On the high Rowena Plateau overlooking the Columbia River Gorge lies a tranquil string of meadows, ponds, and rolling forests. The ideal spot for a walk in a pristine wilderness, a peaceful picnic, or incredible scenic views of the Columbia River some 700’ below, this easily accessible and beautiful alpine meadowland is protected as part of the Tom McCall Preserve. It is renowned for its brilliant springtime wildflower blooms, but it is also home to a perplexing geological mystery: a strange series of hundreds of large earthen mounds of unknown origins.
Forged in Water and Ice
The Rowena Plateau is a unique and important piece of geography in the Columbia River Gorge. It juts out nearly a mile into the path of the Columbia River, its high walls forming a natural dam and narrowing of the gorge. Some 12,000 to 18,000 years ago, during the floods at the end of the last ice age (there were 40 to 120 of them), this promontory acted as a natural bottleneck, forcing the flood waters to build up to 1,000’ in height and divert northward. This resulted in a scouring out the Gorge, and the swirling whirlpools left in its wake scooped out chunks of basalt from the bedrock like an ice cream scooper, leaving behind the distinctively circular Kolk ponds now common on the plateau and surrounding environs. Not all of the promontory survived, as the stacks of Slump Blocks seen on the river banks below can attest.
Wildflowers in Bloom at the Tom McCall Nature Preserve
Today the Rowena Plateau and the Tom McCall Nature Preserve is a peaceful place, far removed from the violent cataclysms of the last Ice Age. This high meadow is a transition zone from the wet forests on the western slopes of the Cascades and the more arid plains to the east, making it a unique place in Oregon’s natural ecosystem. It is choked with brilliant wildflowers that dazzle visitors every spring, but they are not the only incredible attraction here. Scattered across the meadow are a sea of large earthen Mima Mounds, varying from 3-10’ in height, covered over in prairie grass and the raging sea of flowers. Resembling a series of moguls on a giant’s ski hill, these natural formations have no known origin; geologists have many theories, from lava flows to ash deposits to the turbulent sorting of sediments as the floods crested the plateau. The mystery simply adds to the allure of this beautiful place.
To get to the Tom McCall Preserve, take the Old Columbia River Scenic Highway 11 miles east of Hood River. The 231 acres of protected wilderness await, and interpretive docents lead guided nature hikes in the spring and summer.
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