Take a Hike: Wind Mountain

When I took you on a hike through Latourell Falls, we discussed the Columbia River Basalts which formed much of the landscape in the Columbia River Gorge. Those basalts erupted from vents in eastern Oregon some 16 million years ago, but not all of the rock in the Gorge came from so far away. Much of the topography came from the local uplift of the Cascade volcanoes.

There was an ancestral Cascade range forming contemporaneously with the eruption of the Columbia River Basalts, but the High Cascades that we see today are much more recent, formed in the last 2 million years.

Wind Mountain, the beautiful dome on the right side of the image above, has a birthday which falls somewhere between the last of the flood basalt eruptions and the formation of the High Cascades. It’s called one of the twin sentinels of the gorge (its twin being Shellrock Mountain which is also featured in the image above). They are micro-diorite shallow intrusive bodies, which is fancy talk for them being the frozen remnants of magma chambers that once resided near the surface. They’ve since been thrust upward and the river has cut away all but the hearts of these intrusions.

These mountains are somewhere between 5 and 7 million years old. Aside from radiometric dating, we know that Wind Mountain is younger than the Columbia River Basalts adjacent to it because the basalts have been metamorphosed by heat from the intruding magma chamber. If Wind Mountain had been here before the flood basalts, then this contact metamorphism would not have occurred, as the magma would already have cooled and solidified.

To get to the trailhead, take Hwy 14 east from Cascade Locks (Bridge of the Gods) and watch for signs for Wind River Road. Take Wind River Road to Girl Scout Road and park in the gravel lot at the foot of the mountain. The trailhead is just a short walk down the road on the right-hand side.

The forest at the foot of the mountain is almost exclusively Doug Fir and Hemlock. The climb is fairly steep, forested, and viewless, but don’t worry because you won’t have to suffer the elevation gain for long; The hike to the summit is less than a mile and a half. While you’re walking, watch for Oregon-grape and wild rose that sprout along the forest floor. Oregon-grape can be eaten, though it’s tart and seedy and kind of unpleasant.

Mount Saint Helens from Wind Mountain

View to the northwest from the summit of Wind Mountain. Mount St Helens is in the background.

After you climb through the forest and step across a few rock slides, you’ll arrive at an interpretive sign informing you of some of the history of this mountain. From this point. you’re just a few short yards from the summit and soon you’ll be treated to the view you see on the right.

The mountain summit is largely bald, with steep talus slopes bending into the Columbia River to the south. Facing south, on the Oregon side of the river, you can see the dome of Shellrock Mountain which formed at the same time as the mountain upon which you stand and may, in fact, have been a part of a single, interconnected magma chamber.

The town of Carson is below you to the west, and to the east you can see the summit of Dog Mountain, one of the region’s most popular hikes.

Wind Mountain Spirit Quest Site

Looking southeast from the summit of Wind Mountain. Spirit quest site is in the foreground, Dog Mountain to the left and the Columbia River ahead.

After taking in the view, examine the talus field around you. This site was once a place for Native American spirit quests, where young men would isolate themselves and wait for messages from their guardian spirits through visions or dreams.

There are “walls” built within the talus field here that form little divots in the chunky blocks of stone. These were built by native peoples between 200 and 1,0o0 years ago. Please respect the history and don’t scramble over them or deconstruct them.

I do encourage you, however, to pick up a rock here at the summit. See if you can find a stone with a freshly broken surface. If you have a hand lens with you, all the better. This stone (a micro diorite) consists of many fine crystals just big enough to see with the naked eye. Most of them are quartz, which should be easily recognizable, but there are other, darker crystals in there as well. These are hornblende and hypersthene.

Enjoy a snack up here and take a quick loop around the summit before returning down the trail the way you came.

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5 thoughts on “Take a Hike: Wind Mountain

  1. Pingback: Los Links 9/30 | En Tequila Es Verdad

  2. Michael – Thank you for your write up on Wind Mountain. We’ve hiked it around 3 times and always find it rewarding. I have actually recorded the sound of the wind on the mountain while watching masses of trees sway in the wind.

    I noticed this last time going up in February, that there is an incredible amount of downed big trees. I haven’t noticed this before. I am wondering if you know the cause of this. Is it disease, storm,…? Whole trees are uprooted and laying across the trail – the roots look all black like there was a fire. Are roots normally dark like this or is something wrong?

    Would love your input on this.

    -Patrick and Sylvia

    • My apologies for the slow response to your comment & question.
      I, too, noticed that there were several uprooted trees along the trail that appeared to be freshly fallen. I attributed it to being a hazard of growing on such a steep slope, but I’m sure that’s not the full explanation.
      Wind mountain is about as near the angle of repose as a talus-laden mountain slope can get. In fact, nothing grows on the south side of the mountain in large part because the mountainside is too steep to facilitate soil development even now, about 10,000 years after the last flood event that would have swept it clean. The northern side (the side with the trail) is more gentle and was sheltered from the ravages of the Missoula Floods, so it does host a dense forest, though it’s quite prone to landslides due to its still steep angle.
      That said, we had two back-to-back La Nina years which brought with them increased rain which resulted in soil saturation. and increased probability of slope failure. I’m sure this played some role in the number of downed mature trees.
      I’ll have to pay a bit more attention the next time I head up there. Maybe there’s even more to the story?

  3. Please let us know if you find out more. We plan on taking 2 more couples there to see it and to share the experience.

  4. yes I was up there just after they fell and was unable to reach up to the first talus slope. they were so thick I got lost !
    probably a severe localized wind storm arising from the back of the mtn across the east side and up the front. we hiked up on sat 10.27 and I was surprised they were almost stacked to the side of the trail.
    interesting article on talus a micro diolite stone.

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