Cape Horn Loop

  • Date: October 28, 2017
  • Location: Columbia River Gorge
  • Start: Cape Horn Trailhead
  • Distance: 7.7 miles
  • Duration: 3 hours 50 minutes (breaks included)
  • Elevation gain: 1300 feet
  • Type: Loop
  • Map: Green Trails Map 428S: Columbia River Gorge-West
  • References: 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles of Portland by Paul Gerald; Washington Trails Association

Since getting more into trail running this past year, day hiking has become less and less common for us. However, with our last race of the season coming up the following weekend and a busy weekend of work events preventing us from doing anything too long, strenuous, or far from home, we decided to head out to Cape Horn with Cassie to make the most of the surprisingly nice fall weather forecast.

The trailhead was packed and we ended up parking a short ways up the road since the lot was full. With so many closures on the Oregon side due to the damage caused by the wildfire, I imagine Cape Horn is now more popular than ever. Despite seeing numerous groups as we started out, we still managed to find some solitude every now and then. The first part of our hike (we started with the upper section) had us climbing switchbacks through a forest bursting with fall colors. I actually completed this hike the previous year with a few friends (no Mack, but Cassie was with me). We went in late November after Thanksgiving, so the fall brilliance had come and gone. It was nice to come back at the height of it all.

After just over a mile we were rewarded with our first view overlooking the gorge at Pioneer Point. Patches of golden orange dotted the usually green landscape as we looked east toward Hamilton Mountain and Beacon Rock. Even the Oregon side looked stunning. From a distance (and with the sun shining so brightly), the scorched land wasn’t as evident. The trail dropped down soon after and met up with an old wagon road so heavily blanketed in fallen leaves that I could hardly see my boots as we walked through.

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View from Pioneer Point

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Idyllic fall setting

After crossing Strunk Road, we continued onto a gravel lane surrounded by green fields and a few houses. A short, pleasant countryside amble before ducking back into the forest. We reached the Nancy Russell Overlook (named for the founder of Friends of the Columbia Gorge), characterized by a beautiful stone amphitheater and a sprawling view of the gorge. I feel a little silly that I didn’t take a picture to include for this post, but it was incredibly crowded and we didn’t stick around very long. We headed back into the peace and quiet of the forest, basking in the increasingly vibrant fall colors. The trail descends down to Hwy 14 and (to avoid having hikers risk becoming roadkill) crosses it by way of a tunnel beneath the road.

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It looks like she’s playing with the leaves, but she’s actually eating her favorite jerky

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The views became more abundant on this half of the hike now that we were on the lower section and switchbacking down alongside the cliff. We passed several vistas along the way that offered expansive views of the river, as well as lonesome Phoca Rock and the strange basalt column, Cigar Rock. This section did have it’s downsides though. The wind was incredibly strong, making it difficult to take any sort of break at the viewpoints we came across. In addition, now that it was getting into the afternoon, there were a lot more people on the trail, some of whom weren’t so great about practicing basic trail etiquette. My penchant for picture taking often times meant we just let people pass us until we were left alone, garnering us a few more moments of solitude.

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Cigar Rock
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Walking along one of the talus slopes with a view of a waterfall (not sure if it’s Cape Horn Falls)

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I was especially happy to experience solitude when we arrived at the wooden footbridge in front of Cape Horn Falls. With no one around, we were able to take the short side trail up to the falls and have the spot all to ourselves for a few minutes. The falls weren’t anything spectacular (at least when we were there). They were more of a trickle really. Being in an isolated spot away from the increasing foot traffic (with a nice view of the footbridge down below and the river beyond that) was the primary appeal. After crossing the bridge, we began a steeper descent to the end of the trail, where we were spit out onto Cape Horn Road.

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Cape Horn Falls

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Bridge in front of the falls

The final 1.3-mile uphill stretch was all on road (save for a very brief section of trail right before the parking lot). Thankfully, we still had some lovely views along the way combining the steep forested hillsides and basalt cliffs that characterize the gorge with the simplicity of the countryside-esque properties that we passed along the road. All in all it was a morning (and partial afternoon) well spent and a lovely return to our original adventure of choice, day hiking.

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