Columbia River Gorge South Hiking Oregon Trip report

Nesmith Point

With the remnants of Typhoon Songda sending a series of storms over the Pacific Northwest we were wondering what kind of conditions we’d be hiking in as we headed out to the Columbia Gorge for our 56th hike of 2016. The storms had not lived up to the dire predictions we had been hearing but there had been a good amount of rain and some stronger than normal winds over the previous couple of days.

Our goal for this hike was Nesmith Point, a 3800′ climb from John B. Yeon State Park.
Nesmith Point Trailhead

We had started at this same trailhead in March 2015 when we visited Elowah and Wahclella Falls. The trail set off uphill from the parking area where it promptly forks.
Trail sign for Nesmith Point

We hadn’t originally been planning on revisiting any of the waterfalls from our previous visit, but the recent rainfall piqued our interest enough that we decided to hike the .7 miles to Elowah Falls before heading up to Nesmith Point. There was definitely a lot more water pouring over the basalt now.
Elowah Falls

Elowah Falls

One of the great things about Elowah Falls is that the Gorge Trail crosses McCord Creek on a footbridge very close to the waterfall’s splash pool. Crossing it was literally a blast as wind and water sprayed out from the thundering waterfall.
Elowah Falls

After crossing the bridge we turned right back around and headed back across. We were sufficiently wet at that point and ready to begin the day’s big climb. When we got back to the fork in the trail near the trailhead we stayed on the Gorge Trail following the pointer for Nesmith Point. The Gorge Trail led uphill at a reasonable grade crossing an unnamed creek that was also swollen with rain water.
Creek crossing

Our maps showed the Nesmith Trail splitting off from the Gorge Trail after approximately .9 miles at a swtichback along another creek. We passed the switchback without realizing it because there was no sign of the Gorge Trail continuing from it across the creek. It turns out a 2.4 mile section of that trail is missing from the creek to Ainsworth Campground. We were now climbing in earnest and wondering when the .9 mile section was going to end. I eventually took a peak at the Garmin which is when I discovered that we had already passed the switchback where we should have split from the Gorge Trail. Heather was quite relieved when I informed her that we were now well into the 2.4 mile climb from the phantom trail split to a ridge top saddle. This portion of the Nesmith Trail was forced to climb steeply due to the narrowness of the valley we were heading up. Several sets of switchbacks alternated sides of the valley allowing views from different angles.
Nesmith Point Trail

Fall colors and seasonal waterfalls along the Nesmith Point Trail

Fall colors along the Nesmith Point Trail

View from the Nesmith Point Trail

Occasional views across the Columbia River included Beacon Rock along with Hamilton and Table Mountains.
Beacon Rock from the Nesmith Point Trail

Hamilton and Table Mountains from the Nesmith Point Trail

The trail showed little sign of damage from the storms as we slowly made our way up to the saddle where a trail sign awaiting announcing it was only 1.6 more miles to Nesmith Point.
Nesmith Point Trail

At the saddle we could see across the McCord Creek valley to the next ridge but not beyond.
View from the Nesmith Point Trail

From the saddle the trail wrapped around the SE side of a ridge extending to the NE from Nesmith Point. One of the rewards of climbing up out of the Gorge is getting to experience the change in the forests. At the lower elevations along the Gorge the forest typically looks something like this:
Forest along the Gorge Trail

Gorge Trail

On top of the basalt plateau the forest is noticeably different.
Nesmith Point Trail

Nesmith Point Trail

The stark contrast makes it hard to believe that these ecosystems are so close to one another as they feel like different worlds. We were now climbing at a much more reasonable grade. Approximately 1 1/4 mile from the saddle the trail curved sharply to the right at a pointer for Nesmith Point.
Nesmith Point Trail

Trail sign for Nesmith Point

Less than a quarter mile from the sharp turn we arrived at the now closed road that led to the former lookout tower on Nesmith Point.
Trail junction near Nesmith Point

Nesmith Point Trail

We followed the old road uphill .3 miles to the now overgrown site of the old fire lookout.
Anchor for the former lookout tower on the rocks

Just before reaching the lookout site there was a break in the trees that offered a bit of a view across the Columbia River Gorge.
View from Nesmith Point

Columbia River from Nesmith Point

Columbia River from Nesmith Point

To get a better view (and on a clear day a view of Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Adams) we continued on the trail past the old lookout site. This path led downhill before splitting. We took the right had fork to begin with which led us down to a cliff top viewpoint that was a little sketchy on such a damp day. The cloudy conditions weren’t allowing for any better view than what we’d seen at the viewpoint before the lookout site either, so we backtracked to the split and took the left hand fork. This fork led to a viewpoint across from where we had just been. Again the clouds effectively canceled the views but it was fun to watch them as they swirled below.
View from Nesmith Point

View form Nesmith Point

We decided to take a break there and eat some food. It was very peaceful being that far above the noise of the cars on I-84 and the trains chugging through the gorge. I found myself thinking I could spend quite a while just watching everything pass by below. Just a couple of minutes later our hands were becoming numb and we were ready to get moving again. Between the damp conditions and the breeze on the plateau our core temperatures had fallen and now we were cold. So much for the peaceful bliss 🙂 We retraced our steps making our way back downhill past several hikers and a number of beetles.
Beatle on the Gorge Trail

At the switchback where we had expected the Gorge Trail to split off we looked for any signs of the other trail. The only thing we could see was a wooden post surrounded by rocks at the switchback but there was nothing on the other side of the creek to even hint at where the Gorge Trail had been. We felt better about having missed that spot now that we knew there was really nothing there that we should have seen. We returned to the now full trailhead having finished our 56th hike of the year equaling our total from last year. Only 4 hikes remained on our 2016 schedule and we wondered what would be in store for us on those. Happy Trails!


Columbia Gorge North Hiking Trip report Washington

Cape Horn

For our November hike we chose the Cape Horn trail. We had wanted a hike that was a little shorter than our normal trips since Heather had just run her first race in awhile. The 7+ mile loop around Cape Horn fit the bill perfectly and it was a good time for a visit given the full loop is closed from February 1st to July 15th due to nesting Falcons.

Just 30 minutes from the Portland airport the trailhead is located at the Skamania County Transit Park & Ride lot near milepost 26 along State Highway 14 at Salmon Falls Road. The all volunteer Cape Horn Conservancy works with the United States Forest Service (USFS), Washington Trails Association (WTA), and Friends of the Columbia Gorge (FOCG) to maintain and improve the trail here which was evident by the well maintained trail and abundant signage along the way which began at the trailhead.



Cape Horn Trailhead//

Almost immediately after crossing Salmon Falls Rd. and starting on the trail we faced the choice of going clockwise or counter-clockwise around the loop. We stayed to the right heading counter-clockwise and began climbing up toward the viewpoints on top of Cape Horn.


Our first good views were to the north as the trail neared some power lines where several snow dusted peaks were visible.
Lookout Mountain

Silver Star Mountain, Little Baldy, and Bluff Mountain
Silver Star, Little Baldy, and Bluff Mountain//

The trail then crossed over to the Columbia Gorge side of Cape Horn for our first unobstructed views of the Columbia River. The Sun had just crested over Larch Mountain to the southeast and was creating some glare limiting the views. A cold wind was racing down the Gorge which made it a little too chilly to spend much time at any of the viewpoints which was too bad because they were nice enough to warrant a longer stay.
Columbia River from the Cape Horn Trail//


A little bit of ice at the viewpoint.//

The trail then dropped down away from the Gorge (and out of the wind) briefly joining an old roadbed and then climbing to a crossing of paved Strunk Rd. where the trail passes through grassy fields on a gravel road.


The next viewpoint of the Columbia Gorge was the Nancy Russell Overlook which had recently undergone some repairs. A long stone bench in the overlook offered plenty of space for hikers to relax and soak in the view, but again the cold wind wasn’t going to allow us to enjoy it for long.

Columbia River from the Cape Horn Trail//

The trail began to descend after the Nancy Russell Overlook switchbacking and passing yet another viewpoint on it’s way down to a tunnel beneath SR 14.



Yet another viewpoint awaited on the other side of the highway.


A nice waterfall cascaded down a grassy slope near the viewpoint.

The section that is closed for the Falcons begins shortly after that viewpoint but that wasn’t an issue now so we continued on. After another series of switchbacks the trail began to head back leading us east parallel to the river. The wind was really whipping down closer to the river and we were blasted by it every time there was a break in the trees. We passed an unsigned side trail to the right and momentarily paused wondering where it might go. After continuing on for a minute or so it dawned on us that it had likely led to an overlook of the railroad tracks as they headed into the tunnel beneath Cape Horn. We began looking for the other end of that side trail to rejoin the main trail and spotted it at a set of trail signs. We turned right and headed out to check out this unsigned trail. It led to a series of grassy viewpoints and the view of the railroad tracks as we had suspected.


Railroad entering the tunnel beneath Cape Horn//

The wind along here was so strong that we struggled to not be pushed around by it. It was a challenge to try and stand in one spot for anytime at all. We followed the side trail all the way back to the unmarked junction we had wondered about earlier and then resumed our hike on the main trail. Another windy viewpoint awaited not far ahead where three unique rock formations where visible. From this spot Cigar Rock, Beacon Rock, and Phoca Rock were all visible.

Cigar Rock is the tall column of rock on the left, Beacon Rock is in the distance straight ahead, and Phoca Rock is in the middle of the Columbia to the right.
Cigar, Beacon and Phoca Rocks//

After fighting with the wind attempting to take pictures of the rocks the trail turned uphill passing through an interesting rock field below some cliffs.


As we crossed the rock field we got our first view of Cape Horn Falls.
Cape Horn Falls//

The falls were a delight. A small rainbow appeared and faded at the base of the falls as wind gusts blew the cascade from side to side. The footbridge below the falls was somewhat protected from the wind allowing us to spend some time watching the water dance in the wind.
Cape Horn Falls//



Rainbow beneath Cape Horn Falls//

Beyond Cape Horn Falls the trail continues through the trees below the cliffs until it finally drops down to Cape Horn Road.


The paved road acts as the trail for the next 1 1/4 miles passing farmland below Cape Horn.
Cape Horn from Cape Horn Road on the way back up to the trailhead.//

The trail leaves the road just prior to reaching SR 14 leading to another tunnel and than a short climb to complete the loop.

The hike was just what we were hoping for. Not too long (7.3 miles) but packed with views and diverse scenery. Happy Trails!


Columbia Gorge North Hiking Trip report Washington

Beacon Rock State Park – The Return to Hamilton Mountain

Almost two years ago we traveled to Beacon Rock State Park to hike the Hamilton Mountain Trail. It was and still is the worst weather that we have ever encountered during a hike. Well enough time had passed and it was time for us to give this hike a second chance. We double checked the weather forecast before heading out which showed some morning clouds clearing up by mid-morning with little to no chance of rain and calm winds. That was good enough for us to give it a go so we got in the car and headed up to the Columbia Gorge once more. For most of the drive we were under a solid mass of clouds but as we headed east along Highway 14 toward Beacon Rock State Park rays of sunlight were shining down on the Columbia River in the distance. The edge of the clouds was just a bit further east than Hamilton Mountain so we decided to warm up on another trail in park, the .8mi Beacon Rock Trail, hoping to give the clouds more time to lift.

Parking for this trail is right along the highway and requires a Discovery Pass which can be purchased at the trailhead (currently $10/a day per vehicle). The trail begins almost directly below Beacon Rock itself.
Beacon Rock Trailhead

After a very short walk through woods the trail begins to switchback up Beacon Rock.


In fact the trail switchbacks 52 times on its way up to the top of the rock. (I lost count but that is the number that was on one of the signs at the trailhead.)
Beacon Rock Trail


When we reached the summit the edge of the clouds was still to the east above Bonneville Dam.


We could also see that Hamilton Mountain still had a cloudy top making us wonder what the conditions would be by the time we got up there.

On the way back down we watched a number of Turkey Vultures circling above the river as well as a lone Bald Eagle.


After completing our warm-up we hopped back in the car and crossed the Highway following a campground sign to the trailhead parking area. The trail sets off at a signboard behind the restrooms.
Hamilton Mountian Trailhead

After a gradual .5 mile climb through forest the trail emerges to views of Hamilton Mountain from under some power lines.

The summit was still in the clouds but they did seem to be breaking up and we still had over 2.5 more miles to climb before reaching the top. After another half-mile a sign announces a viewpoint for Hardy Falls. A narrow path leads down a ridge to a platform that has no view of Hardy Falls at all. The only views are along the ridge prior to reaching the platform, and they are not great.

The disappointing viewpoint of Hardy Falls is quickly forgotten after just another tenth of a mile on the trail. Here another sign points up to Pool of the Winds.

This short path leads to another railed viewpoint, but this time there is really something to see. The upper portion of Rodney Falls splashes into a rock enclosed splash pool. The force of the water falling into the pool combined with the narrow opening in the rocks causes wind to funnel out giving the pool its name.
Pool of the Winds


The view down is also nice as the trail crosses the creek on a footbridge below Rodney Falls.

After spending some time enjoying the pool we continued on the trail passing below the falls. Rodney Falls is one of the more complicated falls we have seen. With the Pool of the Winds at the top followed by several smaller sections and then fanning out at the bottom it just has a lot going on. It also changes directions a couple of times which makes it difficult to capture it all well in a photo.

Just over a quarter mile from Rodney Falls the trail splits allowing for a loop over Hamilton Mountain.

We headed right which is the shorter but steeper way to the summit. We tend to prefer to go up rather than down steeper trails because it’s easier on our knees. Heading up the right fork the trail passes an increasing number of meadows where we were met with views and wildflowers. In 2013 the views consisted almost entirely of clouds so much of this we were seeing for the first time.

Beacon Rock from the trail.


Chocolate Lily

Indian Paintbrush


A side trail to the right leads to a rocky outcrop with even more views.

Then the trail passes behind a knoll where more trees await.

Larkspur along the Hamilton Mountain Trail

After making its way around the knoll the trail crosses a ridge between the knoll and Hamilton Mountains summit which looms ahead.
Hamilton Mountain

The view of the Columbia River along this ridge is very nice.

The trail then begins its final ascent switchbacking up through open meadows of flowers. Larkspur and Chocolate Lilies were the predominate flowers blooming at this time of the year.
Chocolate Lilies



As we continued to climb the clouds continued to burn off and Mt. Hood suddenly appeared across the river.


To reach the actual summit take a side path to the right near the top of the mountain. Here the view was vastly different from our previous visit.


Mt. Hood from the summit of Hamilton Mountain

There were only a few bands of clouds left when we arrived at the summit and in addition to the view of Mt. Hood to the south Table Mountain and some of Mt. Adams were visible to the east.
Table Mountain and Mt. Adams from the summit of Hamilton Mountain

Mt. Adams

We took a short break and watched the clouds as they passed by. A few hikers and some other critters kept us company.

We continued on the loop looking forward to reaching an exposed ridge that was the site of my infamous poncho battle in 2013. Wind and rain were whipping up and over the ridge on that visit but this time it was just sunshine and flowers.


At the far end of the ridge we looked back to soak in the view that we missed the first time.


Hamilton Mountain trail

Several paths lead off from the far end of the ridge, but we simply took a sharp left and headed down an old road toward Hardy Creek.

The road leads downhill for a mile to Hardy Creek.


Signs at Hardy Creek point to the 1.1 mile hiker-only trail that completes the loop .3 miles from Rodney Falls. By the time we arrived back at the falls a steady stream of people were coming up from the trailhead. We were once again glad we’d gotten an early start and made our way past a traffic jam at the footbridge. With the number of hikers and dogs coming up the trail we were surprised when Heather spotted a garter snake on the path. It took cover in a stump but then came out to take a closer look at us.


We were really happy with the way this hike turned out. We had gotten the views we’d missed out on during our previous visit and the Beacon Rock warm-up was entirely new. Another great day in the Pacific Northwest. Happy Trails!