Friday, April 9, 2021

Silver Star-Sturgeon Rock Loop

Mount Hood rises above the Columbia River Gorge and Silver Star Mountain
8 miles loop, 2500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Reasonable gravel road to trailhead, Washington State Discover Pass required

The view from Washington State's Silver Star Mountain, which lies just beyond the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, encompasses at least five volcanoes of the mighty Cascade Range on a clear day. Although Silver Star is not a particularly high summit, its upper slopes are bald, opening up vast views over the surrounding area that can be accessed by just a moderately difficult hike. The summit is one of the classic outdoor destinations on the Washington side of the Portland suburbs. This hike visits Silver Star along with Sturgeon Rock, a nearby summit that is less-frequented, making a loop that delivers plenty of beautiful views.

This is one of the most scenic summits within a short drive from the Portland metropolitan area, but unfortunately accessing most of the multiple hiking routes to the summit requires a 4WD high clearance vehicle; this approach uses the Grouse Vista Trailhead, which involves the easiest drive, although it still requires travel on a gravel road. 

I hiked the Silver Star-Sturgeon Rock Loop on a clear early November day. From Portland, I took I-5 north into Washington State and then took Exit 11 for WA Highway 502; I followed Highway 502 east into the town of Battle Ground and then I turned left onto Highway 503 (10th Ave) in the center of town. Following Highway 503 north for 5 miles, I turned right onto Rock Creek Road, which I followed for 9 miles past Moulton Falls, where I turned right again onto Sunset Falls Road. In another 2 miles, I turned right onto Dole Valley Road, following the sign for the Larch Correction Center. I followed Dole Valley Road for 5 miles, passing Rock Creek Campground, and then turned left onto L-1200, a gravel road. I followed L-1200 for the final 5 miles to the trailhead, bearing right at the unmarked fork in this road and ascending into the forested Cascades via some switchbacks to reach the Grouse Vista Trailhead where the road comes to a saddle. The trailhead is within the Yacolt Burn State Forest, so a Washington State Discover Pass is required to park here.

Heading north from the trailhead on the trail departing across the road from the parking area, I started an ascent into a standard Northwest forest and immediately came to a trail junction. Here, I took the left fork for the Tarbell Trail; I would return on the Grouse Vista Trail on the right, which makes a beeline along the ridge towards Silver Star. The Tarbell Trail stayed fairly level for the next 1.6 miles as it contoured on the lower slopes of Silver Star, passing through forest the entire way on a well-built path. There were just a few breaks in the trees that provided glimpses of Pyramid Rock and the ridges of Silver Star rising above. At 1.6 miles, the Tarbell Trail crossed pretty, cascading Rock Creek by bridge. 

Cascades on Rock Creek
After crossing Rock Creek, the Tarbell Trail began to ascend. About a quarter mile after crossing Rock Creek, the trail entered a recent clear cut. For the next mile, the trail shifted in and out of this clear cut zone as it ascended the slopes of Silver Star Mountain via switchbacks with a moderate grade, crossing a gravel logging road at multiple points. The clear cuts here opened up the first real views of the hike, which extended over the valley of Rock Creek and the patchwork clear cuts on the nearby mountains as well as large outcrop of Pyramid Rock to the east.

Ascending through a clear cut on the way to Sturgeon Rock
After 500 feet of elevation gain from Rock Creek and just under 3 miles of hiking from the trailhead, I came to the west ridge of Silver Star. Here, the Tarbell Trail met the Sturgeon Rock Trail; I took the right fork at this junction to follow the Sturgeon Rock east along the ridge. The Sturgeon Rock Trail, an old road trace, made a stiff ascent through the forest along the ridge, climbing about 750 feet in just 0.7 miles. When the trail turned right to leave the top of the ridge and follow the south side of the ridge through a clearing, I looked for a spur trail to the left side of the trail. This unmarked path led steeply uphill along the ridge, soon emerging from the forest onto the clearing surrounding Sturgeon Rock as it climbed 350 feet in about 0.3 miles. The steep, narrow trail ascended along the open ridge to the rocky summit. A bit of scrambling was necessary to reach the very top of Sturgeon Rock, although you can see plenty of excellent views from the areas around the summit.

Sturgeon Rock
Views from Sturgeon Rock were excellent: Silver Star's mix of forested ridges and its bald summit closed off views to the east, but to the west there was a pretty view of Portland, the Columbia River, and the Coast Ranges. The snowy profiles of Mount Hood and Mount Jefferson rose to the south, while the three snowy sentinels of Mount St. Helens, Mount Rainier, and Mount Adams stood to the north. To the north, I could also see nearby ridges and mountain slopes that were bare or lightly forested; these areas are the legacy of the Yacolt Burn, one of the greatest recorded wildfires in the history of Washington State.

Portland skyline from Sturgeon Rock
After enjoying the sweeping views from Sturgeon Rock, I retraced my steps down the spur trail to rejoin the main Sturgeon Rock Trail. I continued east along this trail, which continued gaining elevation as it passed through the forest directly below Sturgeon Rock. I followed the Sturgeon Rock Trail east for another 0.6 miles after leaving the spur for Sturgeon Rock to its end at a junction with the Silver Star Trail in a clearing. At the junction with the Silver Star Trail- 4 miles from the trailhead, or 4.5 when factoring in the detour to the top of Sturgeon Rock- I took the left fork to head north towards Silver Star.

I followed the wide, well-built Silver Star Trail north for about 250 meters with a slight ascent to reach another trail junction, this time with the Silver Star Summit Trail No. 180D. I took a right at this junction and almost immediately came to a second junction, this time with the Bluff Trail; I stayed on the Silver Star Summit Trail, heading to the right and ascending out of the forest onto open slopes. The trail soon came to a saddle on the summit ridge of Silver Star, with two peaks on either side of the saddle. I visited the lower south summit first: from this high viewpoint, a remarkable view of open, rocky ridges lay to the east, with the mighty Cascade volcanoes to both the north and the south. From, here I continued onward to the north peak, arriving at the top of Silver Star Mountain after 5 miles of hiking from the trailhead.

Silver Star, Mount St. Helens, and Mount Rainier
At the north peak- the true summit- I enjoyed the expansive views in all directions. This view encompassed just about everything I could see at Sturgeon Rock, only now I could see the remarkably sharp form of Sturgeon Rock and its basalt cliffs as well. The Oregon Coast Ranges defined the western horizon, with the Columbia River lowlands filling the space in between and the Portland skyline glittering in the morning sun. Clouds filled the Columbia River Gorge and I could see all the way to the high summit of Mount Defiance defining the end of the western gorge. Mount Hood and Mount Jefferson lay to the south. 

Many nearby peaks had the same bald appearance as Silver Star, their ridges rocky and their slopes covered by meadows rather than forests. This area was ravaged by the 1902 Yacolt Burn, the largest recorded wildfire in Washington state history. Started across the river in Oregon, a man-made fire spun out of control and leaped the Columbia River into the southern Cascade forests during a dry September, sparking a half-million acre inferno that engulfed all the forests near the Columbia River Gorge. A half inch of ash from the wildfire was deposited on the Portland streets. Fires of this size have become common again in the West, with massive wildfires of this scale striking the North Cascades in 2015 and sweeping California and Colorado in 2020. Some of the bald mountains at Silver Star remain a legacy of the Yacolt Burn: forests have not fully recovered over a century later.

Looking down to Sturgeon Rock and the Columbia River valley
Mount Adams and the south Cascades
Mount Hood
The Columbia River
After enjoying the summit's spectacular views, I retraced my steps down the Silver Star Summit Trail (180D) to return to the Silver Star Trail (180). At this junction, I turned left to follow the Silver Star Trail back towards the Sturgeon Rock Trail intersection. This time, back at the Sturgeon Rock Trail intersection, I continued on the Silver Star Trail, heading south for another half mile before descending steeply to a junction with the Grouse Vista Trail. At this junction, I took the right fork for the Grouse Vista Trail. The Grouse Vista Trail kept me out on open slopes on the southwest ridge of Silver Star, with views back towards Silver Star and Sturgeon Rock and forward to the massive outcrop of Pyramid Rock. 

Pyramid Rock
The trail passed under Pyramid Rock and continued descending along the ridge, passing through forest in spots and clearings at other times. These clearings provided nice views back to the bald ridges that I had visited previously in the hike: Silver Star, Sturgeon Rock, and Pyramid Rock. At the end of this ridge, the trail reentered the forest and began a very steep descent that ended when I returned to the Grouse Vista Trailhead. The return leg of the journey from the summit of Silver Star was 3 miles long and dropped 2000 feet in elevation.

Looking back to Sturgeon Rock, Silver Star, and Pyramid Rock
This is one of my favorite hikes in the Portland area, packing in plenty of spectacular mountain views. I only encountered a few people on the day of my hike, but you probably wouldn't expect too many people to be out on a cold, windy Veterans Day anyway. Even though Silver Star is a popular destination for Portland hikers, it is a very worthy one.

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