Columbia Hills Historical State Park along the shores of the Columbia River Gorge in Washington State offers something for everyone including rock climbing, fishing, water sports, picnicking, hiking trails, exceptional spring wildflowers and fascinating history that includes some of the oldest pictographs in the Northwest (click here for park brochure). The park campground is situated along the shore of Horsethief Lake, a 90 acre lake that was flooded into existence by the reservoir created by The Dalles Dam. We stayed at the 3,500 acre park for six nights in mid-April and enjoyed its hikes and rock art. It also served as an ideal base camp for our hikes on the dry eastern side of the Columbia River Gorge.
History & Geology
Cataclysmic volcanic activity and flood forces worked to shape the unique landscape we see today at Columbia Hills State Park. Volcanic eruptions poured layers of lava which hardened into basalt. Then during the last Ice Age, a half mile high chunk of ice blocking the Clark Fork River in Idaho gave way sending billions of tons of water, ice, and rock down the Columbia River corridor. The rock formations and sandy soils left behind created ideal sites for Native American villages. The river thrived with salmon and the rolling hills provided roots, plants, and berries. Archaeological investigations show that humans have lived here for more than 10,000 years.
The main village of the Wishram people was located at the site now occupied by Columbia Hills State Historical Park. This stretch of the Columbia River was a thriving salmon fishery and thousands of natives from various tribes came here from throughout the Northwest to fish, socialize and trade. Lewis and Clark camped here on both legs of their journey. On April 19, 1806, Meriwether Lewis wrote “there was great joy with the natives last night in consequence of the arrival of the salmon; one of those fish was caught; this was the harbinger of good news to them. They informed us that these fish would arrive in great quantities in the course of about 5 days.”
Horsethief Butte Trail
Horsethief Butte is a massive basalt outcropping that rises above the shores of Horsethief Lake. The butte offers rocking climbing and a mile long trail with exceptional views of the park’s campground and the Columbia River. This was enjoyable little trail, especially with all the arrowleaf balsamroot flowers blooming at the base of the basalt cliffs.
Crawford Oaks Trail
Just a mile east of Horsethief Lake, Crawford Oaks Trailhead is the start of a nice 5.0 mile loop hike that follows an early stage coach road which connected Fort Dalles with Fort Simcoe to the north. Along the route, we also enjoyed abundant early season wildflowers, an old homestead, a waterfall, and commanding views of the Columbia River Gorge. This hike would be even more beautiful the first half of May when the lupine and paintbrush join the shooting stars, balsamroot, and ballhead waterleaf.
Temani Pesh-wa (Self-Guided Rock Art Tour)
Columbia Hills is home to one of the best collections of Native American rock art in the Northwest. Most of the panels can be viewed along the Temani Pesh-wa self-guided tour located just past the campground. The petroglyphs (images carved into rock) found here were relocated from nearby areas that are now flooded behind dam waters. The interesting panels represent just a small portion of the thousands sadly left behind and lost forever.
Tsagaglalal (She Who Watches)
Not all of the Columbia Hills rock art is accessible to the general public. The park’s crown jewel Tsagaglalal (She Who Watches) is only accessible via ranger led tours. The tours are available at 10:00 on Fridays and Saturdays, April through October. Reservations are required and are available by calling (509) 4339-9032. The tour includes a 1.5 mile roundtrip hike that passes a couple small pictograph (images painted onto rock) and petroglyph panels, but Tsagaglalal is the real star. She is one of the finest and most unique rock art panels we’ve seen. This was a top Columbia River bucket list item for me and I was thrilled to finally take the tour.
We enjoyed our six night stay at the Columbia Hills Campground. There are four standard campsites, eight partial-hookup sites (electric + water), walk-in tent sites, a tee-pee, water, trash, dump station, restrooms, and two showers. We stayed in site #1 which is reserved for the camp host starting May 1, but open on a first-come basis the rest of the year. Situated at the end of the campground, this site offered the best views and seclusion. Our site had electric and water hookups for $30 per night (shoulder season rate). I had good Verizon cell service and LTE. It was just a 10 minute drive to The Dalles, Oregon for shopping and restaurants.
The park received very light use during our stay allowing for a peaceful and enjoyable camp experience. Like all locations within sight of the Columbia River, there is the frequent sound of trains running at all hours of the day. The park ranger told us the tracks average 30-40 trains per day. And that’s just on the Washington side of the river! We have camped in The Gorge numerous times and the sound of trains is inescapable if you want to be near the river. It really didn’t bother us, but if you are a very light sleeper you might want to consider camping some distance from the river.
Note: While at Columbia Hills, beware of abundant poison oak and ticks as well as the rare rattlesnake.
End of Our First Extended Trip
We reached the end of our April trip. This was the first time we’d taken an RV out for more than five days and the first time in our marriage that we’d been on a trip longer than ten days. We found that we had quickly settled into a routine and were enjoying the new lifestyle—a great feeling considering this is the beginning of our transition to full time traveling and RV living. The boys were seeming liked seasoned veterans now. They still aren’t crazy about travel days, but they settle into their carrier and don’t look stressed. As soon as we arrive at camp, they immediately look at home and enjoy seeing what birdies the new area has to offer.