Tag Archives: Mt Hood

Eastern Washington

Washington State is often nicknamed the Evergreen State. That name says it all. It is a land of lush evergreen forests, high mountains, torrential rivers and eternal rain and mist Or is it?

Actually, the above description fits only the western third of the state. East of the Cascade Mountains exist a completely different Washington state. A land of open spaces and dry landscape. Like on this photo:East_of_the_Cascades

We drove there via the spectacular Columbia River Gorge heading east from Portland, Oregon. (I wrote more about it here). While following the Columbia river, which cuts through the barrier of the Cascades, we could see the landscape changing with every mile. We started our drive in a typical coastal Pacific Northwest, with greenery and waterfalls, but after less than 2 hours we were driving across windswept hills covered with dry grasses and barren basalt rocks. We crossed to the north bank of the river and climbed up the basalt cliffs of the gorge on US Hwy 97. The sun was about to set so we stopped to admire the spectacular views towards the west where Mt Hood and Mt Adams were looming over the open plains. It was absolutely amazing. Moments like that are the reasons why I love driving in America.Mt_Adams

After leaving the gorge we headed towards Yakima where we spent a night in yet another chain motel in one of its endless suburbs. Yakima is the centre of a rich farming region producing, among other things, wine as well as hops. In fact Wikipedia claims that the valley produces most of the nation’s hops. Still, we didn’t linger and took the Interstate 82 heading north.

That’s where the landscape quickly gets very spectacular indeed. The road climbs from the valley and crosses numerous ridges on its way to Ellensburg. While it is a major freeway, which is equivalent of a European motorway, it didn’t feel anything like that. The road was deserted, with very little traffic on it, and the two carriageways were often so far apart that we couldn’t see the other one. There were also excellent viewing points along the way. The first one, located at Selah Creek Rest Area soon after Yakima, offered a fantastic view of the Yakima valley and two snow capped volcanoes towering to the west: the 12,307 feet Mt Adams to the south and 14,410 feet Mt Rainier to the north. It seems like in this part of the world massive volcanoes are everywhere. The second viewing point was close to Ellensburg and offered a splendid panorama of the town as well as Mt Rainier (again) and the jagged peaks of the northern Cascades.Mountain_Viewpoint

In Ellensburg we joined the interstate 90 which, at 3020 miles (4861km) is the longest interstate highway in the USA. It connects Seattle with Boston but of course we weren’t heading that far (which was a pity as I would like to cross America from coast to coast again). We followed the I-90 only until the town of George where we turned to the north. Our destination was the dramatic geological formation of Grand Coulee.

Here I have to introduce a bit of geology. Don’t worry, just a bit.

Columbia_Plateau_BasaltsSo, for the last two days we were driving across a broad expanse of sagebrush covered volcanic plains and valleys, punctuated by isolated mountain ranges and dramatic river systems. This barren region is called Columbia Plateau or sometimes Columbia Basin and it is one of the world’s largest accumulations of lava, covering hundreds of thousands of square kilometres to the depths of 6000 feet and more. The landscape here is relatively young as the plateau formed only between 6 million and 16 million years ago as a result of successive flows of basalt. Since then major rivers like Columbia, Snake and their tributaries have cut impressive gorges through the plains.

And then there is the Grand Coulee which looks like a canyon of a major river with a slight problem. There is no river in it. The mystery of the formation was solved only a few decades ago when a maverick geologist suggested that the coulee was created when a massive glacial lake was suddenly drained about 18,000 years ago after a glacial dam broke in today’s Montana. It is now a widely accepted theory and scientists estimate that this massive lake was drained in just 48 hours. The flow would have been equivalent to ten times the combined flow of all the rivers in the world. As you can imagine an event like that would leave some scars in the landscape. Literally.

Now parts of the Grand Coulee are used for water storage and irrigation channels. Water is pumped from the Columbia River at the Grand Coulee Dam creating large Banks Lake and some smaller ones.Grand_Coulee

We entered the coulee from the south along the State Hwy 17. Immediately the towering basalt cliffs, with its characteristic hexagonal columns, grew above the highway creating a truly spectacular drive. In fact Washington highways 17 and 155 are some of the most scenic roads I have ever travelled. With every turn a new panorama opened. It was impossible not to stop to take pictures. Midway through the coulee we stopped at the Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park which, exactly as the name suggests, is located at the site of the dry falls. The falls were created during the same cataclysmic floods which sculpted the Grand Coulee in the last Ice Age. It is a weird but scenic site. Imagine Niagara Falls without water, as if someone switched it off. In fact the Dry Falls are more than twice the height of Niagara (120 metres as oppose to 51). On top of the falls there is a viewing platform as well as small but interesting interpretive centre explaining the geology of the region.Dry_Falls

From the Dry Falls we continued north through the coulee (here filled by Banks Lake) to Grand Coulee Dam.

Built between 1933 and 1942 it is still one of the world’s largest dams (it was the largest concrete dam before the Chinese finished their Three Gorges one) and the biggest power station in the US. It is a gravity concrete dam which holds the water of the reservoir because of its sheer weight (unlike the arch dams which uses their shape to spread the forces to the abutments). The dam is 120 metres tall, more than one kilometre long and contains over 9 million cubic metres of concrete. That’s enough to build a highway from Seattle to Miami. In short, it is a damn huge thing wGrand_Coulee_Damhich I simple couldn’t skip while being in the vicinity. So we decided to join a tour.

After visiting Hoover Dam a couple of years ago I was expecting a good experience but I was totally wrong. First, there was the ridiculously strict security which felt more strict than in most airports, with all the metal detectors and X-ray machine just for wallets (as bags were not allowed at all). Then during the tour we were constantly followed by a heavily armed guard. I mean a guy (in places more than one) in bulletproof armour and holding a nasty looking long gun. Come on, we were a bunch of people (some quite elderly, others quite obese) with no bags or other ways of hiding any serious weapons. I had a feeling that everyone was just a bit bored in the remote small town around the dam and hoping for some excitement. On top of that the tour itself was simply boring. We got down by the elevator to peek at one of the power rooms through the glass (again watched by a sniper with his tactical helmet on) and drove on top of the dam for a few minutes, but most of the tour was occupied by the security briefings and driving around the town from one side of the dam to another. Total waste of time. Skip it at least until they fix the glass elevator which will offer access to some more interesting areas of the dam.

So the tour itself was disappointing but overall our visit to the Grand Coulee was interesting. I always liked small remote places and big structures and here we had example of both. And there is also a great viewing point on a hill a few miles out of town which offers a great panorama of the dam and surrounding small communities.

From Grand Coulee we headed east towards Spokane. We took the state Hwy 174 and then joined US Hwy 2. The landscape changed again. We left the gorges carved in basalts behind and were now driving across gently undulating hills covered by huge grain farms. This region (together with the Palouse further south) is the breadbasket of Washington state. The dead straight roads cutting through this weird landscape created a strange driving experience, especially in the warm light of the low, late afternoon sun. It all really reminded me western Kansas.Perfect_Road

Yet one more of those moments for which I simply love travelling in the western USA.

Spokane itself was a bit of a surprise. We only really decided to check it out as it was conveniently located as a place to stop on our way from Grand Coulee to Montana. It has a small but quite pleasant downtown and we even found a very well supplied independent bookshop there. It is called Auntie’s Bookstore and it is surprisingly large Aunties_Bookstoreconsidering that Spokane’s population is just over 200,000 (half a million if we include the whole metropolitan area dominated by the wast suburbs stretching all the way to Idaho, more 20 miles to the east) and the city doesn’t have a reputation even remotely close to the likes of Portland, Seattle or some university towns. Yet the bookshop seemed to be doing well and I did my bit to support it by buying quite a few books.

But the main attraction of Spokane are the waterfalls and surrounding Riverfront Park. Right next to downtown Spokane river tumbles 60 feet down a narrow basalt (of course) gorge. The falls consist of upper and lower falls and look very scenic and wild but they are in fact quite heavily modified by additions of dams and power stations in the first half of the 20th century. However the terrain around is nicely landscaped and one can even ride a cable car above the falls. Right below the falls there is also a beautiful concrete arch bridge offering great views for free (if you don’t want to pay for cable car). In 1974 Spokane hosted Expo ’74 and the Riverfront Park was created back then in place of railway yards. Nowadays the park and the nice peaceful downtown made Spokane a perfect stop for us.Spokane_Falls

From Spokane we headed east towards Montana. The landscape changed yet again and we were now driving across forested mountains, for first time really since leaving the Cascades two days earlier. It was a clear sign that we were fast approaching Montana. In fact crossing the Idaho panhandle along the interstate 90 takes only about an hour.

But Montana, covering an area larger than Germany, is a huge and varied state which deserve a separate chapter.Mt_Hood

Portland and surroundings.

Portland is my favorite American city. Why? There are many reasons but lets start from the beginning. With population of just over 2 millions it is the largest city in Oregon and the third largest in the Pacific Northwest (after Seattle and Vancouver). It makes it just about the right size, not too big, not too small. You still have plenty of city attractions and general urban feel but you don’t have to fight the concrete jungle like in the LA, New York or Chicago. It lies on the banks of river Willamette just before it empties into the mighty Columbia river. Its compact downtown is located on the west side of the river and it’s surprisingly walkable. Street blocks are small and grid pattern makes it easy to navigate. If you tired of walking you can always make use of the excellent public transport network. It includes buses, light railway(MAX), streetcars, even aerial tram, and is free to ride in the central zone.

Cycling is another great option. Portland has one of the best cycling network in America and its citizens are keen cyclist. Nowhere in America I have seen so many people cycling. Portlanders are friendly bunch, keen on recycling, good beer, outdoor and, as I mentioned above, cycling. In other words all sort of activities people don’t normally associate with the United States.

Portland lacks one single major tourist attraction but there are some sights worth visiting. Being an infrastructure geek, the first thing I went to visit was Portland Aerial Tram. It is commuter tramway which connects south waterfront and the major university hospital and campus. It costs $4 for return journey and climbs over 150 meters in about 3 minutes. From the top station you can see an amazing panorama of eastern Portland and surrounding mountains. Another great attraction worth some time to explore is Powell’s City of Books. The largest independent bookstore in the United States. It occupies the full city block and offers 6300m² (almost 68000 square feet) of the floor space, full of new and used books stored side by side. It is a real labyrinth where color coded maps, available at the front desk, are essential. Great fun for anyone who likes books.

Of course there are some museums and galleries but I didn’t bother with exploring them. Instead I decided to soak the city simply by exploring some of the nice neighborhoods. One of the best of them is North West Portland. It is in a walking distance from the downtown and is full of the old houses, restaurants, pubs, bars, shops and trees lining the streets. You can feel great communal spirit there. For example hostel where I was staying had agreement with the local pizzeria so any unsold pizza, at the end of day, was offered for free to the hostel guests. In the same way we got free bread rolls from the local bakery. All we had to do was to find a volunteer who wants to walk about 5 minutes to collect them. Portlanders just seems to hate waste.

HI-Portland Hostel, Northwest, is well worth recommending. Located in the old wooden house it is very clean, quiet and well run. It is great place if you are looking for good sleep and good company but not necessarily for party atmosphere. If you want some party, or at least some drink, there are plenty of options alongside NW 21st Avenue which is just few minutes away from the hostel. Speaking of drinking, it is worth remembering that with 28 breweries Portland has more breweries than any other city in the United States. It is in fact place where in the 1980s microbreweries craze started.

Short walk or MAX ride west from NW Portland lies Washington Park. It covers over 50 hectares of mostly steep and wooded hills ranging in elevation from 60 to 260 meters. Somewhere there are major tourist attractions like Oregon Zoo, International Rose Test Garden (one of the Portland nicknames is in fact The Rose City), Portland Japanese Garden and few others but I didn’t find them. Here I have to admit that I got a bit lost while exploring the park. I simply underestimated its size, complicated terrain and how densely wooded it is. But I still had nice afternoon just walking around trying to find my way back and escape coming rain. Washington Park is just smaller brother of the Forest Park which covers over 2000 hectares and is one of the largest urban wilderness parks in the United States.

But I left the best aspect of this amazing city for the end. It is its location. And what a great location it is. If you look from any high point in the city (like Aerial Tram top station) you can see not one, not two, but three massive, snow covered volcanoes. They are Mt Hood, Mt Adams and Mt Rainier. On a sunny they they look absolutely spectacular.

About two hours drive in opposite direction you can reach Pacific coast. With some spectacular wild beaches it offers great options for weekend getaways. One of the closest and the best places for one day visit is Canon Beach with landmark rock formation called Haystack Rock and adjoining Ecola State Park which offers great hiking and coastal views. South of Portland rural Willamette Valley is one of the best vine growing regions in the United States.

But in my opinion the best approach to Portland leads from the east. I was driving all the way from Idaho and for the last 200km road hugged the mighty Columbia river. Initially the landscape is wild, bleak and open but as road approaches Cascade Mountains the river valley narrows and Columbia River Gorge begins. It is absolutely fantastic place. I left the main interstate highway which follows the river at the bottom of the gorge and choose the Historic Columbia River Highway instead, which traverses and climbs high cliffs of the gorge. It is twisty and narrow route which is popular among cyclist and motorized tourists. Some sections are closed for cars altogether and open only for cyclist and walkers. One of these closed sections includes narrow tunnels, drilled in the basalt cliffs, which contain windows offering view of the valley.

One of the best views along the route are from the Crown Point. But the great vistas are not the only attractions of the gorge. As river cuts its way through the Cascade Range you can notice change of the vegetation. Bleak dry vegetation of the eastern Oregon is replaced with the lush vegetation of the Pacific coast. It happens because Coastal Range is a major watershed blocking humidity from the ocean from reaching further inland. Byproduct of that are numerous, (over 77 on the Oregon side of the gorge alone) and spectacular waterfalls. Probably the most spectacular of them (and definitely the most photographed) are Multnomah Falls. If you browsed any guidebook to Oregon the chance is you have already seen it. It is the one with bridge in front of it.

Immediately east of the gorge lies Hood River. It is a nice small town, local center of major fruit growing area. On the steep streets you can find nice cafes and restaurants serving food made of the local products. From above the town you can see massive, cone shaped, Mt Hood looming above this lovely rural idyll. It is simply small and happy town.

All these wonders are no more than two hours from the downtown Portland. It makes it perfect place for the outdoor lovers. At the end it is the city where companies like Nike or Columbia Sportswear started and are still located. It is not a coincidence. For me, it is probably the only city in the United States where I could easily relocate from London 😉

So if you are looking for relaxed and easy going place to spend some time on mixed urban – outdoor holiday, Portland is the perfect place for you. Just pack some good walking shoes and rainproof gear, leave tie and fancy clothes at home, and you ready to go. You won’t be disappointed.