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June 20, 2021

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Steep hike up Hamilton Mountain worth it for Columbia River Gorge views

Emergence of fall colors makes challenge worth it

By , Columbian Assistant Sports Editor
3 Photos
A view of Bonneville Dam from the Hamilton Mountain trail. The six-mile round trip hike is steep, but offers expansive views of the Columbia River Gorge.
A view of Bonneville Dam from the Hamilton Mountain trail. The six-mile round trip hike is steep, but offers expansive views of the Columbia River Gorge. (Photos by Tim Martinez/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The trail up to Hamilton Mountain offers natural beauty and breathtaking views.

That is, of course, if the climb up hasn’t already taken your breath away.

Experienced hikers are familiar with the Hamilton Mountain trail, one of the more popular treks on the north side of the Columbia River gorge.

For novice hikers seeking a new challenge, Hamilton Mountain fits the bill.

Plus, the changing colors of the season and a less congested path make autumn an ideal time to trek.

To reach the trailhead, you’ll head to Beacon Rock State Park and take the road toward the campground.

At the trailhead, you’ll need to pay your $10 Discover day pass, which can be done by cash or check in pay envelopes. A pay station that accepts credit cards is currently out of service because of construction work, so keep that in mind.

From the trailhead, the climb starts right away, ascending 1.25 miles to Rodney and Hardy falls.

If you feel a little winded, it may be a good idea to take a few moments to enjoys the falls, which includes the Pool of the Winds at the top of the falls. That’s because the real climbing comes beyond the falls.

The climb soon turns into switchbacks, which start out long and sweeping at first, but quickly turn shorter and steeper.

Erosion makes footing tricky in spots, which is important to remember as the improving vistas — of Beacon Rock below and the Columbia River to the west — could easily distract your attention.

As you continue your climb, you may think you are getting near the top. But this is just the lower peak, which does offer a splendid view of North Bonneville and the Bonneville Dam. But your final destination, the peak of Hamilton Mountain, still looms high above.

That means more leg-burning switchbacks, which bring the top of Mount Hood into view just above the ridge on the Oregon side of the gorge.

The switchbacks continue like some never-ending line to your favorite ride at Disneyland. Eventually — or finally, depending on your level of fitness — as you look up, you’ll start to see blue sky through the trees, meaning the top is near.

Once near the top, the trail splits into a T intersection. To the right leads to the final quarter-mile scramble to the peak, which doesn’t offer a good view as trees and brush get in the way.

But just below the peak, you’ll be treated to views of the gorge to the east, the towns of Stevenson and Cascade Locks as well as Mount Adams in the distance.

Now you’re left with a decision. You can go back the way you came — a steep, pounding descent on now fatigued legs.

A second option is to follow the trail north along the back ridge of the mountain. This will lead to a loop return connecting with the Hardy Creek Trail.

This option will add more than a mile to your return, but your knees might thank you in the end.

It starts with a more gentle descent through evergreen trees before emerging onto a rocky saddle where the trail almost seems to melt away. But a large signpost on the other side of the saddle will reassure you that you are headed in the right direction.

The sign will lead you onto a broad equestrian trail which will take you down to Hardy Creek below. Once the trail starts to cross the creek, follow the signs onto the Hardy Creek Trail.

This trail takes you across several foot bridges through a grove of birch trees whose leaves in early October were just changing to a lighter shade of green, but by the end of the month should be in full fall splendor.

The babbling waters of Hardy Creek serve as your backdrop before increasing in sound, indicating you are getting close once again to Rodney Falls.

At this point, the trail breaks away from the creek before making another descent to reconnect with the Hamilton Mountain trail.

From there, it’s another two miles back down to the trailhead.

The up-and-back route to Hamilton Mountain is a little over six miles in length. The loop trail is 7.5 miles, and depending on your pace, takes 3 1/2 to four hours to complete.

But if you want to enjoy the gorge and all its natural beauty, the autumn might be the perfect time to revisit this classic gorge excursion.