I’ve seen a lot of wildflowers in my hiking days, and I delight in them as much as anyone. But I’d never hit the trail specifically to find a flower until a couple weeks ago, when I went looking for trilliums in the Columbia River Gorge east of Portland.
Why all the excitement about a flower? The trillium is not your average forest flora. In many places, it’s the first wildflower to appear along trails after the snow clears. It signals a forest’s awakening after its winter slumber. For hikers, it’s a sign of better weather — and less mud — to come.
Whatever the reason, folks are crazy about these little white, tri-petal blooms that stand on long, upright stalks as if held in invisible bud vases. Everyone I approached to ask about them knew what they were. Without exception, everyone also took great pains to remind me not to pick them or dig them up. Although trilliums look ready-made for flower arrangements, disturbed plants can take years to bloom again. (This is good to know if you buy some to plant in your yard; you might not see them emerge for years.)
You’ll see the flowers in early spring in any forested area; late March and early April are prime time. Trilliums thrive on well-watered, undisturbed hillsides. You might even have them in your backyard. But there’s nothing like seeing broad swaths of them, especially during hikes that offer their own intrinsic rewards.
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The greater Portland area is one of the best places to see these flowers in the wild. And the Columbia Gorge’s steep, waterfall-splashed and sun-dappled slopes are perfect habitat for both the flowers and the hikers who love them.
Up ‘Waterfall Alley’
I’ve been through the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area many times, but always en route to somewhere else. My recent weekend of exploring took me to a surprising number of hikes leading up what appear to be impenetrable volcanic cliff faces on the gorge’s waterfall-decorated south (Oregon) side.
I started off by visiting the Friends of Vista House. They’re volunteers who staff the historic stone building atop jutting Crown Point cliff, 24 miles east of Portland on the Historic Columbia River Highway. Along with coffee and welcoming smiles, they have lots of free maps, including general hiking maps, and can offer trail suggestions. Just about every waterfall-viewing parking area along “Waterfall Alley” has a trailhead.
I first tackled the Angels Rest trail. From the trailhead where the historic highway meets East Bridal Veil Road, it’s a switchback-fest, 2.5 miles each way, with a rocky clifftop perch that offers views for miles. It’s a popular hike for locals and their dogs, with many chatty groups making their way up and down. (Think Rattlesnake Ledge but a tiny bit longer and with a mighty river immediately below.)
And there they were, some in full bloom and some just pushing their way out of the forest-floor humus: trilliums, giving everyone cheerful bursts of green and white amid a mostly leafless forest understory still strewn with winter debris.
While recent rains and melting snow can make trails muddy, that won’t stop a hardy and properly dressed Northwestern hiker. And those same waters give us extra plumes of falling water on both sides of the gorge. The good news for flower hunters: You don’t have to go far up the trail to find trilliums.
Loops are limited
Many of the trails on this side of the gorge connect to each other, which means you can tailor your hikes to your desires for both distance and privacy. Keep in mind that options for loops are limited right now: The bridge across Multnomah Falls is closed because of rockfall damage, limiting loop options. Bridge repair will take months, and there’s no specific estimate for when it will reopen.
World-famous Multnomah Falls was just as bustling as Angels Rest. But with the bridge out, I looked elsewhere — and was glad I did. The Horsetail Falls trail, 2.5 miles east of Multnomah Falls, is a half-mile (each way) series of graded switchbacks leading to beautiful Ponytail Falls. The trail leads right behind the falls, which gracefully plunge before you as you stand beneath an overhang of dark volcanic rock in one of those situations that’s both peaceful and a tiny bit scary (what if a basalt chunk broke off?).
From Ponytail Falls, you can see more waterfalls by continuing an additional 2 miles to Oneonta Falls Bridge, between Middle and Lower Oneonta Falls. Even more falls are visible even farther up, but the trail becomes more difficult, so bring a hiking guide and/or map (a good idea for any longer hike).
If you’re not a hiker or don’t have much time but are visiting Portland, you can find trilliums in many places in or close to town. One of the best: Tryon Creek State Natural Area, just a few miles south of downtown Portland. Trilliums are so abundant here that the park even hosts the annual Trillium Festival, now in its 34th year, each spring (see “If You Go”).
“This is a great spot because we have about 13 miles of trails, and on just about every inch of trail you’ll have a trillium,” said park ranger Dan Quigley.
Christy Karras is a Seattle-based freelance writer.