Rattlesnakes. Poison oak. Ticks. We were well-warned, and I’m prepared with thick boots, long pants, walking sticks and tweezers. Sure enough, ten minutes after starting up the rock-strewn trail, I spot a rattlesnake sunning on a rock. It’s a pretty little thing, with black and orange-yellow stripes, and doesn’t bother rattling, just slithers away between rocks. Great start! I’m thrilled, but just as glad it’s the only snake I see on this beautiful 5-mile hike in the Columbia River Gorge in southwestern Washington. No ticks, either, but vast quantities of poison oak. I’m steering clear of the shiny green, red-edged leaves, and all clothes will go into the washer at the end of the day.
Cherry Orchard Trail starts just east of the tunnels on Highway 14, east of the small town of Lyle. On a warm spring day, it is lovely, with stunning views of the wide river, the columnar basalt cliffs, and hillsides glowing with yellow balsamroot and purple and blue lupine. After a few minutes’ walk, we reach the trailhead sign and a metal box of releases. This is private land, but hikers are allowed if they sign releases stating that they assume all risks and agree to not have fires. We wind through forests of scrub oak and across open green hillsides where wildflowers bloom; I-expect to see Julie Andrews come toward us singing “The Sound of Music.”
This hiking trail was redone not long ago. It’s not as steep as the old route, but has plenty of up-and-down, with an elevation gain of 1160 feet. The trail switchbacks up and eastward through woods and fields, passing a seasonal pond where butterflies gather. Few are here now, but we have company: shiny black beetles, red-winged flies, a still-as-stone green lizard, flies with black and white stripes, crows, hawks, and blue moths. And the rattler.
When you’re looking for solitude, this is a good place to find it. On the entire 5-mile, 3.5-hour hike, we encounter a single walker and a small group of friends on an outing. We hear nothing but the breeze rustling oak leaves and, on the lower slopes, the hoot of a train and the faint roar of freeway traffic from the Oregon side of the river.
When we reach an old dirt road, we turn right and go a few yards more to a former homestead site and the orchard that gave the trail its name. It’s the end of the trail and our grassy picnic spot. The view is stunning. We’re high above the Columbia, looking down on a bend in the river, with hills and flatlands stretching to central and eastern Washington. Oregon’s cliffs, forests, and snow-peaked mountains lie to the south.
The orchard itself is at the end of its life; I see only one tree with cherry blossoms. I’m already thinking of coming back in summer to see if any cherries appear, but that’s only an excuse. This is such a great hike, I’ll be happy to return with or without cherry trees.