Hood River Pipeline Trail: A little gem of a catwalk hike hidden away near the Columbia River Gorge

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Tucked between the wind-blown Columbia River Gorge and the slopes of the Cascade peaks, there is a lesser-known outdoor experience offering hikers a unique way to view a glacier-fed river making a comeback after decades of being dammed up.

The Hood River Pipeline Trail starts near a railroad trestle and old powerhouse off Oregon Highway 35 two miles from downtown Hood River, Ore. The 1.5-mile hike one way follows the pipeline as it snakes between the tracks and the riverbank before crossing over the river. 

At the crossing, hikers can take a metal catwalk built for the power company crews that once made repairs along the pipeline. If the gate is open, you can trek up and over the river atop the catwalk and continue along the river’s edge. Hikers are immediately rewarded with spectacular views of wild river rapids and stands of alders providing cover for kingfishers, woodpeckers and the ever-squawking Steller’s jays.

My 9-year-old son Michael discovered a great reason to hike the pipeline trail in late August: easy access to handfuls of wild blackberries ripening along the way.

The pipeline once funneled water from the Powerdale dam to a downstream powerhouse that generated electricity for the town of Hood River. But the dam also blocked salmon runs, and the leaky pipeline was expensive to maintain. The dam – built in the 1920s — was removed in 2010, but a section of the pipeline remains. Some parts are in the original wood slats held together by giant rusty metal bands.

The catwalk is sturdy in most places. But it is neglected in a few spots. Fallen trees have mangled handrails, and some sections of the walkway are broken.

Still, it’s a gem of a little hike we discovered thanks to our tour guide John Hubner. John and his wife, Jole Wolk, live in the thick forest on the Washington side of the Columbia with their two pampered dogs, Lacy, a terrier mix, and a shepherd-retriever mix named Lilly.

John is an old friend of Trey Palmer, our travel companion on this Columbia Gorge trip. Like Trey, John retired from a long career at sea. He started as a cabin boy as a teen on a foreign freighter. He worked his way up to chief engineer on giant container ships.

John has some history with the 10-foot pipe. When he was young, he worked on a repair crew. He was underneath a section of pipeline when some lug dropped a giant wrench that struck him in the face. Luckily he didn’t lose any teeth. But John was left nursing a face swollen like a pumpkin, and he figured he had had enough of this job. But then the adventurous John Hubner got a new job he couldn’t refuse: using explosives to blast away the giant boulders deposited in the river by floods.

These days the pipeline offers John a more tranquil refuge through wilderness now managed by local government and conservation groups. John enjoys showing friends the catwalk and a river again running free.

The Hood River Pipeline Trail near Hood River, Ore., and the Columbia River Gorge.

The Hood River Pipeline Trail near Hood River, Ore., and the Columbia River Gorge. (Click for a larger map).

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