Travel

Explore These Stunning Wildflower Hikes in the Columbia River Gorge

It only comes once a year, so get out there while you can!

kan_khampanya/Shutterstock
kan_khampanya/Shutterstock
kan_khampanya/Shutterstock

It’s that time of year – after weeks of dreary winter, wildflowers are now popping up across the Pacific Northwest. And for PNW residents, there’s no better place to spot the floral fantasia than the Columbia River Gorge. Just 30 miles east of Portland and three hours drive from Seattle, the Columbia River Gorge (or, as the locals call it, the Gorge), boasts hiking trails strewn with yellow balsamroot and purple lupine. Though wildflower season officially begins in March, peak bloom doesn’t usually hit until the beginning of May. Be sure to hit up these hiking trails in Washington and Oregon for the ultimate floral peep show.

Flickr/Jeff Hollett
Flickr/Jeff Hollett
Flickr/Jeff Hollett

Dog Mountain
Cook, WA

Length: 6 miles
Difficulty: Hard

It’s only right to start with the quintessential wildflower trail in the Columbia River Gorge. The Dog Mountain trek is pretty much a right of passage for wildflower enthusiasts, and for good reason. The ascent is strenuous (even for experienced hikers), but don’t let that deter you. The climb to the summit, which rises almost 3,000 feet, meanders by steep switchbacks before emerging from a wooded section to panoramic views of the Columbia River. About a mile in, you’ll come to a lower meadow, nicknamed Puppy Dog, that overlooks the river. This is a great spot for a break or can also be a turnaround point for a shorter hike. The rest of the way up is very open, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by meadows of vibrant yellow balsamroot. At the summit, you’ll be treated to a Wizard of Oz-esque meadow of flowers and a bird’s-eye view of Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge. Be prepared to share the space with other hikers also celebrating after the difficult ascent – on weekends it can sometimes feel like one big party, where people play music from bluetooth speakers and chill with friends for a much-needed victory rest. From here, you can either retrace your steps back down or you can make it a loop hike by taking the Augspurger Mountain Trail, which adds an additional 0.9 miles to your hike. Pups are allowed on Dog Mountain but must be leashed.
Fee: A Northwest Forest Pass is required to park at the Dog Mountain Trailhead. Hikers are also required to carry a permit on Saturdays and Sundays from April 29 – June 19.

Photo by Michelle Harris for Thrillist
Photo by Michelle Harris for Thrillist
Photo by Michelle Harris for Thrillist

Coyote Wall
White Salmon, WA

Length: 7.7 miles
Difficulty: Moderate

Though not as heart-pounding as Dog Mountain, Coyote Wall still merits a post-hike beer or two. Known for the gigantic basalt cliff that towers more than 1,000 feet above the Columbia River, the recreation area is a prime spot for wildflower viewing. We recommend the Labyrinth Loop, an otherworldly trail dotted with gnarled white oak trees, a creek, waterfall, and epic views of the Columbia River Gorge. The hike up the grassy plateau, which has quite the dramatic drop into a rocky abyss, can be tricky since the trail is also open to mountain bikers. Once you reach the top you can bask in meadows of balsamroot, camas, and yellow bells. For a longer hike, connect to Catherine Creek via the Bitterroot Trail for an 11-mile trek, which includes a natural arch and even more wildflowers awaiting a photo op.
Fee: None

Photo by Michelle Harris for Thrillist
Photo by Michelle Harris for Thrillist
Photo by Michelle Harris for Thrillist

Mosier Plateau
Mosier, OR

Length: 3.5 miles
Difficulty: Moderate

About an hour’s drive from Portland, visitors flock to Mosier -a tiny, picturesque town set along the Columbia River-to bike, drink wine, and explore the hiking trails. Named after Jonah Mosier, who in 1854 built a number of sawmills at what is now Mosier Creek, the town is also a destination for wildflower buffs. The out-and-back trek to Mosier Plateau begins at the bench marked Mosier Pioneer Cemetery and takes you past a gravesite where members of the Mosier family are buried. You’ll continue along a pretty ravine looking down on Mosier Creek until you reach a viewpoint for the Instagram-worthy Mosier Creek Falls, a two-tiered waterfall with a swimming hole. Keep your camera handy because from here you’ll switchback up hillsides blanketed with yellow balsamroot and purple lupine. Rising 600 feet, Mosier Plateau is home to over 30 species of wildflowers, including yellow bells, cluster lilies, and desert parsley. The panoramic view is worth the hike (notice Coyote Wall sits just across the Columbia River), but the colorful wildflower display is the icing on the cake. Take a breather and enjoy the scenery before heading back down.
Fee: None

Flickr/Jeff Hollett
Flickr/Jeff Hollett
Flickr/Jeff Hollett

Rowena Plateau
Mosier, OR

Length: 2 miles
Difficulty: Easy

Located off the Historic Columbia River Highway, the Rowena Plateau trailhead is just a few miles up the road from downtown Mosier. The loop trail is part of the 231-acre Tom McCall Preserve, named after Oregon’s former governor, Thomas Lawson McCall, who was known for his role in environmental law making. The preserve has more than 300 plant species, including various wildflowers. Begin at Rowena Crest Overlook, where you can take photos of the surrounding hillsides and the hairpin curve in the road below. A kiosk details the fragile habitat of the area, and for this reason you’ll unfortunately have to leave your furry friends.. With an elevation gain of just 240 feet, this is an easy stroll with expansive views all around and of course colorful blooms come spring. Though the always cheery balsamroot and lupine steal the show, you’ll also spot wild onion, grass widows, and prairie stars, to name a few. You’ll also pass Rowena Pond before summiting the plateau, where you get an eagle view of the Columbia River Gorge. If you come in later spring you can combine this hike with the trail to Tom McCall Point, where you’ll find yet even more wildflowers and an epic view of the Gorge, Mount Hood, and Mount Adams once you reach the top. The Tom McCall Point trail is open from May 1 to October 31.
Fee: None

Photo by Michelle Harris for Thrillist
Photo by Michelle Harris for Thrillist
Photo by Michelle Harris for Thrillist

Dalles Mountain Ranch
Lyle, WA

Length: 6.9 miles
Difficulty: Moderate

Part of Columbia Hills State Park, the 3,200-acre Dalles Mountain Ranch is a historic homestead on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge. Beginning at Crawford Oaks Trailhead, you’ll ascend some switchbacks and eventually the trail opens up with soaring views of Horsethief Butte and the Columbia River, with Mount Hood looming in the distance. For most of the hike, you’ll wander along idyllic rolling hillsides that, come spring, burst with yellow balsamroot and purple lupine, though patches of Indian paintbrush sometimes make an appearance too. Along the way you’ll pass a barn that dates back to 1878, a wooden wagon, several old ranch buildings, and the gravesites of the Crawford and Brune families who used to live on the homestead. The site also has an outdoor museum with rusted farm equipment from back in the day. Be prepared to share the trail with mountain bikers and horseback riders.
Fee: A Northwest Forest Pass is required to park at the Crawford Oaks Trailhead.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTikTokTwitterFacebookPinterest, and YouTube.

Michelle Harris is an Editorial Assistant at Thrillist. Over the years her writing has also appeared in Atlas ObscuraMental Floss, and Audubon Magazine. When she’s not busy typing, she enjoys hiking, road trips, and cooking vegan food.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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