Columbia Gorge 2.2: Where’d All The Trains Go?

Pictures Date: September 2, 2018

After a restful night in The Dalles I was ready to head out on my second day chasing trains. I was determined to get out east of  Maryhill, Washington. It is a loooong way out to Maryhill from Portland – about 120 miles.

I thought it would be useful to include a map showing where I went – you can click on the map screenshot to bring up Google maps to get a closer look at any of the destinations.

An overview of my route with stops. Click to bring up Google Maps with the details.

An overview of my route with stops. Click to bring up Google Maps with the details.

On the map the road next to the tracks is called Maryhill Highway. Well, it might have been a highway back in the pioneer days but now it is a well maintained gravel road – so  I bumped along at 10 MPH. But I saw plenty of campers in RVs and trailers out there. Although it’s gravel it is accessible.

The other thing I discovered is that although the tracks are a short distance from the road, they are WAY up on a berm. I stopped to get a few pictures of an early morning oil train that will give you an idea.

BNSF Oil Train at "The Wall" Celilo, WA

Looking up at a west bound BNSF oil train at “The Wall” from Maryhill (gravel) RD east of Maryhill, WA. GPS coordinates estimated

 

BNSF Oil Train at "The Wall" Celilo, WA

Looking up at a west bound BNSF oil train at “The Wall” from Maryhill (gravel) “Highway” east of Maryhill, WA. GPS coordinates estimated

Close up of the locomotives pulling a BNSF oil train rolling across the "The Wall" east of Maryhill, WA

Close up of the locomotives pulling a BNSF oil train rolling across the “The Wall” east of Maryhill, WA

20180902_Columbia Gorge Trains__RXX3925

BNSF oil train continuing west across the “The Wall” east of Maryhill, WA

The railroad berm is manmade but the geological structure is called “The Wall” as you can see in the first picture. Looking back west you can see how it came by its name – with Mt Hood way out in the background.

"The Wall" Celilo, WA

“The Wall” Celilo, WA

Comparing these photos with those of the day before you’ll notice it is much more desert like on this day. That is because we’ve passed through the Cascade range which effectively blocks the clouds and rains allowing us to enjoy both all during the winter. The Cascade Range – along with the Pacific Ocean I suppose – is the reason the Willamette Valley is so green.

Here is a graphic display – another Google Maps screenshot. You can see where the mountains are by the change from green to brown.The changeover occurs between Hood River and The Dalles.

Map showing the stark vegetation difference west and east of the Cascade Range. Click to zoom in.

Map showing the stark vegetation difference west and east of the Cascade Range. Click to zoom in.

Railroad Island Park is near John Day Dam. Just below the dam are a number of fishing platforms. Before the dam was built there was a large waterfall collection of waterfalls where Native Americans fished with nets and poles for over 15,000 years. In 1957 the dam opened and the waterfalls were no more. Some platforms are still maintained.

Fishing platforms near John Day Dam

Fishing platforms at the old Celilo Falls area – now John Day Dam

Just as I reached Railroad Island Park another train was rolling over the berm that creates the lake separating it from the Columbia River. It was clear that I was on the wrong side of the tracks to get the best light.

BNSF at Railroad Island Park

Westbound BNSF grain train on the causeway at Railroad Island Park, Washington. Near John Day Dam

There is a nice camping spot at the lake – big enough for a couple of trailers – that an extended family was using.

Railroad Island Park, Washington

Railroad Island Park, Washington

There is a pier at the lake and pleasure boats can head out east for a mile or so then cut under the railroad tracks and into the Columbia River. After a boat left the pier I took up my sentry duty – again wishing I had a chair to sit in.

But, no trains – for an hour. Finally I saw a high railer – a pick up truck outfitted with train wheels – heading westward. That usually means maintenance or inspection work and would explain why there were no trains.

I was as far east as I was going so I decided to head back toward home. I wasn’t going to go back over the gravel road; instead I opted for the paved John Day Dam Road which leads back to Washington SR 14. Not far from the park I saw a dirt road turn off leading up to a high spot where an RV was parked. I took the road and had a look around – I got a beautiful vista of the area I had been looking at from ground level. You can see the little lake to the left of the tracks. I had a great conversation with the RV camper – he told stories about hopping freights as a kid.

Columbia River overlook near John Day Dam

Columbia River overlook near John Day Dam

Just look at that berm the railroad tracks are on; the engineering, material,  and work that goes into building the railroad just amazes me. There is even a built up berm for maintenance vehicles to use to get to the tracks.

Here is a panorama of the area showing the dam

Columbia River overlook near John Day Dam

Columbia River overlook near John Day Dam

I’ll definitely be back to this spot on a future trip.

On the way back west I stopped off at the railroad town of Wishram, Washington. This is a moderately sized BNSF area with its own Amtrak station.  Like elsewhere that day, I found a train idling waiting for the line to clear.

Idling freight at the BNSF yard in Wishram, WA. - Columbia Gorge

Idling freight at the BNSF yard in Wishram, WA. – Columbia Gorge

As I continued toward home a train or two rolled by indicating traffic was starting to unfreeze a bit. So I stopped again at my new favorite train spotting spot – Horsethief Lake Park. A family with young kids was hanging out at the small boat launch ramp – we said hello to one another as we watched some barge traffic head up river.

Barge pushing up the Columbia River

Barge heading up river near Columbia Hills Historical State Park, Washington

It continued up to the locks at John Day Dam and I watched it slowly disappear. I was able to catch a picture with my zoom lens.

Barge pushing up the Columbia River

Barge pushing up the Columbia River east of Columbia Hills Historical State Park

Eventually I saw a westbound train snaking its way down the river.

BSNF grain train at Columbia Hills Historical State Park

My new favorite train photo location near the Columbia River at Columbia Hills Historical State Park

 

Not much else was happening on the Washington side of the river, but I heard a couple of Union Pacific trains on the other so I grabbed a long distance photo.

Union Pacific train headed toward Portland, OR on the other side of the Columbia River.

Union Pacific train headed toward Portland, OR on the other side of the Columbia River.

Remember my post about the previous day when I mentioned that these trains can be sneaky quiet? While I was gazing across the river an eastbound train was cruising up on the tracks behind me. When I heard the horn for the crossing I was way out of position. I jogged up but missed a good opportunity to catch it crossing in front of me; but I got a shot of the garbage train rolling away up river.

Garbage train passing through Horsethief Lake state park headed toward Roosevelt, WA

Garbage train passing through Horsethief Lake state park headed toward Roosevelt, WA

Yeah, you read that right – a garbage train. Each day two or three garbage trains carrying refuse  from Seattle, Alaska, and even Hawaii roll up the Gorge to Roosevelt, Washington.

It was mid afternoon and I was ready to  head home so I headed back west down SR 14 to The Dalles Bridge; crossed over to Oregon and headed home down I84. Being Sunday afternoon, my Los Angeles Dodgers were on the radio so I got to listen to the game most of the way home. I haven’t found spots on the Oregon side to train watch  – I think it’s because of the freeway with limited access as opposed to the two lane highway over in Washington. While I couldn’t stop and get pictures I did catch up to and pass that same Union Pacific train on the drive.

I got home around 4:00 with a little more than 300 miles on the odometer. A fun but tiring trip.

 

 

 

 

About howardwthompson

I'm a person who likes to travel, read, cook, and eat
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