Cliffs, Crags, and Conifers: Hiking in the Pacific Northwest

Cliffs, Crags, and Conifers: Hiking in the Pacific Northwest

Brooke Fugate is a senior in the writing program at Grand Valley State University. She hopes to work at an environmental nonprofit in the future, and is also an aspiring freelance writer and editor. View more of her creative and professional work at fugatebrooke.wixsite.com/website

An ideal day for me is pretty simple—wake up. Eat. Hike. Eat. Sleep.

This is how my partner Jake and I spent every day on our vacation in the Pacific Northwest. We were desperate to explore on foot after spending three days in a cramped car.

Although all five days we spent there were packed with adventure, my favorite day was spent celebrating Jake’s 20th birthday. It was destined to be an amazing day.

For me, the best part about staying in Portland, Oregon was the vast variety of vegan restaurants. Although I can’t complain about the amount of vegan options Grand Rapids has to offer, Portland is on a whole new level of incredible plant-based food. I got to eat many of my favorites from before I was vegan that I never thought I’d be able to have again!

We started off the morning by eating breakfast at a place just outside of downtown called Off the Griddle. Almost everything there was vegan, with a few vegetarian exceptions. I ordered the Blue Plate, which came with biscuits and gravy, hashbrowns, meatless sausage, and herb tofu scramble. Jake got the Feast Waffle—a waffle stuffed with meatless sausage, hashbrowns, and cheese, smothered in gravy with eggs on the side. It was truly a birthday-worthy breakfast.

Feeling satisfied with very full stomachs, we drove an hour to Hamilton Mountain Trailhead in Washington State, our most ambitious hike of the trip.

The first few miles of the hike were lush, temperate forest. It was a gradual slope compared to some of the other mountains we climbed in the Pacific Northwest, which were all narrow switchbacks with chicken wire-covered paths, in an effort to keep hikers from slipping off the vertical cliffs.

Jake and I admired the flora surrounding us with incredulous excitement, noting how similar, yet completely different it was from West Michigan. For one, the trees feel much taller in the Northwest—Ponderosa Pines towered over us, half-naked, emanating a sense of pride. I had never taken much notice of ferns, but in the Northwest they demand attention, dominating the forest floor. This was the first time I noticed their beauty, the way each leaf appeared to spiral into itself, then each plant spiraled into itself, until the entire forest floor appeared to be one large unit of spiraling ferns. The longer I’d look at them, the more calculated they seemed to become.

In the gaps between trees I could see powerlines contrasting with the conifers. It made me think about how these same pines could have been cut, treated, and shoved back into the same place as something artificial instead of natural. I noted the way the poles ran parallel with the trees, and the lines ran parallel with the mountain. I could also see the peaks of other mountains in the range, pines flowing down their faces like rivers.

waterfallAs we hiked on we heard a quiet rumbling in the distance, increasing in volume until it revealed itself as a waterfall. It was small compared to something like Multnomah Falls, allowing me to slide between the wooden slats of the protective fence and sit on the boulders surrounding the fall’s base. Slipping my hands into the chilly water, I fantasized about finding this waterfall hundreds of years ago, before it was owned and shielded with fences. Since I was a kid I’ve wanted to stand beneath the drop of a waterfall, feeling the harsh pressure of the plunging water. I used to imagine living behind a waterfall, being lulled to sleep by the constant sound of water crashing into rock.

The higher we climbed in elevation, the more the trees thinned, teasing us with glimpses of landscape views. As the trees dissipated and the terrain grew increasingly rocky, I was delighted to find succulents, a perfect gradient of burgundy at the base to neon yellow at the tail, growing like moss on the face of the mountain. Succulents are my favorite plants, and I had only seen them grown as houseplants; I had no idea they were able to grow from solid rock.

Having hiked uphill for so long, we were more than ready to sit back and soak up the best of what the mountain had to offer. A glaze of sweat covered my body, dampening my hair and t-shirt. Our bodies, exhausted by hours of effort and heat, begged us to take a break.

Thankfully, Jake soon found a fairly large, open crag in the side of the mountain. The path to the outcropping was narrow—Jake stepped up onto it, crouching to keep his center of balance, then offered me a hand. His firm grip helped me feel secure as I was pulled past the wall of trees and into the open air.

The breeze, unable to penetrate the forest walls, immediately cooled the sweat that had gathered on my face, and my eyes had to adjust to the sun’s full glory. We carefully inched our way toward the crag, a spacious rock jutting from the mountain, the color of orange and red rust.

We were in silent agreement that speaking at that moment would ruin the sacredness. I had spent hours researching the best hikes in the area, looking at various photos and reports in hiking forums, but there was no way I could have prepared for the view.

It felt unnatural to see the landscape from such a high elevation, like I was a bird that had migrated west instead of south. We were on the Washington side of the valley, the Columbia River dividing us from Oregon on the other side. Despite knowing that labels for land aren’t actually real, there was something magical about being on the dividing line of two states. It was how I imagine standing at the Four Corners would feel like, but with a lot less tourists. 

The river’s rushing current contrasted with the stillness of the islands it cradled, and the islands were home to tiny, rustic buildings surrounded by trees. A train chugged past at the bottom of the slopes on the Oregon side, white puffs billowing from the smokestack. The sun was blazing dry heat—thanks to sticky, thick Michigan summers I always thought I was a winter person, but here the sun felt like a comforting hug. I could have stayed there the entire day, admiring the balance of action and stillness.

“This is the first time in months I’ve been able to truly relax,” Jake said, articulating the way I had been feeling.

The view left me with a lingering feeling of clarity, like my soul had been scrubbed by a Magic Eraser.

As if the day wasn’t great enough already, our breakfast having long worn off, we headed to a vegan barbeque called Homegrown Smoker for dinner back in Portland. It was hands-down the best food of the entire trip. Jake and I shared a plate of hush puppies before devouring sandwiches with smoked soy curls and chick’n, sticky homemade barbeque sauce, and crisp coleslaw.

There was so much to love about the Pacific Northwest—I could probably write a whole book on the week we spent there. If you’re interested in mountains, hikes, eco-friendliness, coffee, and/or vegan food, this part of the country will be your heaven.

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