CASCADES LOCKS, Ore. — Rain-swollen clouds caress towering walls of vertical volcanic rock that rise up on both sides of Eagle Creek Canyon, not far from the creek's confluence with the mighty Columbia River.
Heavy rain is falling on this recent winter day. Water is coming not just from the sky. It's also plunging over the 150-foot ancient rock walls — in the form of ribbons of runoff that can be seen up and down the precipitous valley.
On a rough trail high above Eagle Creek, my son and I are standing directly beneath one of these waterfalls. Above us sprays of water leap off the lip of the canyon wall and hang for a moment in the air — like miniature swan-divers in suspended animation — before plummeting over us and into the depths below.
Moments of scenery-inspired enchantment are the rule along hiking trails within the 80-mile-long Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. That's even true in the Pacific Northwest's notoriously rainy winters.
As we stopped at the edge of a cliff to take a cautious look at Eagle Creek, raging far below us, Nate Wheeler came bouncing down the trail — his springer spaniel a cheery step or two behind him. With his floppy rain hat, rain pants and a rainproof parka, the 28-year-old Wheeler was well-protected against the deluge.
"This is one of the most beautiful hikes in Oregon, especially when it rains," says Wheeler, who lives in the Portland suburb of Beaverton.
"This is a rain forest, after all."
The gorge attracts hordes of summer hikers, who follow trails that take them away from the Columbia River and into the backcountry of the Cascade Range. There are more than 40 marked hiking trails within the Columbia River Gorge. They lead hikers past (and sometimes beneath) spectacular waterfalls, into old-growth forests, and onto ridges that offer unforgettable views of Mount Adams, Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens.
All of this is within an hour of Portland.
Sunny days illuminate the gorge's black basalt cliffs, flower-covered hillsides and the white-tipped Cascade peaks during the spring and summer. Autumn shows another side of the gorge, as foliage changes and the air turns chillier.
But winter is also a great time to visit the gorge. There are far fewer tourists, and you can enjoy in solitude the awesome scenery — runoff plunging over the black cliffs, the gorge's ancient trees and fresh fields of snow lying on the gorge's wooded hillsides.
The Columbia River Gorge cuts through the Cascades, a string of volcanic peaks stretching from British Columbia into California. South of the gorge, Mount Hood rises out of the forest, an 11,245-foot volcanic monster clad in glacial robes. North of the gorge is Mount St. Helens, the famous volcano that blew its peak off nearly 22 years ago.
Recognizing the gorge's natural beauty, Congress designated it the nation's first National Scenic Area in 1986.
Many visitors view the gorge's wonders by driving along the Historic Columbia River Highway, a two-lane road that snakes past waterfalls, over hillsides and to the tops of 900-foot cliffs. The road was designed in 1913 specifically to spotlight the gorge's scenery.
You can get away from the masses and see the gorge's true wild side by stopping at a trailhead, lacing up your hiking boots and following one of the trails that leads away from the Columbia and into the wilderness.
It takes about an hour to drive from Portland to the Eagle Creek trailhead. We encountered six hikers on the trail, and every one of them beamed a smile of contentment. Although hiking in the rain may not be for everyone, the gorge rewards those who give it a try.
Looking down into Eagle Creek Canyon from the high trail cut into the walls of rock, Tristan and I were mesmerized. We marveled at the Douglas firs — covered with saturated moss — rising from the canyon floor.
We'd hiked six miles in the rain, and figured that was enough. We retraced our steps to the car, taking our time to soak in — literally — the wet wonders of the rain forest.
"This is a magical place," my son said along the way. "It's like a land forgotten by time."