Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Hamilton Mountain (Columbia River Gorge)

Hamilton Mountain rises above the Columbia River Gorge
7.5 miles loop, 2100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Washington State Parks Discover Pass required

The massive basalt cliffs of Hamilton Mountain provide marvelous views over the Columbia River Gorge, making it one of the most popular hikes on the Washington State side of the gorge. This hike in Beacon Rock State Park visits some pretty waterfalls en route to the views from Hamilton's big cliffs; the variety on the hike makes it one of the more enjoyable hikes in the Columbia River Gorge. Its location overlooking the Bonneville Dam, just an hour from Portland, makes it an extremely popular destination with local hikers.

I hiked Hamilton Mountain during an early November trip to the Columbia River Gorge, hoping to see some fall color on the deciduous trees in the area. From Portland, I took I-205 north across the Columbia River into Washington and exited onto Washington Highway 14 heading east. I followed Highway 14 past Camas and Washougal, enjoying the views at Cape Horn before continuing onward to Beacon Rock State Park. At Beacon Rock State Park, immediately after passing a sign welcoming me to the park on the left side of the road, I made a left turn onto a side road that was only marked by a sign that said "Camping"; I followed this road uphill and took the first right turn, which brought me into a sizeable parking lot that was the trailhead for the Hamilton Mountain hike. As this was a Washington State Park, I displayed my Discover Pass before starting the hike. On a sunny and cold November weekend, the parking lot was full.

I left the parking lot on the trail to Rodney Falls and Hamilton Mountain. The trail started out with a gentle ascent through the forest for the initial 0.3 miles before emerging into a power line clearing. The clearing provided a clear view due east down to the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, from which these power lines emanated, carrying hydroelectric power to Vancouver, Washington and beyond. In this clearing, the Hamilton Mountain Trail intersected with the Hadley Trail, which led off to the left towards the Beacon Rock State Park campground. I stayed the course, returning into the forest on the Hamilton Mountain Trail. The trail continued making a gentle ascent through the forest and came to a junction with a spur trail to Hardy Falls at 0.9 miles.

The spur trail to Hardy Falls branched off to the right of the trail and dropped about 50 feet in elevation; however, it was not a particularly worthwhile detour as there are not good views of the falls from the trail. Prettier waterfalls lay just ahead on the trail and were more enjoyable stops. Shortly after passing the Hardy Falls spur trail, I came to another spur trail on the left that led to the Pool of the Winds. This short side trail ended at a cliff walkway above Rodney Falls and a view into a beautiful gorge where a waterfall on Hardy Creek plunged powerfully into the Pool of the Winds. The force of the waterfall indeed resulted in gusts blowing out of the pocket gorge. This spot had the feel of a slot canyon and is one of the prettiest waterfalls on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge.

Pool of the Winds
I returned to the main trail, which crossed Hardy Creek on a well-built bridge just below Rodney Falls, a pretty cascade, at the one mile mark of the hike. This is a popular spot; expect the bridge to be crowded on a nice weekend day.

Rodney Falls
From Hardy Creek, the trail began to ascend more steeply, passing a gap in the trees with a view down to the Columbia River and Beacon Rock. At 1.2 miles from the trailhead, I passed an intersection with the Hardy Creek Trail, which split off to the left. I would return on the Hardy Creek Trail as this was a loop hike, but on the way in I continued uphill on the Hamilton Mountain Trail. The amusing trail sign here labeled the two routes as being "Difficult" and "More Difficult." The "More Difficult" route lived up to its billing, embarking on a steep switchback climb up the slopes of Hamilton Mountain.

View of Beacon Rock and the Columbia River from the Hamilton Mountain Trail
The Hamilton Mountain Trail switchbacked up to a bald, rocky ridge stretching south from the main mountain, reaching the top of that ridge at 1.7 miles. This ridge had arguably the best views of the hike: the massive basalt cliffs of Hamilton Mountain rose above, while the Columbia River Gorge was laid out below, with the mightiest river of the Northwest cutting its way through the Cascades. Deciduous trees were intermixed into the conifer forests below, providing pockets of yellow autumn color that spiced up the scenery. The mountains on the Oregon side of the river rose steeply from the Columbia, creating the dramatic topographic relief that makes possible the many waterfalls on the Oregon side, which include Multnomah Falls, Oregon's tallest drop.

Basalt cliffs of Hamilton Mountain
The Bonneville Dam held back the Columbia River just to the east of Hamilton Mountain. The Bonneville Dam is the last of the many dams on the Columbia River before its waters finally reach the Pacific Ocean. The nearly 200-foot high dam holds back the Columbia River to generate renewable and cheap hydroelectricity for the Northwest and to protect downstream communities from floods that previously ravaged the towns along the Columbia. Started as a New Deal project in the Great Depression, the Bonneville Dam- along with the Grand Coulee Dam- was one of the first major hydroelectric projects along the main trunk of the Columbia River. The slackwater reservoirs held back by this dam and seven others between here and Hells Canyon allow for barge traffic as far inland as Lewiston, Idaho. The power generated from this dam has helped keep electricity prices in the Northwest lower than just about anywhere else in the country.

The Columbia River is just barely above sea level at the downstream side of the dam: sea lions from the Pacific swim upstream as far as the base of the Bonneville Dam. Salmon swim to this dam each year, too, on their way back to their spawning grounds higher up the river. Fish ladders help the salmon surmount the dam, but this dam and the numerous others upstream make the journey more difficult and have altered the river's natural flow, which has severely impacted the salmon runs on the Columbia River. The salmon runs each summer and fall now are just fractions of the size of the monumental salmon migrations that nourished Native peoples all across the Northwest and that amazed Lewis and Clark.

Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River
I followed this ridge north to reach the base of the main cliffs of Hamilton Mountain. Here, the trail began switchbacking aggressively again as it ascended another 600 feet to reach the summit of Hamilton Mountain. Early in this ascent, the trail switchbacked through a clearing with views west along the gorge as the Columbia River flowed by the bases of Larch Mountain and Beacon Rock. I didn't realize it at the time, but this would actually be the last good view in a while, as the views are actually quite limited at Hamilton Mountain's true summit.

Beacon Rock and the Columbia River Gorge
The trail returned to the forest for the remainder of the ascent until it reached the summit ridge of Hamilton Mountain at 2.8 miles from the trailhead. There was an unmarked intersection at the top of the ridge; the trail to the right led to a dead end at the 2438-foot summit, where there were no real views to speak of. I followed the trail to the left, which continued north along the summit ridge; unfortunately, vegetation was quite tall here and views were quite limited, though not nonexistent. After 0.2 miles along the ridge, I came to a raised rock ouctrop by the trail; hopping on the outcrop, I found some nice views, most notably to the northeast of Table Mountain's impressive columnar basalt cliffs and Mount Adams in the distance. Table Mountain's cliffs were massive, dwarfing the basalt cliffs on Hamilton Mountain. The basalts that make up Table Mountain, Hamilton Mountain, and Beacon Rock are a result of the Columbia River Flood Basalts rather than volcanism in the Cascades. Volcanic activity from a hot spot over what is now eastern Washington and Oregon resulted in massive eruptions of low-viscosity lava that flooded the Columbia Basin and flowed west along the Columbia River Gorge, forming thick layers of flood basalts.

Table Mountain and Mount Adams from Hamilton's summit ridge
Leaving the rocky viewpoint, I continued north along the ridge, which was generally forested. The trail then descended off the ridge to the west and traversed slopes just below the ridge to reach an open, rocky saddle at 3.7 miles from the trailhead. There were good views from this saddle: Table Mountain towered over the Columbia River to the east, while the rocky ridge of Hamilton Mountain that I had just hiked rose to the south, with Mount Hood's snowy summit peeking out behind the mountains on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge. This was a nice, quieter spot on the trail with plenty of room to spread out, sit, and enjoy the scenery; it was also the last major viewpoint on the hike.

Table Mountain and the Columbia River Gorge
Mount Hood and Hamilton Mountain
When I soaked in enough of the views, I decided to complete the loop to get back to the trailhead. From the saddle, I walked north to the edge of the clearing, where I came to a well signed junction; here, I took the left fork for the Equestrian Trail, a road trace which began to descend into the forest. I followed the Equestrian Trail gently downhill for a mile through a broad switchback, dropping into a deciduous forest where the trees were displaying beautiful fall colors in the late afternoon lighting. I passed by a junction to the right of the trail for Don's Cutoff and a mile after leaving the saddle I came to another junction with the Upper Hardy Creek Trail at the bottom of a valley. Here, 4.8 miles from the trailhead, I turned left to follow the Upper Hardy Creek Trail south.

Descent along the Hardy Creek drainage
I followed the Upper Hardy Creek Trail briefly to a small clearing with a picnic table. Here, I headed to the left at the junction with the Hardy Creek Trail, leaving the Equestrian Trail. I followed the Hardy Creek Trail through the forest on the lower slopes of Hamilton Mountain for the next 1.2 miles, passing through beautifully illuminated autumn woods. The trail passed a few clearings with limited views en route and dropped steeply at the end as it descended to rejoin with the Hamilton Mountain Trail. From there, I followed the Hamilton Trail for the final 1.2 miles back to the trailhead.

Autumn woods near Hardy Creek
The views of the Columbia River Gorge and the Bonneville Dam from Hamilton Mountain were quite good, although the best views did not come from the summit. The waterfalls en route- especially the Pool of the Winds- gave this hike plenty of variety. The fall colors in November visible both in the forests along Hardy Creek and in the Columbia River Gorge below were surprisingly nice. The hike is a bit on the popular side so it might not be so fun during peak summer hiking season, but I found it to be an enjoyable experience during the shoulder season.

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