the bulging rock for far quieter meditations of the magnificent scene across the river: Larch Mountain, the bare knob of Angel’s Rest and of course Multnomah Falls, which appears to dangle from the Oregon cliffs like a fluttering bit of string. But perhaps the most spectacular part of this trail is its existence. Its uppermost lookouts were supposed to be the property of Rim View Estates; a developer had divvied up a prime parcel of land like a sheet cake. That was before Friends of the Columbia Gorge’s Nancy Russell loaned the Trust for Public Land some $300,000 to buy out the developer in 1986. In 2006, the Friends purchased the only private home that managed to get built in the subdivision: a $1.5 million behemoth complete with stable and koi pond that will eventually be replaced by a scenic overlook—a kind of Washington rival to Oregon’s Vista House across the Columbia.

ROUTE: To reach these viewpoints, you’ll have to navigate the Cape Horn Trail, a 7.8-mile loop that twists through a delphinium-filled forest, switches back over mossy fields of scree and—just as your legs begin to jelly—slips behind a showerlike waterfall. Finding the trail is a minor challenge, as it has yet to make an appearance on official Forest Service maps, lacks the grooming and foot traffic of many Gorge trails and is largely sign-free. All this, Cape Horn Trail enthusiasts will tell you, precisely defines its wild appeal.

DIRECTIONS: Head east on Rte 14. After you round Cape Horn, look to the left for Salmon Falls Rd between Mileposts 26 and 27 (marked by a bus stop and a pullout). Park here and walk perhaps 80 feet up Salmon Falls Rd; the trail begins on the left at a tree marked with a Resource Conservation Area sign. After a milelong ascent through brushy forest, the trail briefly joins with a dirt road. Keep left past a pasture until you reach paved Strunk Rd. Turn left for 200 feet and then a make quick right down the gravel road that winds past a house. The gravel path becomes a grassy lane, then winds through a maple forest to Rte 14. (Two 30 mph signs conveniently point to the trail’s second half.) After crossing Rte 14, head straight at the four-way junction to the Cape Horn area. Eventually you’ll reach Cape Horn Rd. Make a left on this little-used stretch, walking the 1.3 miles or so back to Rte 14 and Salmon Falls Rd.

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