In the days before the Columbia River was flooded to make electricity, a set of ancient stone carvings existed in a canyon above the river - far enough to seem distant but close enough that they would be flooded after The Dalles Dam was completed. Just before the river was flooded, some of them were moved in order to preserve their viewability. Unfortunately, the petroglyphs were stored in an area not accessible to the public for many years.
Then, for while, they were placed on display in the industrial environment of the Dalles Dam. At least they were not in storage any more, but at the same time this had the unfortunate irony of placing objects holy to the First Nations people on the structure that destroyed their fishing grounds.
In recent years, the petroglyphs were moved to their current location at Horsetheif Lake State Park. During my 2004 visit, there were carvings here but the walkway had been added to and it appeared that more carvings were going to be placed here soon. In 2008, the installation of the additional carvings had been completed, and it appeared yet more were going to be joining their companions. By 2011, it appeared that the installations had been completed.
The resulting walkway by the stone carvings is called the Temani Pesh-wa Trail, and it is located near the Columbia River Boat Ramp. After entering the park keep going towards the river on the narrow paved road until you get to the parking lot just before the railroad crossing. Essentially keep going straight until you are pointed directly at the river, and then park in the gravel parking area on your left. The Temani Pesh-wa Trail will be on your right. The park signs indicate the way for the "Petroglyphs".
One of the most famous features of Horsetheif Lake State Park is the "She Who Watches" (the native name is "Tsagiglalal") carving / painting. This has been a feature of the park for many many years, and it is good to see the additional petroglyphs added, to create a collection of Native American artwork in this area. However, while she is a mixture of both painting and a bit of carving, and due to her location, "Tsagiglalal" may only be seen on the pictograph tour which is covered under a separate tip as it is a separate group of features.
These petroglyphs that are on display are somewhat lesser known, yet occasinally show up on other Pacific Northwest memorabilia such as T-shirts or decorations - usually by people who say the design somewhere else and have no idea where it originally came from. As much as possible the stones have been arranged in their original groupings, though in some cases no records or photographs remain of the originals before they were removed with explosives from their original location below the new water level.
The entire area with the native works of art has 24 hour video security cameras due to vandalism problems in the past - a rather marked contrast to the attitude taken in the past where these Native American works were blown up by the government in order to put a few of them in storage (and only much later on display in an industrial setting).
Thousands of other petroglyphs, unfortunately, remain lost beneath the waters of the Columbia River.
You will probably want to bring telephoto equipment in order to get some up close views of the images.
You are requested to not distrub the items of worship or reverence that may have been left at the site during Native American ceremonies.
If you wish to get a bit closer to the pictographs and petroglyphs without setting off any of the alarms that are in place to protect them, there are some very good reproductions of them that have been installed in a pedestrian tunnel in downtown Washougal (close to Portland). Please see my Washougal Tunnel tip.
The Petroglyph Trail has been expanded a few times over the years since this tip was first written. As of September of 2013 new extensions have nearly doubled the length of the trail since this tip was first written. For a look at the most recent additions, see my September of 2013 Travelogue.
What the Photos Show:
Photos 1 and 2 show a few examples of the petroglyphs that are on display here.
Photo 3 shows a typical interpretive sign in front of a group of the petroglyphs. Each is shown with the shape of the rock and a detailed photograph, as some of them do not show up in certain light, while others only show up when the rock is wet, or other limitations to the actual viewing angle.
Photo 4: As you approach the boat ramp area, on the left is the gravel parking lot, and on the right is the paved walkway from which it is possible to view the stone carvings.
Photo 5: This shows some of the harder to see petroglyphs, and how some of them show up better when the rock is wet.
Sometime in 2007, Horsethief Lake State Park found itself in possession of several thousand acres of ranch land and a historic ranch that has been above the park for well over 100 years. While the ranch has had some modernizations happen at it over the years, it also was kept in a reasonably historic state so the historic nature of what was kept is also of interest as part of a broader preservation move.
Due to budget constraints. there hasn't been too much going on at the ranch in the last few years, though there are educational outings to it from time to time. Also, there are efforts at restoring the native habitat from the cattle grazing grass that once replaced the native habitat.
Watch the park calendar for various openings of this part of the park.
This is a reasonably good location to view the surrounding countryside as well. The environment up here in the hills is quite different than the desert-like rock of the Columbia Gorge below, as well as the plateau on the other side of the river.
I am no rock climber, and so I can give you no real useful information about Horsethief Butte and its rock climbing features. However, I can tell you that it is a fairly popular place for rock climbers, and it is a rare day to look upon the rock and not see someone dangling from its sides by ropes.
The trail to access Horsethief Butte is accessed from the parking area along highway 14, and is not part of the main part of the park.
I will tell you that there are some things I have noticed about the rock of Horsethief Butte, however:
It is heavily used by those that pound clips into the rock. With years of use this means there are a lot of segments of the rock surface that are not exceptionally stable. See photo 3 for an example of one of the frequently used rock faces that has suffered severe decay from very frequent rock climber use. As you can see, the large number of fragments in the rock surface could lead to pieces - some of them fairly large pieces - falling on anyone who tries to climb this surface now.
While Horsethief Butte is known as a rock climbing spot, there is a somewhat level trail that goes approximately 2/3 of the way around the base of the upper rock outcrop of the butte. For the most part, this trail is level, but the last 30 feet or so descent very steeply, and then end abruptly at the edge of a cliff. WHEN YOU GET TO THIS END OF THE TRAIL DO NOT RUN OR EVEN WALK FAST. The end of the trail is very abrupt and the fall to the bottom would kill most anyone due to the distance of the fall and the rocks at the bottom.
The trail only goes about 2/3 of the way around Horsethief Butte, but from its location there are some decent views of the Columbia River (both east and west - but east only if you get all the way to the very end above the cliff). You can also see Mt. Hood towering above the dry landscape.
During the spring months, especially April and maybe part of May, the wildflowers are out in this part of the gorge, and this short trail is alive with them. Many of them are quite small, and almost completely impossible to see unless you look very closely at the plants along the trail.
NOTE: The plants that grow in this environment are very delicate. Please stay on the trail as much as possible as walking all over the plants will kill them quickly.
The area around Horsethief Lake State Park has been a popular fishing spot for at least 5,000 years, and possibly longer than that. While the First Nations fishing grounds are now buried under the deep waters of The Dalles Dam, it is still a popular place to catch fish.
To that end, there are two boat launch ramps at Horsethief Lake State Park. One of these connects to the Columbia River, while the other connects to Horsethief Lake itself. Both are reasonably popular fishing areas.
There is a fish cleaning station next to the boat ramp that goes into Horsethief Lake.
The boat ramps are not large nor do they have a huge number of luxuries. However, they are here and are one of the features of the park.
There is a state parks fee for launching a boat from these locations.
There are two picnic areas in Horsethief Lake State Park.
The main one is located near the campground, and is surrounded by trees to give it a bit of shelter from the very strong wind that blows through the Columbia River Gorge. Here, there is open grass for games of all sorts, and a set of restrooms that include flush toilets and pay showers.
The other picnic area is close to the Columbia River boat ramp and the petroglyphs, and is completely exposed to the hard wind and the sunlight. (see photo 2). This area is quite a bit further from the noise of highway 14, and in fact you can pretty much not hear the road at all from here. Therefore, this is a good spot for those seeking a bit of a respite from traffic noise.
The lower picnic area is a bit closer to the highway, and so you get a bit of noise from there. However, there is enough of a distance to keep the highway noise away a bit. However, the road is up above the picnic area and in general is not in a direct line of sight due to the cutout in the rocks in which the road sits, so noise is a bit muffled from this as well.
What the Photos Show:
1. A bench along the north side of Horsethief Lake, facing the highway. The highway is cut into the rock bluff above the lake on the other side of the water, and due to the rock cut you can't actually see it. The noise is there, but only a very little bit, and it can also be downed out quite a lot by the strong wind that blasts the trees most of the time.
2. This is the picnic area near the Petroglyphs. As you can see, this area is completely exposed to the strong winds that blast through the Columbia River Gorge. Horsethief Butte is in the background.
3. This is the main picnic area, as seen from the road to the petroglyphs. There are picnic tables scattered in various locations here, including the two under the tree in the foreground. You will notice one of the boat ramps here as well.
4. It's a pretty abrupt edge from the main picnic area to the lake, and so the picnic area also offers some fishing grounds.
5. Typical picnic tables in the main picnic area. The trees provide some shelter but the wind can be strong and cold. Note the cooking stand / barbecue grill between the tables. There are a number of these through the picnic area, but not all tables have them.
The first time I saw the Native American art work at Horsetheif Lake, it was only to see the pictograph called "She who Watches" (her native name is "Tsagiglalal") as the various other, more ancient pictographs on the stones were unknown to the general population at the time. At that time, you could still walk around unsupervised in the park and go up to the pictographs and touch them.
Unfortunately, this led to a significant amount of vandalism and unintentional damage to the rock faces and the artwork on them.
Today, you must make a reservation with the Washington State Parks department in order to make a visit to the cliffs where the pictographs reside. Tours are operated every Friday and Saturday from April through October at 10 am only. This is the time of the day when the light is best for seeing the pictographs. According to at least a few people at the Washington Department of State Parks, October is actually the best viewing time due to the direction of the light and the fact that the sun is low in the sky.
Going on the tour is the only way to see the pictographs in another way as well: except for "She Who Watches" the pictographs are very hidden and faded due to their age. "She Who Watches" is estimated to be approximately 300 years old, while other artwork that is far more faded is thought to be at least several thousand years old.
The significance of the figures is unknown to non-Native Americans. Asking Native Americans for their interpretation hasn't been of much help, as the response is usually something along the lines of "Coyote put those there when he passed through the valley." If anyone within the Confederated Tribes of the Yakima knows anything about these images, they aren't telling those from the outside world. Some are obviously holy images of some sort, while others leave one scratching their head and wondering what the creator might have been thinking, and what pieces of rock that are now missing might reveal.
The Columbia River narrows (which are now completely under water) were once a very important fishing and marketplace community and trade location. Possibly, the location of the pictographs (which, unlike their stone carved petroglyph relatives, have not been moved from their original location - where you see them is where they have always been) was a holy place where youths from the community and elsewhere went on their "vision quest" or "spirit-guide quest". At that time, this location would have been far above the community as the Dalles Dam wasn't there.
Unfortunately, with the installation of the dams on the Columbia River, entire communities (Native American and otherwise) were compelely submerged, and with the extent of items hidden by blasting and other construction work, as well as submerged under the water, there is probably was once a lot more here that we will never know existed because it was not regarded as important at the time.
Native Americans have been willing to tell some stories about "She Who Watches":
At that time, the tribal cheifs were women, and one devoted cheif sat above in her favorite spot many times to watch her community. Coyote told her of a time when new people would come and men would be put in charge of the community. She said that she would stay and keep watch over her people and make sure they performed the holy traditions of their people, as men cheifs would be unreliable. Coyote transformed her into this rock so that she could forever keep watch over her people, and the new people that would come.
Another story about "She Who Watches" involves a young cheif who had to sacrifice herself to heal a disease that was rapidly killing her people. It is a bit more complicated and doesn't really fit the space allowed.
Photographs of the pictographs are allowed for personal use, but not for commercial use unless permission for such commercial use is granted by the Confederated Tribes of the Yakima.
Due to the popularity of the sculptures and the need for control of those who enter the Native American heritage site, only those who register with an official tour, conducted on Fridays and Saturdays, are able to visit the "She Who Watches" feature and the other Pictographs. See phone number below. Also see Washington State parks dept. web site link below.
Just past the Native American petroglyphs display area, you will come to a railroad crossing and then a very short (VERY! short!) segment of road that serves the boat ramp for those putting small boats into the water here.
As you can see from the photos, the area for turning around is very small, and is located at a 90 degree angle to the road. Therefore, you do not have much margin of error and it is not possible to put a boat in the water here with any sort of large vehicle.
Other than the wonderful scenery that you can see from here (and even if you don't have a boat I suggest taking a walk down here to the river) and the fact that you can launch a boat into the Columbia River, there isn't much too it.
This is a pay station boat ramp - which apparently is fairly common in the Washington State Parks. The idea is that you pay a fee and drop it into a collection box for permission to use the boat ramp. The pay station is located near the Native American petroglyph display area, on the other side of the railroad from the boat ramp.