Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Mosier Tunnels, Columbia Gorge, Oregon

Built on a section of the old Columbia River Highway, this paved path remarkably illustrates the transition from the damp west side of the Cascades to the drier, east side. Both walkers and bicyclists enjoy this trail. In early spring, bring your wildflower field guide.

At its west end, at the edge of the town of Hood River, the trail begins in lush forest, mossy and green. The freeway noise is somewhat disturbing but easily forgotten when you view the old arched stone guard rails of the road. Soon the trail passes behind a basalt bluff and the freeway noise disappears. A small pond at the foot of the rock wall holds the occasional water fowl, including, on one visit, a pair of wood ducks.

At about the 3.5 mile mark, a huge concrete structure shelters the path, built to protect pedestrians and bikers from falling rock from the edge of the cliff. At the eastern edge of this structure are the twin tunnels, which have been restored from the originals built for the old highway. Arched stone entrances and timbered interiors, the two tunnels were engineering marvels at the time of their original construction. As the size of vehicles increased, it became more and more dangerous to venture through the limited interior space. A signal light was eventually added so that one way traffic could flow through safely, but wo unto those waiting at the signal! Ever present was the possibility that rocks falling from the cliff would really ruin your day.

The highway eventually moved to river level and the tunnels were backfilled until their recent restoration. Now they are a marvelous sight for the hiker and biker, right down to the etchings of snowbound travelers into the rock wall. Breeze through the tunnels and there on the other side, the smells of eastern Oregon assail you. A stone lookout to the north of the path provides a spectacular view, and a dry and warm place to have lunch. Turkey vultures float by on the thermals coming up from below. Eastern Oregon birds, like the Says Phoebe and Lazuli Bunting pop by.

From the lookout, begin a steep descent for the last mile to the eastern parking lot near Mosier. After taking brief look at what appears to be a giant rock quarry, return for the steep ascent. Our trip back became a bit endurance, but we finished the 9.2 mile round trip with enough energy to drive to The Dalles for dinner and a milkshake.

To get to the west trailhead, leave I-84 at exit 64. Follow "Goverment Camp" signs .3 mile to a stop sign and turn left onto Old Columbia River Drive. Follow the road as it winds up the hill until it ends in a parking lot with a visitor's center.

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