Horsethief Lake State Park

25 09 2014

I’ve heard of Horsethief Lake State Park for years, a place where my newlywed parents hunted Native American arrowheads along the Columbia River banks and viewed ancient petroglyphs (carvings) and pictographs (paintings) among the rocky terrain. The place intrigues me, so I took my adventurous family on a getaway to The Dalles, Oregon. No agenda. Just to explore. My youngest son’s main objective was spotting a rattlesnake. My daughter and I are the non-venomous snake catchers in the family, so that was fine with us. Even though this trip did not produce a rattler, my daughter did point out an American Porcupine scurrying away from our path.

Horsethief Lake State Park sits on the Washington state side of The Dalles Dam and Bridge in Dallesport, directly off SR 14 near milepost 86 about ninety miles east of the Portland/Vancouver Metro area. This National Historic Site hosted the Lewis and Clark Expedition in October 1805 and received a spot in their famous journals. The original site, called the Wishram Indian Village by Upper Chinook tribes, remains the largest prehistoric Chinook site. Wishram, Lishkam, and Cloud tribes camped there during fishing season. The Dalles Dam flooded the site in the 1950s, burying most of its history while creating a ninety-acre lake and state park named by workers from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This desert area ripe with Native horse herds and flanked by rocky cliffs reminded them of classic horse thief hideouts.

IMG_7659Ancient Wanapum basalt flows created one such cliff called Horsethief Butte. It won my hiker’s heart and I am anxious to get back to its trailhead. This easy one-mile dirt trail overlooks Horsethief Lake and the park area, the Columbia River, The Dalles, and the Columbia River Gorge. It winds past crags, ravines, pictographs, petroglyphs, and rock climbing sites. Each season produces its own show of desert flora and fauna, and the constant danger of walking into the path of venomous snakes and poison oak. A split from the main trail presents a short but steep, rocky climb over the peak. I stepped over a small, loose rock marked with a petroglyph and hoped others would leave it just like I did. Kevin and the boys wanted to explore that area further, so my daughter and I descended back to the main trail and followed it above the river. Halfway out and entirely exposed at the top of the butte, thunder rumbled and large raindrops suddenly pelted us. We ran toward the parking lot that was a distance away. Gusts of wind turned into a steady force that drowned out our communication. We met the boys on our way back and together leaped and scrambled over the rocky path. Thunderstorms cut my hike short. I must return.

IMG_7576I also must return to Horsethief Lake State Park to join a guided tour of the petroglyphs and pictographs considered some of the oldest in the Pacific Northwest. The well-known face named “Tsagiglalal” or “She Who Watches” is both a painting and a carving and only can be viewed with a park ranger. Guided tours require reservations and take place at 10 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Call 1-509-767-1159 to reserve a free tour. Even though most stones were buried by the river changes, many are available for view along the self-guided Temani Pesh-wa Interpretive Trail adjacent to the parking lot. They were saved from vandals, moved and grouped along a short, paved path. Only a rudimentary wooden fence separates people from the petroglyphs and pictographs. It’s a photographer’s and historian’s dream. Really, if you can make it, don’t miss it.

The Dalles Mountain Ranch and Horsethief Lake State Park comprise part of the nearly 4000-acre Columbia Hills State Park where visitors camp, hike, swim, picnic, rock climb and more spring through autumn. The park is closed for winter. Day-use hours are 6:30 a.m. to dusk. A state park day-use permit costs $10 or the annual Discover Pass costs $30 per vehicle. For more information, go to or The 2014 Free State Park Days are September 27 and November 11.


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