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Rock Art in the Columbia River Gorge

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You’re never alone in the Gorge. Whether it’s the Columbia River surging toward the sea, or basalt cliffs soaring like magical beings, the Gorge is alive. Towering conifers add to its majesty. Its wild beauty is a treat for the eye, and human life has pulsed here for thousands of years. People lived in the Gorge before there was writing. They left their stories in rock etchings called Petroglyphs, and rock paintings called pictographs. Although much of this art, with its mesmerizing images of hawks, turtles, lizards, insects, water monsters, hunters, and shamans, has been lost to vandals and flooding, some still survives.

To see these treasures, start on I-5 from either Portland or Vancouver, and pick up I-84 East. The art is in Washington, but you’ll make better time on I-84. To wake up deliciously, drive an hour and stop at Doppio Coffee and Lounge in downtown Hood River. Enjoy a cinnamon scone or cappuccino muffin with your espresso (caffè doppio is Italian for "double espresso"). For heartier fare, try their yummy muesli and fruit energy-cup or their Black Forest ham and provolone croissant.

Now get back on I-84 East and head for The Dalles. Your next stop is Washington’s Columbia Hills State Park, and Horsethief Lake, created by the Columbia River. Here you’ll find the largest concentration of rock art for public viewing in the Gorge. Because the river in ancient times was a "salmon superhighway," The Dalles and its surroundings were home to thousands of Indians, whose rock art now resides at Columbia Hills to keep it safe from thieves and vandals.

From I-84 East, go over the Dalles bridge on US-197 into Washington. The park’s entrance is about two miles east on WA-14. Follow the driveway down to the lake, and leave your car in the space provided.

Drop in anytime to enjoy the bighorn sheep, water devils, and medicine men in the park’s walk through exhibit with its interpretive displays. But to really appreciate the Petroglyphs, especially the famous, "Tsigaglalal," or "She Who Watches," you must sign up for a ranger led tour. Tours run Friday and Saturday at 10:00 AM, March through October. They take about two hours, and are limited to 25 people.

She Who Watches is so spellbinding she’s now protected by a surveillance system like art in an indoor museum. Legends about her abound. Some say she was a real life chief, whom Coyote the trickster god turned to stone, and set above the river to guard her people. Others say she’s a death figure associated with smallpox that Europeans brought to the area. Look at her face and make up your own mind-but be prepared-her gaze will draw you in.

Next is Maryhill Museum, 15 miles east on WA-14. When you browse their extraordinary Native American collection, you’ll see how imaginative the ancient artists were. In addition to four large Petroglyphs, Maryhill’s stone sculptures of sheep, owls, and fish show the awe the Indians felt for their world. Their stone tools, including hammer stones for carving or "pecking" designs into the cliffs, are ingenious and funny. Don’t leave Maryhill without seeing the stone pile driver in this exhibit. It was used for driving stakes in a fishing weir. This chunk of rock, with its carved face, was lifted by thumb grooves on the front and finger grooves on the back. Its distressed expression says quite plainly "This is hard work!"

After browsing the exhibit, head to the café for turkey, vegetarian, or salmon sandwiches; or a smoked salmon salad with soup of the day; and beverages, such as bottled waters, juices, sodas, coffee drinks, and teas. Better yet, enjoy a picnic lunch on the grounds that are home to flickers, crows, turkey, quail, hawks, foxes, raccoons, coyotes, bobcats-and a photogenic flock of resident peacocks!

You have three more stops, all in Stevenson, Washington. To save time, drive back to the Dalles bridge and return to Oregon. Take I-84 West to Cascade Locks (the Biggs bridge near Maryhill is closed until February 2009). Cross the Bridge of the Gods into Washington and follow WA-14 East about two miles to Stevenson.

In Stevenson, head for the boulder in front of the Court House Annex on Vancouver Avenue. Native Americans called America "Turtle Island," and when you look at this rock you’ll see a resemblance. It’s shaped like a turtle’s head emerging from the ground. Lichens and moss give it a crusty look. Rayed arcs and concentric circles cover its surface, and were possibly significant in shamanistic rituals. Most of this rock is below ground, and the structural integrity of the annex depends on its staying where it is. Get up close, and take all the pictures you want.

Next in Stevenson is the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center on SW Rock Creek Drive. In the center’s Emory Strong library, part of the First People’s exhibit, enjoy pictographs of mythical birds, a water monster with wavy lines running from his chin like a beard, a bighorn sheep, and a hunter with a spear taller than himself. Don’t miss the multi-media presentation of Petroglyph rubbings that project continuously on the Center’s 45-foot high walls. Rubbings are drawings made by placing paper over a Petroglyph and rubbing a crayon across the paper to catch the raised part of the design. Rubbings are discouraged now because they damage the rocks, but your kids will love making rubbings from simulated Petroglyphs the museum provides.

Lastly, visit the Skamania Lodge on SW Skamania Lodge Way. It’s home to rubbings and photos of rocks lost to dams and flooding. At the registration desk, ask for the free booklet telling where in the lodge you can see these ghost-like images. Most of the lively water monsters, salmon, hunters, and shamans on walls throughout the lodge have disappeared into time.

Before returning to Portland or Vancouver, treat yourself to supper in Skamania’s River Rock Lounge, or a hearty dinner in their Cascade Room restaurant. River Rock serves pub-style meals, and a potlatch salmon chowder that is the chef’s signature recipe. The Cascade Room prepares fresh wild salmon, vegetarian meals, and New York strips, for every diner’s taste. Savor what you’ve seen, and take it easy coming home. It’s 40 miles west on WA 14 to Vancouver.

What and where:
Doppio Coffee and Lounge (310 Oak St, Hood River, OR; 541-386-3000. Open daily at 7:00 a.m.)
Columbia Hills State Park (Milepost 85, WA-14, WA. Park office/tour reservation 509-767-1159. Open daily, March 27-October 27, 8:00 AM to dusk.)
Maryhill Museum (35 Maryhill Museum Dr, Goldendale, WA; 509 773 3733. Open daily, March 15 to November 15, 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Admission: Adults $7.00; Seniors $6.00; Children (6-16) $2.00; Children five and under free.)
Skamania County Court Annex Building
(170 Northwest Vancouver Ave., Stevenson, WA; 509-427-3910)
Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center (990 SW Rock Creek Dr, Stevenson, WA; 800 991-2338. Open year round, except Christmas, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s, 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Admission: Adults $7.00; Seniors $6.00; Students $6.00; Children (6-12) $5.00; Children five and under free. Ten percent discount with AAA card.)
Skamania Lodge (1131 SW Skamania Lodge Way, Stevenson, WA; 800-221-7117)

Directions:

To Doppio Coffee and Lounge:From I-5 in Portland or Vancouver, take Exit 22 for I-84 East. Drive to Hood River and take Exit 62 for US-30/Westcliff Drive. Turn right at Cascade Avenue and follow signs for US-30, which becomes Oak Street in downtown Hood River. Doppio is at 310 Oak Street, between 3rd and 4th Streets. Metered parking in front is free until 8:00 AM.

 

To Columbia Hills State Park:In Hood River, follow Oak Street to Second Street and turn right. Drive one block to State Street and turn left. Drive through a 4-way stop, and where the road splits, turn left at the stop sign for I-84 and US-30. Wind down the hill and stay right for I-84 East. Drive about 25 miles to Exit 87 for US 197/US 30. Turn left onto US-197 and drive north across the river on The Dalles bridge. Turn right on WA-14. Drive two miles to Milepost 85 and Columbia Hills State Park.

To Maryhill Museum:From Columbia Hills State Park, turn right onto WA-14 and drive east 15 miles to the Maryhill Museum.

To Skamania County Court Annex:Turn left out of the Maryhill Museum onto WA-14 West. Drive 17 miles and turn left onto US 197. Drive south across the Dalles bridge and pick up I-84 West. Drive 60 miles to Cascade Locks. Take Exit 44 to merge onto the Cascade Locks Highway/US-30, which is also called Wa Na-Pa Street.

Go about a mile and a half and turn left at the sign for Bridge of the Gods. Wind up the hill, pay your $1.00 toll, and cross into Washington. Turn right onto WA-14, and drive east about two miles to Stevenson. Turn left at Columbia Avenue, then left again at Vancouver Avenue. The annex is the second building on your left, after the Stevenson Community Library.

To the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center:Turn right out of the annex building driveway and go one block to Columbia Ave. Turn right on Columbia. Turn right on NE 2nd Street/WA-14. Turn right at SW Rock Creek Drive. Follow SW Rock Creek about a mile. The interpretive center is on your left, beside the Rock Cove assisted living facility.

To Skamania Lodge:Turn left out of the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center onto SW Rock Creek Drive and take the second right onto SW Skamania Lodge Way. Wind up the hill and leave your car in the parking lot on your left. Follow the sidewalk to the building marked Lodge/Check in. The registration desk is on your right as you enter this building. Restaurant and Lounge are off the hallway to your left.

To Vancouver/Portland:Follow SW Skamania Lodge Way back to SW Rock Creek Drive and turn right. You will merge almost immediately onto WA-14 West. Enjoy your toll-free return on the two-lane road to Vancouver. If you’re continuing to Portland, take I-205 South toward Salem. Exit 21B for I 84 East will connect you to I-5 in Portland.

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About the Author

Catherine Crawford
Catherine Crawford is a former technical writer, editor, and course materials developer for high-tech industries. She has taught college English at the four-year degree level, and published two award-winning chapbooks of poetry. She lives and works as an editor in Vancouver, Washington.
  • Lucy Cain

    A wonderfully entertaining account of the ‘petroglyph’ trail. I could follow along in my mind and ‘see’ the drawings of the old people like those in other parts of the world — Lascaux, Australia.

    Clear friendly writing. I’d like to taste some of that food while in those surroundings, too.

    I’ll have to make do with Northern California for now.