Dog Mountain, WA

Ticks. Rattlesnakes. Poison Oak. These are the three things emphasized most in nearly every review of the Dog Mountain trail in the Columbia River Gorge. It also boasts one of the finest displays of spring wildflowers in the Pacific Northwest and is an immensely popular trail in the region. After my experience on Wednesday I can attest to the trail’s beauty but I wish to modify the list of dangers to include fatigue, disorientation, and blisters.

The Dog Mountain trail is a loop that begins along the Columbia River about 45 miles out of Portland on the Washington side of the river. It is not overly long for a day-hike; anywhere from 6.1 miles to 7.5 miles depending on what source you consult. My 25 cent Special K pedometer claims eight miles. But, as my friends Amy and Branden pointed out as we stood gasping for breath at one point, you can’t put much trust in an electronic object that was purchased at a garage sale and manufactured to promote the consumption of cereal. At that point it did seem to be flawed, indicating that we had achieved the 3.7 miles to the summit when the trail marker before us clearly stated another mile of switch-backs awaited us.

It is a strenuous ascent from the floor of the Gorge but much of it lies under the cover of the tree line. A generous collection of poison oak borders the path in many places. I’ve hiked in Oregon for many years and never had any trouble with poison oak but I didn’t trust that my friends would be so lucky. “Don’t pet any dogs.” I warned on the ride there. They asked me to point out some poison oak when we arrived so they could identify it on the trail. I hadn’t even left the parking area before my finger was flying around to show off the countless examples that fringed the gravel clearing. It took nearly an hour of hiking before they stopped walking with their arms clamped to their sides.

As you ascend, intermittent breaks in the canopy allow you views out over the Western Gorge (this all assumes, of course, that you initially take the portion of the loop that heads west up out of the parking area). Looking up the mountain to determine the trail will give no clues about the awesome sights that await you at the top. After a few hours of strenuous switch backs you emerge onto a wind-swept hillside. Swaying in the invisible currents are thousands of bright flowers- yellows, reds, purples; all intermixed and clinging to the sharply inclined slope. To the south the snowy crown of Mt. Hood rises from behind Oregon’s basalt ridges that border the Columbia. Turning to look back down the trail grants a view of a blunted St. Helens among a collection of hazy blue Cascades.

A strip of beaten dirt takes you along the undulating hillside of color until you reach the top. With a view east now possible you can look beyond Hood River and see where the rain soaked tree-line gives way to the scrubby golden grasses of eastern Oregon. Fatigued as we were the sights still awed us and, for a time, while sharing food, we neglected to think about the other half of the loop that remained.

In many ways the descent seems more grueling than the ascent. Due to the steep grade it appears that people on the switch-backs below lose their connection to the Earth. Watching torsos disappear and reappear among a constant rippling of the ground is mentally disconcerting. It lead to a timidity in my step as I tried to regain control of my sense of perspective.

Perhaps the greatest anguish results from being crushed into the front of your boots with every step. Amy and Branden lacked the proper footwear and both suffered blisters. By the final stretch there was limping accompanied by a grim locomotion influenced primarily by gravity. The verdant beauty of the forested hillside became a mist on the periphery of a grim determination. Thankfully, rattlesnakes and ticks never made an appearance.

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