After the Fire: Alternatives to Closed Gorge Trails

Latourell Falls  Photo: Darrin Gunkel
by Darrin Gunkel

There’s no way around it: Columbia Gorge hikers are going to have to do more driving this year. Since the Eagle Creek Fire, nearly every trail on the Oregon side remains closed indefinitely. To get the same bang for our hiking buck, we’re going to have to roam farther afield. But look on the bright side: casting a wider hiking net is a chance to get to know some less famous, but no less worthy trails. The question is, how to choose which ones? Here’s a list of some of the more popular Gorge trails, and their rough equivalents within day-trip range:

Closed: Wahclella Falls Loop—1.8 miles, 300 feet
Alternate: Latourell Falls Loop—2.4 miles, 520 feet
Where do you take your out of shape relatives from out of town? Wahclella Falls was always a good bet, guaranteed to wow urbanites from back east with a taste of Cascadia’s wonders that wouldn’t leave them soured with blisters and aching limbs. Fortunately, the other quick and easy Gorge-walk-guaranteed-to-please escaped the flames. Some say Latourell is one of the most beautiful falls in the gorge—it’s arguable. Do this loop clockwise, working through forest finery and smaller falls before the big unveiling. Then send them back to Ohio duly impressed.

Closed: Multnomah/ Wahkeena Loop—4.8 miles, 1,500 feet
How do you find an alternative with everything this loop offers: the easiest access, a slew of awesome waterfalls, a quick Gorge fix that you can squeeze in after work and still be home before dark (in Summer Solstice season, at least), a decent, but not grueling workout? You can’t. So, here are three alternates that attempt to fill the gap piecemeal:

Alternate: Pup Creek Falls—7.8 miles, 1,695 feet. 
This trail along the Clackamas River gives you all the water you’re missing along the Multnomah/Wahkeena Loop. The trail is longer, certainly not an after-work trip, but it’s not as steep, so the energy expenditure’s about the same. The forest is lovely, and the falls are as impressive as (almost) anything in the Gorge.

Alternate: Mitchell Point—2.6 miles, 1,270 feet
One of the few Gorge trails that escaped the burn, this is your quick fix. Sure, it’s shorter (and steeper), but the time you save can be spent at pFriem Brewery, just 15 minutes away in Hood River.

Alternate: Palisade Point from Fret Creek—4.8 miles, 1,300 feet. 
Almost too long a drive to count as an alternate, this northern approach to Badger Creek Wilderness does provide relief from crowds. It’s an almost identical workout to the Multnoma/Wahkeena Loop, and like it, add-on trips make it more enticing. But rather than viewless Devil’s Rest or the long, long trip up Larch Mountain, from The Palisades, you can go visit the masses ogling Hood at Lookout Mountain, or ramble out to Flag Point and visit with one of the last active fire watchers in the Cascades. The views from the fire lookout or the meadow south of Flag Point encompass much of Badger Creek, and a whole lot of eastern Oregon. The flowers are excellent.

Closed: Multnomah Falls to Devil’s Rest—8.4 miles; 2,300 feet
Alternate: East Zigzag from Lost Creek— 9.4 Miles; 2,300 feet.
Zigzag Mountain lacks waterfalls, but it does have pleasant Burnt Lake. And views. Big views, grand enough to take the sting out of the longer drive.

Closed: Nesmith Point—10.2 miles; 3,700 feet
Alternate: Huckleberry Mountain from Wildwood Recreation Area—11 Miles; 3,500 feet
These trails are practically twins. Huckleberry may be a little lower, but the longer trail makes up the few hundred feet difference in elevation. This route is in really good shape, and the grade is ideal for keeping your heart rate right where you want it. Fine Hood views from the tiny summit meadows. There’s lots of parking at this BLM site, but your Forest Pass won’t work—it’s only five bucks, though.

Closed: Mt. Defiance—12.2 miles; 4,900 feet 
Alternate: Paradise Park-Hidden Lake Loop Hike—18.1 Miles; 4,300 feet
While Mt. Defiance is closed, you’re going to need to find another test hike to prepare for your summer climbs. This could be the ticket. You can get to Paradise Park from Timberline. It’s a pleasant trip, but easier, and where’s the fun in that?

Closed: Horse Tail, PonyTail, and Triple Falls Loop—4.4 miles; 680 feet
Alternate: Falls Creek Falls—3.4 Miles; 700 feet
For your hardier relatives, or when you need a quick jaunt on a rainy day in the off season, the Horse, Pony, and Triple Falls triple threat could not be beat (especially as a launch pad up Franklin Ridge). Falls Creek Falls should be just about as impressive for visitors, and even though the walk has just one cataract, you can add nearby Panther Creek Falls to the trip.

Closed: Eagle Creek to Tunnel Falls—12 miles, 1,640 feet
Alternate: Lewis River—10 miles, 1,260 feet 
Eagle Creek is another one that really has no alternate (Not even the OTHER Eagle Creek, lost in its forest canyon down there by Estacada). So what do we do? Give up the tunnel and a few waterfalls and head for the Lewis River. Some would say that the forest here is actually better, the trees fatter, and the river wider. Go and decide for yourself.

Closed: Indian Point—7.6 Miles; 2,800 feet
Alternates: Cairn Basin from Top Spur—8.7 Miles; 2,200 feet
So the stats on this hike make it a good surrogate, and at 90 minutes from Portland, it’s still a reasonable day trip. It also makes a reasonable alternative to McNeil Point—the two destinations share much of the same route. But there’s something missing ... views of a great river in a deep gorge from the edge of a cliff. If that’s what you really crave, spend the extra 45 minutes traveling and head east of the Cascades to the Deschutes River and Criterion Ranch—10.2 Miles; 2,200 feet. A bonus that makes up for the significantly longer drive (still doable for a long day): no trees to block any of the views. Which also means no shade—but the flowers are better. Go early in the year or the day. Or take a really big parasol. Hood and Adams make appearances, too.

Closed: Nick Eaton Ridge Loop—14 Miles; 3,800 feet
Alternate: Dry Ridge to Grouse Point—14 Miles; 3,400 feet
Dry Ridge doesn’t get much traffic. The Roaring River Wilderness is less about scenery and more about protecting deep forests and tributaries of the Clackamas. The steep elevation gains on this trail also keep crowds at bay. If you’re missing Eaton’s stiff workout, this is the place for you.

Closed: Backpacking in the Mark O. Hatfield Wilderness 
Alternate: Badger Creek Wilderness, approached from the east
Losing backcountry camping in the Hatfield is a real bummer: quick and easy to get to, and often snow free while the high country is buried. The next closest thing is Badger Creek. Two loop trips can be launched from the School Canyon Trailhead above Tygh Valley, one longer, up over Tygh ridge, and one shorter, down through the canyon of Little Badger Creek (a reasonable 9 mile, 2,150-foot trip.) Or, you can hike up nearby Big Badger Creek for many pleasing miles. No matter which you choose, all have pleasant camping, and a rarity on the dry side of the mountains, consistent water sources. Badger’s network of trails isn’t as vast as Hatfield’s, but it’s a chance to sleep many miles from cars and lights and cell phone signals, still within a few hours of civilization, early or late in the season. Which is also when you should visit, unless you really enjoy heat.

Closed: Angel’s Rest/ Devil’s Rest Loop—10.9 miles, 2,770 feet 
Alternate: Huckleberry Mountain via Wildcat—11.2 miles, 2,200 feet
This is the lonesome way up Huckleberry Mountain, via the Plaza Trail from Douglas Trailhead, which is a quick hour from Portland, up the Wildcat Mountain Road above the OTHER Eagle Creek, near Estacada. You may find this alternate is actually more interesting than the original, with regular glimpses of Hood, and views that allow you to study the architecture of ridges and canyons at the heart of the Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness. You will find more solitude (where won’t you, after Angel’s Rest?). Oh, and the occasional glimpse of Jefferson–you don’t get that from Devil’s Rest.

Closed: Larch Mountain Crater—6.6 miles, 1,400 feet
Alternate: Memaloose Lake/ South Fork Mountain—4.6 miles, 1,400 feet
The ramble around Larch Mountain Crater is the meal before the dessert of views from Sherrod Point. This alternate trail has the same quiet forest feel of Larch’s crater, and some of the spectacle of Sherrod, too. To get to the views on this trail above the Clackamas River, you have to work a little harder, but Memaloose Lake along the way, with one of the best rhododendron forests anywhere, more than makes up for it. The lake is known for its newts, which you might find migrating on the trail if you’re there at the right time of year. South Fork’s summit is a bit woodsy–the volcanoes are farther away than on Larch, but there are more of them to see.

Closed: Elevator Shaft—6.7 miles, 1,860 feet
Alternate: Green Canyon Way—6.6 miles, 2,500 feet
You like steep? You’ve you got steep on this trip up Hunchback Mountain from Salmon River. And the forest is nicer, here, too. The mileage for this alternate is to the junction with the Hunchback Trail, which you can then follow all the way to Devil’s Peak lookout, and which may or may not be cleared of blow down. Or you could try the other direction, ambling along Hunchback’s ridge until it begins to drop down towards the Zigzag ranger station. Or just head back down to enjoy the burn while you cool your feet in the Salmon River.

Not closed, but you might want to consider an alternate anyway.

Trails north of the Columbia are going to be taking up a lot of the slack this season. Add the new, weird permits on Dog Mountain, and the loss of the two trailheads close to Table Mountain, and you have reason to consider avoiding some of the Washington side classics until things get back to normal.

Avoid: Table Mountain—Formerly 8, now 15.5 Miles; formerly 3,350, now 4,320 feet
Alternate: Salmon Butte—11.8 Miles; 3,170 feet
Since Bonneville Hot Springs Resort has been converted to a rehab facility, and the private access to the Aldrich Butte trailhead has been closed, the trip up the Gorge’s tallest summit has gone from rewarding punishment (multiple volcano views in the Gorge!) to a route only a trail runner could love. That slog along the PCT was always awful anyway… The great thing about Salmon Butte, the trail is prettier, even if, echoing Table Mountain, it follows an ugly retired road at the start. What you lose in Columbia River views on Salmon Butte, you gain in volcano counting from the summit: eight of ‘em! From a glimpse of the Sisters all the way to Rainier.

Avoid: Hamilton Mountain—7.5 Miles; 2,100 feet
Alternate: Siouxon Creek Hike—8.2 Miles; 1,600 feet
There’s no official reason to avoid Hamilton Mountain: it’s open, the trails are in good repair, it’s easy to get to, it’s still a wonderful trip. But closures elsewhere are likely to push the capacity of this already busy trail—not to mention log-jam the parking lot. Siouxon Creek is not exactly a hidden gem, but it is a little farther, a little less on-the-radar. And what Siouxon lacks in majestic Gorge vibes, it more than makes up for with its deep, lush, forest and pretty river.

Avoid: Dog Mountain—6.9 or 7.4 Miles; 2,800 feet 
Alternate: Nestor Peak—8 Miles; 2,980 feet
Unless they can go at night or during the week, the new permit system may force Dog Mountain off many a hiker’s to-do list this year. Fortunately, Nestor Peak is nearby, and a close match to the famous Dog. You won’t be staring straight down onto the decks of Columbia River barges from Nestor, but the flower show is worth the effort, as are the views out to Adams and Hood.

Avoid: Cape Horn—7.1 Miles; 1,350 feet
Alternate: Falls Creek Falls Loop—6.2 Miles; 1,150 feet
Again, aside from the seasonal closure to protect nesting peregrine falcons on the lower trail, there’s no real reason to avoid Cape Horn, other than overcrowding. Here too, parking is bound to be a mess, compounded by the proximity to Highway 14. Lead by example, leave a little earlier and get home a little later and enjoy this extended version of the Falls Creek Falls trip.

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