The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area has quite a number of spectacular hiking trails, but probably the most spectacular of them all is the short (less than 1 mile) trail up to the top of Beacon Rock.
There are two things that make this spectacular:
+ The wonderful views on the way up the side of the rock (see photos of Views from the Trail)
+ The spectacular fashion in which the trail was constructed (around 1918!) on the side of the rock, so as to provide a hiking trail that really isn't that steep (many trails in The Gorge have a steeper slope) or that difficult. (see photos of The Most Astonishing Trail in the Northwest)
Unfortunately, once you get to the top the view isn't extremely good. It's nice, but the small forest at the top of the rock blocks quite a bit of the view. The best views of the river (especially to the west) are from the trail coming up - so don't forget to stop once in a while and enjoy the view as you climb up the hill.
Here are a few warnings for you as well:
+ There may be falling rock, and the trail signs say that you need to be very careful of this problem.
+ The trail is guarded by a steel door at the entrance (see photo 1). This door is closed and locked in the evening, so don't stay too late on the trail trying to get that one last sunset shot! You may get locked in!
+ The edges are very abrupt, and the handrails are typical what was installed on the Columbia Gorge trails through the 1970s - they include huge gaps under the bottom rail, so you will want to watch children very carefully.
+ The entrance to the trail is on the north side of the rock, and to get there from either parking lot on the east or west side of the base of the rock means walking along busy and fast State Route 14. Watch traffic closely, as many people don't have patience with those walking beside the road.
+ Be really careful about pulling into and pulling out of the parking lot in your car. The road curves through the area, and traffic moves fast, so that it is very easy for people to come flying around the curves in the road and find that someone has backed into the road to try to leave the parking lot.
This is a very popular place in the summer months (and even not so summerish months) so you may find it a bit crowded.
There are rest rooms with flush toilets at the big parking lot on the east side of the base of the rock.
The western entrance to Beacon Rock State Park includes access to the boat launch ramp and the day use area nearest the river (there are several day use and picnic facilites in the park, but this is the closest one to the river). The river side day use area is an open grass field that has quite a number of picnic tables, and a paved trail that runs around the perimeter of the grass field.
Do not confuse this day use area with the "lower" day use area that is described in some of the literature. Not so long ago, the area featured here was privately owned, and the "lower" day use picnic area was slightly uphill from Beacon Rock. It was purchased in 1983, but only recently made its way into development as part of the state park.
The paved trail is only slightly above river level, and there are quite a number of trees surrounding the large open field, so that the views of the river are not extremely spectacular. However, there are some great views of the surrounding hills, and the picnic area is well away from the highway, so the most traffic noise that you get is actually from Interstate 84 on the other side of the river.
There are great views of Beacon Rock itself from the trail around the perimeter of the park. If you look really closely at the rock, you can see bits of the Trail to the Summit of the Rock clinging to the side of the rock face.
The paved perimeter trail (approximately 1 mile (1.5 kilometers) has a number of interpretive signs that trace the history of the area, including some information about the Lewis & Clark expedition that came through the area.
None of the picnic tables have any sort of shelter above them, but several of them do have paved walkways off the main trail to them to allow wheelchair access.
For those who do wish to have a covered picnic area, there is one along Highway 14 right at the base of Beacon Rock itself, just slightly east of the entrance to the day use area along the river. There is also another day use area on a small access road that goes uphill from highway 14 - but those locations will have to be described elsewhere.
Running water and flush toilets are available at this picnic area most of the time.
Bird life in the surrounding forest depends a great deal on the season. The nature of the flat grasslands around the picnic tables at this location appears as though it would be a popular location for a number of wintering birds, but the gorge can be quite cold in the winter. I've not heard one thing or another about this being a good birding spot, so I would suggest further research. There is a wildlife refuge slightly upstream from Beacon Rock for wintering birds, so I would expect at least a little overlfow from that area.
This is a wonderful landmark along the Columbia River Gorge, visible in both directions for miles. If you are able there is a steep trail to the top of the 850 ft leftover volcanic core monolith. Even just driving over to it as we did was more impressive than gazing at it from across the river. There are picnic facilities and boat launches as part of the state park.
Unfortunately, as it is currently the view of Hardy Falls isn't exceptionally spectacular. The only access is a viewpoint that sits on a precarious rock overlooking the top of the falls from the west side. This is the best that could be done under the current trail circumstances.
The best route to this location requires starting at either the upper campground / grove trailhead or the Lower North Picnic Area / Hamilton Mountain trailhead. The trail from the grove trailhead has somewhat less elevation gain but fewer facilities at its location.
Either way, the trail climbs pretty quickly once it starts to climb the hill. It isn't the steepest trail in the Columbia Gorge by any means, but it is still quite steep and those who are not used to elevation gain will have to pace themselves a bit on this trail.
The trail from the lower north picnic area to the falls is approximately 1.25 miles (2 km) but you will want to leave at least an hour to cover the distance between the start and the falls due to the steepness of the hill. Once there, you will find a viewpoint trail that diverges from the main Hamilton Mountain Trail and goes steeply downhill a short distance to the viewpoint of the falls.
While the view of Hardy Falls is blocked by trees and is really at the wrong angle to seem very spectacular, the various smaller falls at this same location, plus the Pool of the Winds, combine to make it an attractive location if you are not up to the climb all the way to the top of Hamilton Mountain.
With the combination of things at this location, the other attractive features more than make up for the somewhat disappointing view of Hardy Falls that most people will have.
Don't let the 3.2 mile (5.3 km) distance fool you: Hamilton Mountain is not just another walk in a state park. The elevation gain from bottom to top is in the 2,400 ft range, and seems more than that once you start out. I won't say it is only for seasoned hikers because there really isn't anything exceptionally difficult about it, at least not compared to some of the other trails in the Columbia Gorge. However, it is still a climb and you should be physically fit to tackle this hike, and have plenty of water and perhaps a bit of food with you. Also, some of the areas on the trail are quite exposed rock surfaces so it is best to use a great deal of caution and you may want to think twice about this trail if you have trouble with heights. See photo 4.
The rewards for this climb is a wonderful view from above of the Columbia River Gorge to the east and west. See photo 2. Even the massive concrete of the Bonneville Dam seems small from up here.
Due to heavy use by many people, and careless use by some, the trail is eroded in a number of places as people wander off the trail, leading to decay of the trail and surrounding forest and plant life. Over the last 15 years or so, this has made the upper reaches of the trail especially difficult. Other's carelessness has left the trail nearly completely gone in places.
There are actually several different routes to the summit of Hamilton Mountain. These are all shown on the map of the park trails. The one that is the official "Hamilton Mountain Trail" starts at the "Lower Picnic Area" that is on the upper side of Highway 14. See the tip I have called "Lower Upper Picnic Area / Hamilton Mountain Trailhead" to find out more about this location.
After taking the trail up the hill past Hardy Falls you will continue up the hill and eventually come to a division in the trail. Your choices are "Hamilton Mountain - Difficult" and "Hamilton Mountain - More Difficult" routes (see photo 3).
However, the "More Difficult" route also allows for some views of the surrounding countryside from the rock ledges below the summit of Hamilton Mountain.
One good thing about this trail: you will find that coming down the hill requires far less time than going up it.
Rodney Falls is almost invisible from virtually every viewing angle. It empties into a hollowed out hole in the rocks from which it falls, and here it falls into a pool at the bottom of the hole.
This pool is called Pool of the Winds as the rush of water current coming down the falls creates as rush of wind out the small slit in the rock out of which the water pours.
The pool and bottom of the falls is only visible from the end of the trail that leads up to them, and a narrow, hazardous outcrop with a handrail allows one person perched at the very end of this trail to look into the pool.
The trail that leads to the Pool of the Winds is uphill from the trail that goes to the viewpont of Hardy Falls and is accessed from the Hamilton Mountain Trail.
About the Photos:
1. Here is a look directly into the Pool of the Winds. To get here, you have to go all the way to the end of the viewpoint, as the crack in the rocks through which the falls and the pool may be viewed is quite deep. From here, the wind coming out of the crack is a constant blast in the face, and the footing on the decayed rock surface is very hazardous. However, this is the only place from which you can view the Pool of the Winds. Actually getting this photograph was not exceptionally easy due to the heavy mist that comes blasting out of the hole. I had to have several false starts before devising a method of keeping the lens covered until the very moment the photo was taken.
2. Here is a look at the end of the trail, where the Pool of the Winds viewpoint is located. It is possible to see the water coming out of the narrow crack in the cliff, but there is no view of the Pool of the Winds. The only place to see it is from the end of that viewpoint. The falls going into the pool is visible on the top left.
3. Here is the dividing point: the main trail continues on to Hamilton Mountain. The side trail that climbs steeply (or perhaps even more steeply would be a better term) goes up the hill to the Pool of the Winds viewpoint, which is only a few hundred feet in length, but quite steep.
4. & 5. Here is an even closer view of the end of the trail and the viewpoint at its end. Notice how decayed the rock surface is on which you must stand. This area is filled with natural small pools, and so it is easiest to get out here if you have shoes / boots that are waterproof. However, there are ways of picking your way over the rocks to get to the viewpoint without getting into the water. Again, you can see the water that is coming out of the crack that marks the exit point for the water and wind from the pool.
Officially speaking, on the signs this area is called the "Lower Picnic Area", but that is on the signs after you have started to climb the hill on the north side of Highway 14. The real "lower" picnic area is the one right next to the Columbia River.
This "Lower Picnic Area" here has a few scattered picnic tables, some of them with cooking stands, and a single picnic shelter. The area was developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, and efforts have been made to keep it reasonably historic.
There is a small playground area for those using the spot as well.
The parking area here is fairly small, and expect it to be full on popular weekends.
This is the primary trailhead for those going up the hill to Hamilton Mountain and Pool of the Winds. However, it is also possible to get there from a trailhead located near the upper campground. However, that area only has a few parking places, so expect it to be full should you come somewhat late in the day and / or on a popular weekend.
Photo 5 shows the location of this trailhead and picnic area, from a photograph of the park map posted in the area. The fat red line is highway 14, and the road that leads to the area diverges from highway 14 just east of the park headquarters. This is the road that is very narrow, and best not attempted in large vehicles. It is a state park road only - the road that has a street sign that is in the same area continues goes too far east and north to go to this location. The red spot in the middle of the map is the location under discussion.