By Jay Carroll
The Columbia River Gorge, affectionately known as the high wind capital of North America to windsurfers, is also a great place to glide. An 80 mile chasm is gouged 2,000 feet deep through the Cascade Mountains by the Columbia river on its journey west. In the summer months the winds are typically west and strong while in the winter months they are typically east and cold. Yes there are days when the winds aren't of Nuclear strength and pilots can soar above the Gorge rim in ridge and thermal lift enjoying a great view of the river. There are flying sites all along the length of the Gorge typically where the river bends and ridges protrude into the prevailing winds. Pilots are able to fly frequently in the Gorge except in mid-summer when the winds on the river exceed 20 knots daily. The most favorable times of year for flying are spring and fall where pilots have logged fun cross-country flights. Sites along the Gorge are mostly on private property and are sensitive to use, so it is recommended that visiting pilots join the local pilots who are typically flying whenever it is flyable. The Gorge is a recreational paradise so there is always something to do if you can't fly.
Bingen, Washington has one of the premier west wind flying sites in the central Gorge. Pilots assemble at the LZ, the Bingen Marina Point Park, a spacious open grass park next to the river. From here pilots shuttle to launch on good roads, a short walk deposits one at the launches 2,000 feet above the LZ. There are two launches at Bingen, the west and east, both in open grass fields. The west launch is the preferred for soaring conditions and glass-off while the east launch is steep and only useable in calm or light east winds due to spanky turbulence. Visiting pilots are urged to contact local pilots for site access and the particulars of understanding the Nuking' winds that can sneak up unexpectedly.
Cliffside is the best east wind flying site in the Gorge with several interesting features. Located in the eastern Gorge above the John Day Dam on the Washington shore on SR 14. An unmistakable feature is that as you arrive there will be gliders flying above the road. Here the roadway traverses a 1,000 foot high ridge that protrudes out over a basalt plain creating beautiful ridge lift in east winds. The most remarkable feature of Cliffside is it is adjacent to a 2,400 foot high south facing rock scree slope that belches strong thermals mid-day. The predominant feature is that this site overlooks and is on the aluminum plant's property that sprawls out over the plain to the east. The aluminum plant is a welcome partner to pilots as we have a good relationship with the landowners and that it produces it's own thermal that is easily found with a quick sniff. The ridge soaring here is very reliable with the added benefit of a good glass-offs and industrial thermals. You can thermal in the middle of the winter without any sun! Visiting pilots are urged to check with local pilots to understand the site protocol. Access is simple, park in pull-outs, hike to launches, land in LZs next to parking, stay away from the aluminum facility and don't land or launch from the road.
Our newest flying site in the Gorge is Dalles Mountain Ranch, located on the Washington side of the river about halfway between Bingen and Cliffside, across from the city of The Dalles. It's a hike-up site on Washington State Parks land.
Bald Butte is close to the Gorge in the Oregon Cascades.
Mt. Defiance has a clear slope about 400 feet below the summit from which several flights have been made, with landings across the river at the base of Dog Mt. at Grant Lake. I think the first flights were by Mark Telep, Tina Pavlic, Reed Gleason, Pete Reagan and Ancil Nance.
Cook Mountain, east of Dog Mt. has been flown twice. Bill Gordon flew from a east facing clear area, landing in a clear-cut. Ancil Nance flew from a west facing slope, landing along the highway at the foot of the mountain.