Hike #39 Cape Horn: Try Not to Plummet to Your Death Trail

On grey Oregon morning in the last days of January I set out for Cape Horn. The 7 mile loop hike on the Washington side of the Columbia Gorge was slated for closure in just a few days. The hike passes through critical Peregrine Falcon breeding habitat. The lower part of the trail closes from February 1st to July 15th every year to allow the falcons mate and raise chicks in peace. It seemed like a good, snow-free, hike to get out of the way. Plus, I’d done it once before in late summer some years ago. I remembered the hike as pleasant with good views, though it did pass through some rock slides.

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Remembering that the hike did have some cliff-side trail, I did make sure to check the weather for rain. I am not the most coordinated person in existence and I have full confidence in my ability to slip on a muddy trail and plummet to my death. There was no rain forecast and, in addition, I checked trip reports on Portland Hiker’s Field Guide. Reports indicated there was a little mud in spots, but not much. Encouraged by a favorable forecast I dashed off to the trailhead.

Upper Cape Horn Trail

What I didn’t think to check was the wind gusts. This is the Gorge, after all.

I first realized my mistake when I arrived red-faced and huffing at the first major viewpoint, Pioneer Point. As I stepped out of the treeline I was hit by gust of wind strong enough move me against my will. The view was stunning, but the wind was battering me at around 45 miles an hour, as I would later learn. While I did venture a little way out on to Pioneer Point between gusts, I was never far enough to be in danger.

Larch Mountain from Pioneer Point

Pioneer Point is about 1.2 miles from the trailhead. This 1.2 mile took be a little under an hour to hike. While Lacamas Heritage Trail was my first moderate hike, the Cape Horn trail was my first moderate hike with any significant elevation gain, about a 1600 foot gain total. 800 feet of that elevation gain is in the first 1.2 miles to Pioneer Point. I won’t lie, this was a tough hike for sedentary 260lb woman. But it is doable. If you can make it this far, you can make it the rest of the way. If you don’t get blown off a cliff and plummet to your death.

Pioneer Point, Cape Horn

After Pioneer Point, you keep climbing, but it’s more gentle as the trail becomes reclaimed access and logging roads. There are are beautiful views to be had on the northside of the cape as well.

Northface of Cape Horn

The you cross Strunk road and find yourself in a field and on your way to the Nancy Russel Overlook. I was planning on eating lunch here, but it was much too windy.The trail then dives down in the forest. I found some obstacles, a decaying shelter, and Cape Horn Falls.

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Cape Horn Trail

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I started thinking the worst was over and the rest of the hike would be cake. And it was cake: Windy Death Cake. As the trail winds under Cape Horn Falls, you’ll see the dramatic cliff on which the falcons make their eyries, sweeping views of the Columbia River, Cigar Rock, Beacon Rock, Larch Mountain, and lonely Phoca Rock, Where the tree line thins and the trail becomes cliff-side viewpoints, the wind is the worst and the trail here is full of loose rocks. There were a couple different times on this portion of the lower trail where I found myself huddling next to tree waiting for the wind to die; waiting for a moment when I felt it was safe to pass by cliff edges without danger of losing my footing and being blown into the Columbia below.

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But it was pretty.

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After you past the death cliffs, the trail becomes a scramble over broken rocks. Here, you find the trail be look to where the moss is not growing. It is very hard on the knees. I forgot my hiking poles, but I would highly suggest them here for anyone with knee problems, or more portly adventures like myself as our knees take more strain.

Rocky Cape Horn Trail

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Frozen Cape Horn Falls

After passing under Cape Horn Falls, the path continues to be rocky and somewhat treacherous until you reach the country road you’ll follow back to your car. I spent most of this walk back to my car praying some nice farmer would offer me a ride back up to the trailhead in the be of his pick-up. Instead, I just go yelled at by sheep and goats.

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Sullivan’s Stats:                    My Stats:
Distance: 7.2 mile                   6.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 1300              1600
Difficulty: Moderate                 Moderate

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