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Discovering Tracy Hill Trail

THE AUTHOR enjoys lunch and a sweeping view of the gorge from a bench made of a fallen log and weathered plank.

THE AUTHOR enjoys lunch and a sweeping view of the gorge from a bench made of a fallen log and weathered plank. Janet Tschanz

— It seems like Catherine Creek has become my go-to place for spring wildflowers.

It has a lot going for it: Four thousand acres of public land packed with 90 species of wildflowers that begin blooming in February with the first appearance of grass widows. The show isn’t over until the last of the western ladies tresses fade away in early July.

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A RIVER OF Monkey Flowers seemingly flows through a meadow alongside the Tracy Hill Trail, part of the Catherine Creek trail system.

We hike here so much that I feel like I know every inch of this area like my own backyard. Last Monday was the ninth or tenth time we visited Catherine Creek this spring. Our plan was to do our usual loop hike that starts at the trailhead and then head north, cross the creek and then follow an old ranch road past the old corrals and the natural basalt arch. After topping the hill just beyond the corrals we watch for a foot path that then takes us a bit east and to the top of the ridge above the arch. From there, we head south where a downhill hike takes us back to our car and the ride home.

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POPCORN FLOWERS create a snow-like carpet in some locations.

And that was our planned hike for last Monday, we had a picnic lunch in my pack, binoculars and my camera — everything we need for a perfect day. The only problem was when we reached the top of the ridge it was too windy to enjoy our lunch so my wife Janet decided to look for a sheltered spot with a nice view. Looking north we saw there was a foot path that we thought would end in about 50 feet at the base of a Bonneville Power line tower. It looked like there was a rocky outcropping that would fill the bill for our lunch spot.

We were kind of surprised when we topped the hill that the trail just kept going up the hill. We figured lunch could wait. We wanted to see where this path would take us. Up we went, past the old bleached bones of long dead white oak trees. The swales to the east of us were filled to the brim with gold star wildflowers. Above us was a savannah-like grassland that seemed to go on forever. Looking to the south we had an eagle-eye view of Mosier and the surrounding orchards. Far to the east we looked down at the Columbia River as it wound its way past Tom McCall plateau.

At times, I thought about giving up on seeing where this trail finally ended, but by then I had enough energy invested in the hike that there was no way I was going to turn back. And if we had given up we would have missed the rivers of brilliantly yellow monkey flowers. In places there were so many popcorn flowers that it looked very much like a light dusting of snow.

In time we could see our goal, the top of the hill we were climbing. At last we were where the trail looped back down toward the ridge overlooking Major Creek drainage. We had reached where grassland gives way to ponderosa pine and an occasional white oak tree. A western rattlesnake decided not to keep us company so he beat a hasty retreat to safety.

To say the view we had was spectacular would be an understatement. We stood 1,400 feet above the river. All of the Mosier Valley was laid out like a 3-D map. Looking north was the snow-capped peak of Mount Adams. To the northeast we could see farm buildings near Centerville and the upper end of Swale Canyon that would lead down to the Klickitat River.

Just below us, about 30 feet away, was the most whimsical chair I have ever seen. It consisted of a rough hewn board bridging the limbs of a long dead oak tree. Here was the perfect place to get the weight off our feet and listen to the song of the western meadow lark. One more time the thought crossed my mind, “I get to live here!” Life just doesn’t get any better.

Janet and I had found the Tracy Hill trail. The turn-around spot is 1.8 miles from the trailhead and about 1,200 feet of elevation gain. If you take this trail in the near future you will be rewarded with newly blossomed lupine and arrow-leaf balsamroot.

To reach Catherine Creek from The Dalles, take The Dalles Bridge to Washington Highway 14 to Lyle. Cross the Klickitat River and take an immediate right onto Old Highway 8. Follow that road for about five miles to the Catherine Creek Trailhead.

And remember one thing: When you reach a fork in the trail, take it.

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