Three colorful Gorge hikes

DALLESPORT -- Could there be a million showy yellow balsamroot blossoms scattered on the south slope of the Columbia Hills leading up to Stacker Butte?

It's a rhetorical question, but the answer has got to be: Easily.

Then add the purple-blue display of lupine, accented by crimson paintbrush and other wildflowers, and it combines into a dazzling scenic treat that doesn't last long.

The eastern end of the Columbia River Gorge slowly will bake into a hundred hues of brown-to-beige-to-gold-to-gray by late June.

But in late April, and especially May, it's a must-visit for anyone who enjoys the color of wildflowers on a macro scale.

Here are three sites to visit, each worthy of a trip in May devoted to it alone:

Columbia Hills State Park and Columbia Hills Natural Preserve -- Columbia Hills State Park includes the Horsethief Lake area and Dalles Mountain Ranch in a 3,338-acre park.

While the park campground is along 97-acre Horsethief Lake, it's the slopes of the former Dalles Mountain Ranch and adjacent Columbia Hill Natural Area Preserve to visit to see stunning flower displays.

Take Highway 14 to milepost 84.4, then turn north on Dalles Mountain Road. Follow the gravel road for 3.4 miles to an old wagon with "Dalles Mountain Ranch'' on the side.

Leave the main road and take the left fork driving past a residence to a parking lot 1.48 miles up the hill.

At the parking lot, you leave state parks land and enter the state Department of Natural Resources' Columbia Hills Natural Area Preserve.

The road is gated closed at the parking lot, but you can walk the 1.7 miles and 850 feet elevation gain to the microwave tower near the top of Stacker Butte. The tower is at 2,900 feet elevation.

The balsamroot and lupine bloom was near its peak 10 days ago at the parking lot.

Once at the tower, views of the Centerville area to north and east, or south to the Columbia River, are available.

Fritz Osborne, ranger at Columbia Hills State Park, said the balsamroot and lupine bloom will continue into June.

"They bloom a good length of time and elevation,'' Osborne said. "When they are gone down low, you can catch them higher up the slope.''

The residence along the road to the Columbia Hills parking lot is owned by state parks and rented to a family, he said.

Eventually, the parks agency hopes the house might be available for overnight use by the public, school groups or private parties, or integrated into an environmental learning center, he added.

Catherine Creek -- The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area owns about 4,700 acres in the Burdoin Mountain, Coyote Wall and Catherine Creek areas east of Bingen.

Over the years, hikers and mountain bike riders have developed a 37-mile trail network in the area, which the Forest Service is reducing to 26 miles and formalizing in the coming years.

To reach the Catherine Creek parking lot, follow state Highway 14 to milepost 71 and follow Highway 8 for 1.3 miles to the parking lot on the north side of the road.

The new management plan for the Catherine Creek area includes keeping 12.5 miles of trail.

Coyote Wall -- The Coyote Wall area is just west of the Catherine Creek area. It tends to be more open, with bigger views and better displays of balsamroot and lupine.

The hillside is laced with trails, of which the Forest Service plans to keep at slightly more than 11 miles.

The parking lot for Coyote Wall is at the junction of Highway 14 and Courtney Road.

From the lot, go under or around the green gate on the west side of Locke Lake and follow the old road for 0.6 mile to a sign marking a trailhead.

Head up the path, veering to the left and hugging the edge of Coyote Wall. Continue up the slope 2.16 miles to the trail's end at a road.

There are several alternative routes to choose coming back down.