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Backyard trails that deserve a second look

The sun is shining, the rivers are flowing and the poison oak is in full bloom.

Hiking season is upon us — for some, it’s been here since March — and if you haven’t yet explored our bountiful backyard here in the Columbia River Gorge, now would be the perfect time.

Our backyard is, after all, a National Scenic Area — such an awe-inspiring stretch of land and water that the federal government declared a need to protect it.

It’s the stuff dreams are made of, and all 200-plus miles of trails are right here for us to enjoy. Some of nature’s most revered landscapes are all within a short drive of town, and we get to bask in it all for free — or at least for a nominal fee.

Like all outdoor recreational settings, the trails in the Columbia Gorge and Mt. Hood national forests require seasonal maintenance, and most require a Northwest Trail Pass.

But the $30 annual fee is quickly paid back to you in the form of magnificent mountain vistas, cascading waterfalls, flourishing plant life and the freshest air you’ve ever inhaled.

While there are countless hiking opportunities in the Columbia Gorge, Mt. Hood and Gifford Pinchot (Washington) national forests, the following reviews focus on the trailheads that are literally outside our back door.

So polish up your boots, grab a Clif Bar (maybe some Tecnu shampoo) and start tearin’ up the trails.

Eagle Creek

Just a 20-minute drive from Hood River, this is the region’s most popular, well-traveled trail. And once you’ve seen it for yourself, it should be no wonder.

The first few miles of the 13-mile trail are relatively easy, but still afford spectacular views of Metlako Falls and Punchbowl Falls — one of the most photographed waterfalls in Oregon.

Soon, the trail weaves around high above a narrow slot canyon. While the scenery is breathtaking, the altitude and the narrow trail require hikers to exercise extreme caution (especially with kids).

After crossing back to the western side of the creek, the trail soon crosses back to the eastern bank, and joins up with trail No. 434, which eventually leads to Benson Plateau. Trail No. 405 then takes you back down to the Eagle Creek trailhead.

For those continuing on, some of the best scenery lies ahead, with Tunnel Falls and Wahtum Lake serving as the highlights.

Multnomah Falls

Not just a tourist trap, this unimaginable natural landmark also provides many hiking opportunities. Once you fight your way past the out-of-towners and leave the paved section of the trail, you’re home free, with boundless exploration options ahead of you.

Plummeting 620 feet from its origins on Larch Mountain, Multnomah Falls is the second highest year-round waterfall in the nation. It is located off Exit 31 on Interstate 84, and is a must-see even for the locals.

Once you get into the higher elevations, the trails branch off in numerous directions — each one with its own identity and level of difficulty.

Larch Mountain

Plenty of hiking options are available off of trail No. 441, which begins near Exit 22 off I-84. The seven-mile Larch Mountain loop turns onto Multnomah Spur Trail, then Oneonta Trail, and finally Multnomah Way trail, which will take you back to your car. The Bell Creek trail (off of Oneonta trail) is a nice side trip, affording views of some of the largest old trees in the Columbia basin.

You can also take a shorter, switchback-laden five-mile loop that takes you over Multnomah Creek and toward a breathtaking vista of Larch Mountain.

Dog Mountain

Before you attempt this thigh-burner, remember that this trek is not for everyone. But if you’re able to tough out the 3,000-foot elevation gain in just over three miles, you will be handsomely rewarded. The views at the top are unrivaled.

The wildflowers in the spring are also a sight to see, and if you make it over there before the height of summer, you may still catch a glimpse. Be prepared for rattlesnakes and plenty of poison oak.

To get there, take Highway 14 toward Stevenson, Wash., and look for the trail on your right at milepost 53.

Pacific Crest Trail

Talk about a grinder. The first time I did this trail, my calves and quads were crying for help.

It’s doubtful that you’ll want to hike this trail’s entire length — you’d end up eight miles past the Canadian border. The first five miles are a safe bet, though, with impressive views of the Gorge.

The trailhead is located two miles west of the Bridge of the Gods, on Highway 14.

And if you’ve grown weary from hiking all the other trails mentioned here, bear in mind that the Pacific Crest Trail allows horse access.

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