- Location: Columbia River Gorge
- Start: Coyote Wall Trailhead
- Distance: 8.25 miles (according to Mack’s Garmin)
- Type: Loop
- Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
- Map: Green Trails Map 432S: Columbia River Gorge-East
- References: 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Portland by Paul Gerald; Washington Trails Association
Since Havasupai, all of our weekends have been spent in the Tillamook State Forest training for our upcoming 50K. This past weekend, we wanted a change of pace. Our original plan had been to take Cassie on her first Cascade volcano climb on Mt St Helens, but that fell through the night before due to increasingly terrible weather conditions. We threw around the idea of running the 22-mile Wilson River Trail before falling asleep Saturday night, but then we didn’t wake up until after 8 am the next morning. Too late to start Wilson River, especially since we’d have to do a car shuttle. We sat in bed for awhile trying to think of a shorter, less strenuous route that would only involve taking one car. My anxiety worsened as the minutes passed and we didn’t have a plan in place. I experience a sort of writer’s block when it comes to thinking up last minute trips where the details aren’t hammered out the night before. Mack, ever the optimist, reassured me that we’d figure something out soon enough.
I remembered reading in some recent trip reports that the Coyote Wall/Catherine Creek area in the gorge was now snow-free and had wildflowers popping up, so I got out the map and quickly traced out a route that would take us through the Labyrinth, Catherine Creek, and Coyote Wall. Finally a semblance of a plan! We packed up our running gear, slathered some tick prevention oil on Cassie (the area is notorious for them), and hit the road just before 10 am, arriving at the trailhead shortly after 11:15. As expected, the parking area was packed, but we managed to snag a spot near the highway. The trails here are a popular mountain biking destination. As we started down the paved road leading to the trails, we noticed tons of bikers, but only a handful of hikers. No runners.
After passing the Coyote Wall Trail (our return route), we took the next left, heading uphill on the Labyrinth Trail. Mack and I have not spent much time in this part of the gorge, so the landscape was so foreign to us. We’re used to hiking through dense forests on the western side, so running up rocky mountain bike trails and scrambling over basalt protrusions with completely uninhibited views of the Columbia River behind us was a new experience! A short ways up, Labyrinth Creek came into view and Cassie dragged me down to take a dip. The creek tumbles down multi-tiered Labyrinth Falls further upstream (which I neglected to photograph because Cassie kept trying to pull me into the water again). After a brief side trip to see the falls, we continued up the winding trail, passing through grassy meadows as we climbed. I was grateful for the overcast skies. Complete exposure to the sun would’ve made the elevation gain feel a lot worse.
If I’m being completely honest, I was finding it difficult to enjoy our run. We were experiencing perfect weather, running through gorgeous scenery, and getting outside as a family. What’s not to enjoy? As it often does, my mind drifted into more negative thinking: Why am I so weak and sluggish on these hills? If I can barely make it up these, how am I going to survive the numerous hills on the Tillamook Burn course next weekend? At the rate we’re going, are we going to be able to complete this 13-15 mile route? I can’t believe we started so late! Ugh, there are so many user paths in this section! Are we even on the correct one? God, I hope we’re not lost… (The list goes on)
This area is stunning though. It definitely softened the blow of some of my pessimistic thoughts. Some of our favorite aspects of the Labyrinth were the groves of oak trees we passed through. Their mostly bare, scrawny limbs and often crooked, angular trunks added a striking contrast to the blossoming meadow landscape. Eerie, but equally beautiful. The diversity was a pleasant, unexpected surprise!
We continued on what appeared to be the main trail, running up and across more expansive fields dotted with trees every so often. We climbed up hills, plateaued in spots, stepped off the trail when bikers came roaring down the steeper inclines, and always had a view of the river stretched out before us. The crisscrossing user paths continued to confuse us though. Most of them lacked signs, which led me to believe that a lot of them were probably social, unofficial trails. With numerous signs asking visitors to stay on the ‘trail’ to avoid harming fragile vegetation, Mack and I avoided these paths. However, after one final climb, we came to a signed junction indicating we had reached Atwood Road Trail. Damn.
Our goal had been to run to the Catherine Creek TH so we could get in some longer miles, explore the Catherine Creek area, and THEN meet up with Atwood Road Trail to continue to Coyote Wall. Somehow we’d missed a junction (with the Rowland Basin Trail I think?) and gone up the Upper Labyrinth Trail. Needless to say, I was annoyed. I knew Atwood Road Trail could still take us to Catherine Creek and we could just run the section in reverse, but it was clear to me that neither of us knew the area all that well. Since we’d started late, we decided it would be better to just continue to Coyote Wall from the junction and explore Catherine Creek another day. Sadly, this cut our mileage nearly in half. Better safe than sorry though.
*In retrospect, the reason (I think) we missed the junction is because we didn’t know that the Rowland Basin Trail was the name of the trail that would eventually take us to the Catherine Creek TH. Both of us thought the Labyrinth Trail continued to Catherine Creek. There’s a good chance we probably reached a signed junction but disregarded it because Rowland Basin Trail wasn’t even on our radar. Sigh.
I was pretty reluctant about having to do a shorter run, so I wasn’t in the best mood as we completed our short stretch on Atwood Road Trail. When we arrived at the junction with Old Ranch Road Trail (sometimes referred to as “Old Jeep Road” in various hike descriptions), we turned left onto this track and descended a grassy hillside. After all the climbing we’d started with, running downhill felt so good. Balsam root was more common in this section, too. The bright, yellow blooms were an instant remedy for my current sulky disposition.
We ran all the way down to the junction with the Coyote Wall Trail and turned right to head back uphill. There are a few different paths that head up and crisscross in this area. We stayed on the one(s) closest to the edge of the basalt cliffs to take in the view of their mighty presence as we ran.
Our turnaround was going to be the upper viewpoint (which, after re-reading the hike description, is marked by a large ponderosa pine). I’m not entirely sure we made it there, but we did get pretty far up. We turned around after seeing a boundary sign. Perfect timing actually. The clouds rolled in and it started to rain. At that point, I didn’t feel bad that we’d decided to ixnay the Catherine Creek portion of our route. We began the descent back to the main road.
The rain let up for a little while as we descended the Coyote Wall Trail, so we decided to make a few stops to take in the view and photograph the balsam root and desert parsley, which were incredibly abundant along the trail. Of course the rain didn’t cease for very long. After reaching the junction with the Old Ranch Road Trail, we continued our descent through a maze of trails (though I’m pretty sure we were basically on the Little Moab Trail) that eventually spit us out onto the paved road leading to the parking lot. The rain was falling harder and harder, so I guess we finished at just the right time. Not everything went according to plan (I mean, even this plan wasn’t according to the original plan), but we rolled with the punches and ended up having a fantastic day in a new area of the gorge.