A Natural Wonderland for Kids of All Ages

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While hiking used to mean multi-day backpacking trips, chances are these days, a hike with your kiddos in-tow usually means a few hours strolling at a slow pace, while noshing on some trail mix. Sure, having kids slowed down the pace a bit, but that doesn’t mean you still can’t enjoy the many hiking trails in the Portland area. After all, it’s springtime and if you’re anything like us, you’re itching to put away those winter ‘duds and get reacquainted with that round thing is the sky — what is it called? Oh yeah, sunshine!

One place we can’t get enough of is the Tom McCall Preserve, a 271-acre natural wonderland. Located 6.6 miles east of Mosier, the area includes two hiking trails and a view of the famed Rowena curves portion of the Historic Columbia River Highway.

The plateau is in a transition zone between the moist, heavily forested west side of the Cascades, and the dry prairies of the east. This location provides an amazingly diverse array of plant life and geological features. In early spring wildflowers such as balsamroot, lupine, and red paintbrush wash over the landscape with Technicolor brilliance. Plus, there are multiple hiking trails on the preserve fit for beginners (think younger kids with less stamina) and the more advanced (your older kiddos who somehow never run out of energy).

When to go: Things typically begin blooming in March, however, the peak of the color tends to be in early May. The Oregon Wildflowers website is a great place to track what is blooming, and when and where it’s happening.

Get there: From Portland take I-84 East to Exit 69. Go 6.6 miles through Mosier to the Rowena Crest Viewpoint.

Travel time: About 75 minutes from downtown Portland.

What to do: The Preserve features two hiking trails: If you have littler ones in tow, the 2.2-mile, out-and-back hike to the plateau ponds is a great option. If you have bigger kids or want more exercise, the 3.4-mile, 1,100-foot-elevation-gain, out-and-back hike up to McCall Point might be more your speed. A signboard at the trailhead provides all the direction you’ll need.

The lower trail takes you down past scenic ponds and cliff-edge views of the gorge (mind the kids). When you look across the river from here, you get an excellent view of basalt cliffs stacked perfectly like layer cake. These layers were formed by the repeated lava floods that created the plateau between 10 and 17 million years ago.

The upper trail gently ascends through meadows of wildflowers before switchbacks steepen the final mile up to the peak. The reward at the top is a sprawling meadow, complete with open views of the gorge, Mt. Hood, and Mt. Adams.

As if nature’s grandeur wasn’t enough, the parking area at the Rowena Crest Viewpoint shows off some of mankind’s finer handy work. The viewing area provides several views of the Rowena Curves portion of the historic highway.

Need to know: Due to the sensitivity of the habitat, dogs and bikes are not allowed. Picking flowers is also a no-no, as is going off-trail. If preserving nature’s beauty for future visitors isn’t enough incentive, consider that this part of the Gorge does have ticks and poison oak. A good way to avoid the discomfort of either of these little nasties is to stay on trail and dress appropriately.

How to dress: The Gorge is renowned for its microclimates so dress in layers; preferably a wicking baselayer and a fleece overcoat. It’s also a good idea to at least bring along a waterproof windbreaker or jacket. Pants are recommended. Remember the ticks and poison oak! You should also bring a sun hat and sunscreen, especially for the little ones.

Online: Tom McCall Preserve at Rowena

— Adam Sawyer

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