By Michael Lanza
To some hikers, the Rock of Ages Trail on the Oregon side of the Columbia Gorge will feel like the supreme challenge, a gauntlet thrown down; to others, it could seem like a cruel joke. My friend Geoff Sears and I hiked on the balls of our feet much of the way up this crazily steep, unmaintained goat path—which climbs more than 2,000 vertical feet in one stretch of less than two miles—at times scrabbling along narrow spines of vegetation-cloaked rock where a slip could send us toppling downward through dense rainforest.
Geoff and I were in the business segment of a dayhike than would run a bit more than 20 miles, with about 5,000 feet of vertical gain and loss. It would also take us through some of the best-preserved, old-growth forest in the Columbia Gorge; past tall, sheer, thunderous waterfalls; and over the 4,055-foot summit of Larch Mountain, a rocky promontory with one of the best, 360-degree panoramas in the Gorge, reaching from the Columbia River a vertical three-quarters of a mile below us, to the snowy crowns of Mounts Hood, Jefferson, Adams, St. Helens, and Rainier on far horizons.
With more than 200 miles of trails and scores of waterfalls, as well as stunning wildflowers in spring, the 292,500-acre Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is a worthy hiking destination no matter where you live.
See also my story “Nature in Your Face: Hiking the Columbia Gorge,” about a family hiking trip in the Columbia Gorge.
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR fit hikers. Challenges include significant distance and elevation gain and loss, rugged trail, and a very steep climb, with a little exposure and scrambling, on the Rock of Ages Trail, which ascends over 2,000 feet in under two miles. Unlike most maintained trails in the Columbia Gorge, this unofficial, user trail is also not well marked, although it is fairly obvious and not difficult to follow. Don’t attempt to descend it and it’s best to avoid it in wet conditions because of the high possibility of slipping and taking a bad fall. The other trails along this route are well maintained and marked.
Make It Happen
Season The best time of year for viewing wildflowers and waterfalls is May and June. It’s possible to hike year-round at lower elevations in the Columbia Gorge, though it rains frequently from October through June. Higher trails become snow-free by early summer.
The Itinerary The loop hike described here is slightly more than 20 miles, with roughly 5,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, but there are several trail options to make it shorter. From the trailhead, follow the trail uphill through switchbacks 0.2 mile and turn right onto the Gorge Trail. In another 0.2 mile you’ll reach 80-foot-tall Ponytail Falls, which the Gorge Trail passes behind—one of the signature waterfalls of the Columbia Gorge. After visiting it, backtrack a few minutes to pick up the Rock of Ages Trail. It may only be marked by a sign reading “trail not maintained,” but it’s a beaten footpath rising very steeply into the forest. At 1.2 miles up the Rock of Ages, you’ll reach the open, narrow spine known as the Devils Backbone, with views of the gorge 1,300 feet below. The trail’s angle eventually eases and it reaches a junction at 3.3 miles (and 3,000 feet elevation) with the Horsetail Creek Trail; turn right.
At 5.1 miles into your hike, turn left onto the Bell Creek Trail. (To shorten this hike to a 10.9-mile loop, instead of turning onto the Bell Creek Trail, continue to the right on the Horsetail Creek Trail and return to your car via the Oneonta Trail and Horsetail Falls Trail.) Follow the Bell Creek Trail about 3.3 miles to Trail 424 (which you can also descend for a more direct, shorter route back to this hike’s start). Turn left and continue a bit more than two miles to Larch Mountain Road. Walk up the road about 10 minutes to the 0.3-mile Sherrard Point Trail leading to the 4,055-foot summit of Larch Mountain, a rocky point enclosed by a fence for safety, with big views of the gorge and Mounts Hood, Jefferson, Adams, St. Helens, and Rainier. Backtrack down the Sherrard Point Trail and start a long descent of Trail 441 along Multnomah Creek, passing several waterfalls—including an exciting overlook from the top of Multnomah Falls—and reaching the trailhead about nine miles from Larch Mountain. (You can walk the road or the trail from Multnomah Falls.)
Getting There From I-84 east of Portland, Oregon, and west of Hood River, take exit 35 and follow the Historic Columbia River Highway west for 1.5 miles to the Horsetail Falls Trailhead, where Horsetail Falls drops 176 feet over a cliff lush with moss and vegetation into a deep pool.
Map Green Trails map Columbia River Gorge-West no. 428S OR, or Bridal Veil, OR no. 428, $8 each, greentrailsmaps.com.
Guidebook Day Hiking Columbia River Gorge, by Craig Romano, $18.95, The Mountaineers Books, (800) 553-4453, mountaineersbooks.org.
Contact Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, (541) 308-1700, fs.usda.gov/crgnsa.