National Park Road Trip 2010: Decision at The Dalles

Today you can find evidence of the Oregon Trail in both the form of swales, top photo, near Echo, Oregon, and ruts near where the trail approaches the south bank of the Columbia River. Photos by David and Kay Scott.

Editor's note: David and Kay Scott this summer are living what many of us wish we could do: They're following a meandering path across the country to visit units of the National Park System. This installment of their trek comes from Oregon and the Columbia River.

Greetings from The Dalles, Oregon, located on the Columbia River at a point where pioneers following the Oregon Trail were required to make a major decision. Some chose to rent, make, or buy rafts on which they placed their wagons and possessions to float west on the Columbia River.

The Columbia was at the time an undammed and fast-flowing river with rocks and other obstacles that played havoc with the rafts. The alternative to dangerous river travel was to head the wagon south on the Barlow Road around Mount Hood. Choosing the second option required that a toll be paid to Sam Barlow who pioneered the route. According to one guidebook, Barlow was the most hated man in Oregon Territory.

Our last note was from Whitman Mission National Historic Site near Walla Walla, Washington. From the historic site we drove west and then south in search of a camping spot for the night.

Late Saturday afternoon is not the best time to be looking for a campsite. We secured the last site at a private campground at Hat Rock in northeastern Oregon. The campground was directly across the road from a state park (without camping facilities) where Lewis and Clark camped during their outward bound journey to the Pacific.

The following morning we drove southwest to see more Oregon Trail swales. Located 5 ½-miles west of the small town of Echo on U.S. Bureau of Land Management property, the depression carved by the wagons and pioneers is quite impressive. There were no other visitors at the site, in part because access is via a very rough gravel road that leads to a half-mile paved walking trail. It was worth it! View our video of Oregon Trail ruts on BLM land at this site.

The Oregon Trail then headed west away from drivable roads, so we headed north to I-84 that borders the south bank of the Columbia River. Driving I-84 in northwestern Oregon offers stunning views of one of our country’s most magnificent rivers. Although now dammed in many locations, the river continues impress with its powerful presence.

At mid-afternoon we stopped at a U.S. Corps of Engineers campground located where the John Day River empties into the Columbia. The park is filled with trees and grass, offers a large day-use area, and has a small beach. As we discovered later in the afternoon, the campground is subject to very high winds that frequent the Columbia River Valley. Having camped numerous times on the Columbia, we were familiar with the high winds that blow easterly through the canyons. However, we thought we would be protected by camping off the main river. Boy, were we mistaken. At times we feared the strong gusts would whip the tent stakes out of the ground. Fortunately, everything held together during the night.

The next morning we saw smoke drifting down the river valley and came upon a large grass fire being whipped up by the high winds. Fortunately, the fire was between I-84 and the river, so it had only a narrow field of fuel. Had it been in the hills above the river there would have been severe consequences since the high winds made it nearly impossible to extinguish. You can view our video of the fire at this site.

On a positive note, we came upon some great tracks of the Oregon Trail that descended from the hills to the south bank of the Columbia. A small marker is the only indication of the trail that is immediately beside Highway 30. We walked up the hill along the trail and could only imagine how the pioneers must have feared the steep descent. We can also only guess at how they must have marveled at their first sight of the magnificent Columbia River. Our video of this portion of the Oregon Trail can be seen here.

From the river we headed south from The Dalles along U.S. 197 that follows the Barlow Road. Then west along the south side of beautiful Mount Hood. Somewhere along the road we hope to locate a campground to spend the night.

David and Kay Scott are regular contributors to the Traveler. Their book, The Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges was first published by the Globe Pequot Press in 1997 and is now in its sixth edition.