12 Mar

13. Rho Creek and Big Bottom

Distance: 8.2 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 2,400 feet
Trailhead elevation: 2,624 feet
Trail high point: 4,529 feet
Season: May – November
Best: June

Download map of the Rho Creek area
Download map of Big Bottom
GPS Track of the Rho Creek Hike

This lovely and little-known hike traces a cascading stream through a mossy and magical forest just south of Big Bottom. The trail is at times very faint but it is well-marked, and generally easy to follow. Best of all, because this is a trail that is very much off the beaten trail, the chances are that you will have it all to yourself. Because of this, I do not recommend hiking it alone – this place is very, very remote – but also very, very beautiful.

Matt’s note: This hike is not easy to follow in some places. I highly recommend downloading both my maps above and my GPS track and following it if you plan on coming here. Here a link to my GPS track.

Rho Creek's mossy canyon

Rho Creek’s mossy canyon

Hiking into Big Bottom's ancient forest

Hiking into Big Bottom’s ancient forest

12 Mar

2. Rooster Rock

Distance: 10.8 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 3,700 feet
Trailhead elevation: 1,261 feet
Trail high point: 4,559 feet
Season: May – November
Best: June – July
Map: Opal Creek Wilderness (Imus)

Download a map of this hike
Download a GPS track of this hike

It’s a long way up to Rooster Rock, but when you get there you won’t regret making the trek. The pinnacle stands above fields of wildflowers, while you have outstanding views out to Mount Jefferson and the rest of the central Cascades. Even on a hot day, a gentle breeze cools you off while you relax for lunch up on this scenic ridgetop. Though there are other, easier hikes in the Table Rock Wilderness, this one is the closest to Portland, the easiest to find and perhaps the least crowded.

Tiger Lily on the trail to Rooster Rock

Tiger Lily on the trail to Rooster Rock

10 May

16. Rock of Ages Ridge / Bell Creek Loop

[slideshow_deploy id=’526′]


16. Rock of Ages Ridge

Distance: 15.2 mile loop loop
Elevation Gain: 4,600 feet
Season: March – November
Best: June – July
Pass: None
Map: Columbia River Gorge (Geo-graphics)
Note: Rock of Ages Trail does not show on most area maps.

Directions: From Portland, drive east on Interstate 84 to the Bridal Veil exit 28. Immediately after exiting the freeway turn left and drive east on the Historic Columbia Highway 5.6 miles to a parking lot at Horsetail Falls. If you are coming from Cascade Locks, exit the freeway at the Dodson Exit 35 and drive west on the Historic Highway for 2.4 miles to Horsetail Falls.

Note: This is an edited, updated version of the hike described in Off the Beaten Trail. I re-hiked this trail in June 2014 and added on an extra 5-mile loop on the newly-cleared Bell Creek Trail, which passes through the nicest grove of ancient forest in the Columbia River Gorge. If you have the time and energy you absolutely should follow this loop – taken together, the Rock of Ages Ridge / Bell Creek Loop is without a doubt the best hike in the entire Columbia River Gorge.

Hike: A natural rock arch, a fabulous view of the Columbia River Gorge, a hair-raising rock spine, the most impressive grove of ancient forest in the Columbia River Gorge and three waterfalls on a popular return trail; you will find all of these things on the trek up Rock of Ages Ridge, along the Bell Creek Trail and down Oneonta Creek. Though access is easy, the hike is not. In fact, the first mile up Rock of Ages Ridge is quite probably the most difficult stretch of trail in this book. After that, however, you are in the clear and free to enjoy the quietest part of the western Gorge.

The hike begins at scenic Horsetail Falls, which spills some 214 feet to the floor of the Gorge directly beside the scenic highway. The trailhead is to the left side of the falls. Begin switchbacking uphill, quickly topping out above the falls. Directly ahead of you on the trail is another falls, 75-foot Ponytail Falls. As soon as the falls is in sight, look immediately to your left for a well-worn boot path that climbs over some tree roots. This is the Rock of Ages Trail. Twenty yards from the turnoff pass a “Trail Not Maintained” sign – your cue that you are going to have some serious fun – and begin climbing at a furious pace. Because of the grade of this trail – and it is brutally steep – it is recommended that you avoid this trail on rainy days and that you avoid coming down this way (think bobsled run – but even more dangerous). After 0.5 mile of thigh-burning ascent, look for a spur trail to your left where the trail switchbacks to the right. Turn left here and take this up and down path for 200 feet to a small natural rock arch and a spectacular view east over the Gorge. Even though you have only hiked 0.8 mile, you would be wise to break here as you have yet steeper uphill to go. Watch your step at the arch – it is located at the edge of a cliff.

Return to the main trail and recommence climbing at the same unrelenting grade. You will likely need to use your hands (watch out for poison oak) and trekking poles are a must here. 0.3 mile from the arch the trail tops out at the Devil’s Backbone, a narrow spine of rock with a 180 degree view of the Gorge. Acrophobes be warned! You can escape the worst of the Backbone by following a user trail to the left but it is recommended you spend a couple minutes soaking in the view of the Gorge from the Backbone. Be VERY careful, though; a fall here would be serious. From here, begin climbing again through scenic second-growth forest for 1.7 miles (gaining another 1900 feet) to a junction with the Horsetail Creek trail 2.9 miles from the trailhead. Turn right.

The Horsetail Creek Trail meanders through a peaceful forest, crossing several forks of Horsetail Creek over the next 1.7 miles. Reach a signed junction with the Bell Creek Trail at 4.7 miles from the trailhead, where you are faced with a difficult choice. While you can continue straight another 2.3 miles of well-graded level and downhill trail to the Oneonta Trail, the Bell Creek Trail presents the option of a tantalizing loop through a spectacular grove of ancient forest. The only problem is that adding on this loop requires you to hike an additional 5 miles with more than 1,000 feet of elevation gain on top of what you’ve already done. It is absolutely worth it. If you don’t feel that you have the time or energy, continue on the Horsetail Creek Trail 2.3 miles to Oneonta Creek. Turn right here on an user trail that cuts through the Devil’s club over to the bridge over Oneonta Creek, and continue downstream approximately 2 miles to a junction with the Ponytail Falls Trail. Turn right here, climb above Oneonta Gorge and continue 3/4 of a mile to Horsetail Falls and your car.

Otherwise, from the junction of the Horsetail Creek and Bell Creek Trails, turn left.

The next 4 miles are a breeze after what you’ve endured. Meander through peaceful second-growth fir and pine at a mostly level grade, descending slightly to cross Horsetail Creek’s three forks before ascending again. Without an official trailhead and high on a forested ridge, this is one of the quietest places in the Columbia River Gorge accessible by trail. Take the time to enjoy the silence – you have earned it.

About 3 miles from the Rock of Ages / Horsetail Creek trail junction, begin descending steadily towards Oneonta Creek via a series of switchbacks. Finally reach the creek 6.6 miles from the beginning of your hike and begin planning. In the summer this ford will not be difficult but in fall, winter and spring it is extremely challenging. Somebody has blazed a cutoff trail to the left that leads to the Oneonta Trail near a bridged crossing of the creek. While this trail appeared after I last hiked this trail, I strongly urge you to look for this trail and use it if possible (especially during the rainy season). However you choose to cross the creek, you will meet the Oneonta Trail almost immediately on the far side of the creek. There is a fantastic campsite at the junction of the Horsetail Creek Trail and Oneonta Trails.

From here the remainder of the hike is a cakewalk; an extremely popular, highly scenic cakewalk. Descend the well-maintained trail aside roaring Oneonta Creek. 1.5 miles later reach dazzling Triple Falls, a three-pronged 64-foot plunge. Continue another 0.5 mile downstream to a fork with the Horsetail Falls Trail. Turn right and descend to a breathtaking bridge over Oneonta Creek between its Middle Falls and the Lower Falls, out of sight below. Ascend quickly back up the canyon wall and follow this wide trail back to Ponytail Falls (the trail actually ducks behind the falls) and shortly thereafter, your car.

20 Mar

Little North Santiam River Trail

Distance: 9.0 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 900 feet
Season: all year except in winter storms
Best: all year
Pass: NW Forest Pass
Map: Opal Creek Wilderness Area (USFS)

Directions: From Salem, drive OR 22 east for 23 miles to the second flashing light in Mehama. At a sign for the Little North Fork Recreation Area (and directly across from the Swiss Village restaurant), turn left. Follow the paved two-lane road up the Little North Fork for 14.5 miles to a junction with Elkhorn Drive SE in the small community of Elkhorn. Drive across the bridge over the river and continue for 0.4 miles to the well-signed trailhead on your left.

Hike: The Little North Santiam River Trail gets no respect. It has the same emerald pools, roaring waterfalls, magnificent old-growth as Opal Creek, just three miles upstream, with just a fraction of the crowds. Nobody comes here except on summer weekends, and the area’s low elevation makes this a year-round hike destination. In many respects, this hike is even better on a rainy winter day. In fact, some people even prefer this hike to Opal Creek; it’s just a shame the two hikes cannot be joined.

The trail begins at the edge of the small community of Elkhorn. You will skirt through a recovering forest with houses in sight for the first 0.2 mile before crossing a small side stream and descending into glorious woods beside the even more glorious Little North Fork. Everything is green, moist and radiant! At 0.6 mile follow a short side trail to a bench beside a roaring cascade in the river. This is a great place to relax but don’t turn back yet as the best is yet to come. The next mile is a joy as you wind through deep forest just above the Little North Fork, crossing roaring side creeks on scenic wooden bridges beneath towering Douglas firs. Notice how the river seems to be an electric shade of green; this is not the water but the green rock below magnified by the incredible clarity of the water. This feature is common throughout the Little North Fork drainage and is found on all of the creeks upstream.

The incomparable Little North Santiam River.

The incomparable Little North Santiam River.

Soon the canyon begins to contract and the trail climbs to avoid a very narrow gorge. Along the way up, listen for the roar of Triple Falls on Henline Creek, tumbling directly into the river just across the gorge. The falls is visible but tree branches make it difficult to get an unobstructed view of the falls. Once past the falls, the trail continues its climb up the canyon wall, topping out at a rocky bluff high above the river with a few across to Henline Mountain’s cliffs. Note the madrone tree on this bluff, a rarity in the Cascades. This makes a nice spot to stop and catch your breath and if it’s clear, the views of the Little North Fork canyon will be outstanding.  The trail stays high above the river for a bit before dropping swiftly back to river level at 3.0 miles.

Three Pools from the Little North Fork Trail

Three Pools from the Little North Fork Trail.

At 3.3 miles, look across the river to Three Pools, a popular day-use site. Here the Little North Fork roars through a series of narrow rock channels, creating three deep, swimmable pools. A single rock pillar stands sentinel above the scene. Downstream the river flows gently through a placid stretch of water that is almost too green to be believed. Three Pools is extremely popular on summer weekends…and is almost deserted in other seasons. Sadly, you cannot cross the river here (consider stopping by after the hike) so continue hiking upstream. Along the way you’ll cross Little Cedar Creek on another scenic wooden bridge before reaching the upper trailhead, at a scenic wooden road bridge over the Little North Fork River 4.5 miles from your car. Across the river is lovely Shady Cove Campground. You could shuttle this hike but then, you won’t have the pleasure of hiking it again, now will you?


20 Mar

Jackpot Meadows

Distance: 6.0 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 1,200 feet elevation gain
Season: June – November
Best: August and September
Pass: None
Map: Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness (USFS)

Directions: From Portland, drive US 26 east for 49 miles to a junction signed for Trillium Lake. Turn right here onto FR 2656. Stay on this paved road for 1.8 miles and keep left to stay on FR2656 for another 1.8 miles to a junction with FR 309. Turn right here and follow signs for the Salmon River Trail for 2 miles to a pullout on your right. There is room for 3 – 5 cars here. The trail continues straight down the hill – do not turn onto the Salmon River Trail to your right.

Hike: Most people prefer to hike in the warm, sunny days of summer. But not every day can be warm and sunny, even in July and August. Don’t let that keep you from exploring the mountains. You should go to Jackpot Meadows on one of these days. Though only ten miles from Mount Hood, there are no great views of the mountain. Though the trail crosses the waterfall-rich Salmon River, there are no waterfalls or any of the massive old-growth that marks the canyon downstream of here. So why should you visit Jackpot Meadows? Because it is a peaceful, lovely place that you will have to yourself, especially on rainy days. This trail is great in early summer when rhododendrons turn the forest pink but much, much better in fall, when the mosquito hordes have departed the meadow and the forest burns orange and red with fall color.

Jackpot Meadows tree

Huge cedar tree on the way to Jackpot Meadows.

The trail leaves from the same trailhead as the Upper Salmon River Trail and immediately begins a gentle descent through mixed forest. Look for the usual Douglas firs, cedars and mountain hemlock but also note the other varieties of trees not usually found in this neck of the woods, such as Alaska cedar and Pacific yew. After about a mile of gradual downhill, curve right around the slope and begin to lose elevation at a steeper clip. Shortly thereafter gain a view of the Mud Creek canyon to the right. For a better view head up the slope to the edge to see Mud Creek tumbling through an open canyon that seems to be one massive talus slope. If you are looking for a short day in the woods, this makes for an excellent lunch spot. Otherwise, continue downhill to a lonely wood bridge over the Salmon River at 1.2 miles. A relic of the time when trails crisscrossed national forests, it is amazing that this bridge has survived as long as it has (another bridge downstream at Linney Creek washed away some years ago and has never been replaced).

Mud Creek's canyon in fall.

Mud Creek’s canyon in fall.

Cross the bridge and parallel the river for about 100 yards before turning inland. From here the trail launches uphill through a lovely forest of second-growth pines and firs. Look back over your shoulder for occasional views of Mount Hood but take what you can get; there are no clearer views of the mountain to be had anywhere on this hike. After a mile of steady climbing, top out and work your way around and over an unnamed creek. The trail follows this lovely stream with its banks of wildflowers up to a junction with FR58-240. The mosquitoes control this forest early in the season and by the time you reach the road you might be tempted to turn back. Let the flowers be your tradeoff.

Cross the road and follow the trail a couple hundred yards to Jackpot Meadows. The first time I came here the entrance to the meadow was a waterlogged mess guarded by (literally) millions of mosquitoes. We had to run back the other direction. If you are not bothered by bloodsucking vermin, continue into the meadow. Look for pink shooting stars and many other lovely wildflowers in this narrow meadow. If you’ve come here after the mosquitoes are gone, take your time to enjoy this beautiful spot. Otherwise, lick your wounds and turn around to your car.

Jackpot Meadows in fall

Jackpot Meadows in fall