Friday, April 2, 2021

Table Mountain (Columbia River Gorge)

Mount Hood the Columbia River Gorge from Table Mountain
16 miles loop, 4200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

Soaring cliffs of columnar basalt make Table Mountain one of the most impressive peaks on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge. The views from this peak are stellar, sweeping over the length of the gorge and extending to the four nearby Cascade volcanoes; however, the approach to Table Mountain via the Pacific Crest Trail somehow manages to be long, a bit boring, and extraordinarily steep all at the same time. Experienced hikers may not mind the slog to get to Table Mountain's great views, but novice hikers and visitors to the Columbia River Gorge may be better off doing a more rounded and rewarding hike like nearby Hamilton Mountain. Hikers who do choose to come will find a trail that's relatively quiet despite its proximity to Portland and observe firsthand the landsape created by the Bonneville Landslide.

The long trail to Table Mountain can be broken down into a lengthy 6.5 mile approach to the base of Table Mountain and a extremely steep loop that ascends to Table Mountain's summit, visits some viewpoints, and returns to its base in 3 miles. Although Table Mountain is just 3420 feet high, the hike starts just above sea level and the undulating trail on the approach makes the cumulative elevation gain much more substantial. The approach trail spends most of its time traveling through clearcuts.

I hiked Table Mountain during an early November trip to the Columbia River Gorge. 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, Washougal, and North Bonneville to the Bonneville Trailhead, which was on the north (left) side of the highway just across from the entrance to the Washington side of the Bonneville Dam. The trailhead was well signed from the road and had a vault toilet and parking for about 20 cars; I put up my Northwest Forest Pass here after parking.

I started the hike out on the Tamanous Trail, a gravel path which initially paralleled a railroad track in a clearing before cutting to the right and beginning a gentle ascent into the forest as the railroad disappeared into a tunnel. The trail ascended about 200 feet to gain the top of a low, wooded ridge and then followed this ridge north to reach a junction with the Pacific Crest Trail at 0.6 miles. The forest on the Tamanous Trail was reasonably nice, with some scattered deciduous trees providing nice pockets of fall color during my November visit.

Forest along the Pacific Crest Trail
Reaching the PCT, I took the left fork to follow the famed trail northbound. You might think that being on the PCT should mean that there might be some better scenery, but you would be wrong; what followed was perhaps the least scenic stretch of the PCT in Washington State. For the next 1.7 miles, the PCT passed through a series of clearcuts, so the trail surroundings alternated between tree stumps, crowded growth of 10-foot tall conifers, and forest that looked to be fourth or fifth growth at this point. Occasional views of Table Mountain, the pyramidal rocky peak with a massive basalt southeast face that was my destination of the day, were the saving grace of this stretch of hike. The trail occasionally crossed the logging roads that run through this area and there was no sustained elevation gain or loss, although there were plenty of little ups and downs as the trail traveled through an undulating landscape.

At 2.4 miles from the trailhead, I crossed a logging road and came upon Gillete Lake, one of the many small pothole lakes that dot the landscape near Table Mountain. There were nice views here of Table Mountain rising above the lake and the scene was quite pleasant despite much of the surrounding area being clearcut. Power lines ran directly above the lake, ferrying hydroelectricity from the Bonneville Dam to points east. The trail descended and circled around the lake to the north, where a spur path led to the lakeshore.

Gillette Lake and Table Mountain
Leaving Gillette Lake, the trail crossed Gillette Creek and then continued through the patchwork landscape of clearcuts. Land ownership is quite complex along the PCT in this area: there is a mix of federal, state, and private land here, with different land managers subscribing to different forestry practices. After a gentle ascent up from Gillette Lake, the PCT followed a logging road for a hundred meters before a single-track trail split off to the right of the road; be sure to pay attention for the trail here. Passing by another pond, another logging road, and more clearcut, the trail reached a well built bridge over Greenleaf Creek at 3.5 miles from the trailhead.

Bridge over Greenleaf Creek
Greenleaf Creek marked the boundary of Gifford Pinchot National Forest and the conclusion of the clearcuts that dominated the early stretches of the hike. From here on, the surroundings felt much more natural. The trail switchbacked uphill for a bit before leveling out as it contoured along the side of a hill, passing a clearing with a view of the Columbia River Gorge. This stretch of the trail, which was forested but had partial views out to the gorge, was quite pleasant. At 4.5 miles, I passed a junction with the Two Chiefs Trail, which was an old road trace. 

Views of the Columbia River Gorge from the forested PCT
The trail was fairly flat until I reached the 5 mile mark of the hike, where the trail crossed a creek and then began a switchback climb up to a low ridge. Once atop the ridge, the PCT headed north while ascending steadily, eventually intesecting a road trace; the trail and the road trace paralleled each other briefly, so following either path is fine. The trail and the road trace soon combined as I reached the base of Table Mountain and the PCT began climbing more steeply along the lower slopes of Table Mountain.

At 6.4 miles from the trailhead, the PCT came to a junction with the Heartbreak Ridge Trail, which was marked by a large information board. From here, the Heartbreak Ridge Trail broke off to the right, headed towards the summit of Table Mountain. I hiked a loop here to get up and down Table Mountain: I chose to ascend the Heartbreak Ridge Trail and then to do a counterclockwise loop around the summit viewpoints before descending on the West Table Mountain Trail and then following the PCT back to this junction. That loop only covers about 3 miles of hiking but includes over 1600 feet of elevation gain.

I turned right at the junction to start up the Heartbreak Ridge Trail. After 6.4 miles of flat to moderate hiking, the trail became serious here: this is one of the steepest trails in the Columbia River Gorge. This not just an aggressive ascent: the trail is brutally steep, eschewing switchbacks in favor for a direct, full-on assault of Table Mountain's slopes. The trail ascended a net of 1400 feet in one mile along the Heartbreak Ridge Trail and that eye-popping stat doesn't even begin to really explain the steepness: perhaps it is more useful to note that there is a relatively flat 0.4 mile stretch in the middle of this hike that actually includes some downhill, meaning that the 1400 feet of elevation gain is packed into about just 0.6 miles, a grade as steep as the trail to Aasgard Pass in the Enchantments.

The Heartbreak Ridge Trail made its first 700 feet of ascent in 0.3 miles in the forest before flattening out to reach a brushy saddle. Here, the first of this hike's multiple excellent views opened up. This saddle between Table Mountain and the lower Sacaquawea Rock had a stunning view of the mountain's immense basalt cliffs, perhaps the most massive vertical cliff of columnar basalt in the United States. The Columbia River flowed in the gorge down below, bending around Oregon's Mount Defiance to the east. Sacaquawea Rock was another sharp and impressive basalt outcrop just to the south.

Basalt cliffs of Table Mountain
After I passed the saddle, the trail descended briefly- surely the advertised heartbreak, after such a strenuous ascent- before it went right back into the relentless uphill. The final 700 feet of uphill on the Heartbreak Ridge Trail were covered in another 0.3 miles, meaning there was no time for switchbacks, with the trail plowing straight uphill first through the forest and then through a talus slope. There's not much of a real trail through the talus slope, so I picked my way through the rocks while following a number of poles that marked the route. After the trail returned to the forest, it curved to the left and continued the morale-destroying uphill until it ended at an intersection. Here, the left fork promised a return to the PCT on the West Table Mountain Trail, while the right fork led towards the Gorge Overlook. I took the right fork. While the grade on this trail was still quite steep- ascending 150 feet in 200 meters- it felt like a relief after coming off the brutal ascent of the Heartbreak Ridge Trail. At the top of this short uphill, I arrived on Table Mountain's flat summit plateau and came to the Table Mountain Trail. While the left fork here led to the high point of Table Mountain, I took the right fork first to head to an overlook over the Columbia River Gorge.

The side trail to the Gorge Overlook was tremendously scenic. The trail followed the top of a ridge that was open to the south, providing sweeping views to the southwest over the Columbia River Gorge. Towards the end of the ridge, the trail narrowed as it passed directly above the massive basalt cliffs of Table Mountain's southeast face. The trail ended when the ridge did, above the steep, thousand-foot cliffs at the top of Table Mountain's great basalt pyramid.

Atop the great cliffs of Table Mountain
The view from here was jaw-dropping; this is one of the most commanding views in the entire Columbia River Gorge. The view of the individual basalt columns on the cliffs was extraordinary. There was so much air below the viewpoint as Table Mountain's slopes plunged to the forested landscape of the Bonneville Landslide below. The Bonneville Dam held back the Columbia River and Mount Hood rose above the Oregon side of the Gorge. Views stretched west towards Larch Mountain, although forest on the northeast side of Table Mountain's ridge blocked views to the east.

Mount Hood and the Bonneville Dam
This is perhaps the best viewpoint from which to appreciate the immensity of the Bonneville Landslide, an enormous mass wasting event in the Columbia River Gorge in parts of Table Mountain and nearby Greenleaf Mountain collapsed into the gorge. This landslide- or perhaps a series of landslides- is a geoloically recent event, having occurred sometime between 1100 and 1700 CE. The slide brought down massive amounts of rock from the two peaks, filling the valley below and blocking the flow of the Columbia River. Native peoples have oral records of this event, which created a massive natural dam on the Columbia that became known as the Bridge of the Gods. The great erosive power of the Columbia eventually wore away this dam, forming the Bonneville rapids; those rapids then made this site an attractive spot for the lowest dam on the Columbia River.

The source of these massive landslides may be linked to past megathrust earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest, perhaps the 1700 Cascadia earthquake that was the last known quake of such magnitude on the Cascadia subduction zone. As the Juan de Fuca Plate is still actively subducting beneath the North American Plate, it is all but certain that more such earthquakes will rock the Northwest.

After enjoying the view from the Gorge Overlook, I headed north along the Table Mountain Trail to explore other areas of the summit. As the mountain's name suggests, the summit area is a flat plateau. I hiked to the north end of the mountain, passing Table Mountain's high point along the way in a forested area. When the main trail began to loop around at the north end of the mountain, I took the spur trail that led me to the edge of the peak's north ridge. From here, there were great views to the north and east. The views to the north encompassed the three great volcanoes of southern Washington State: Mount St. Helens, Mount Rainier, and Mount Adams, rising above the forested ridges of the South Cascades. All had donned their winter snowcoats by early November.

Looking north to St. Helens, Rainier, and Adams
To the east, I could see the Columbia River flowing out of the deep gorge near Mount Defiance into the gentler landscape near Cascade Locks and Stevenson. Eagle Creek is almost directly across the Columbia River from Table Mountain on the Oregon side: that watershed was responsible for two very destructive historical wildfires. One of the worst wildfires- the Yacolt Burn- was sparked on the Oregon side of the Gorge near Eagle Creek in September 1902. The fire leaped the gorge and set ablaze a half million acres of forest in southwest Washington, casting smoke clouds that completely darkened the skies over Portland and Seattle and depositing a half inch of ash in the Portland streets. In September 2017, another fire was sparked near Eagle Creek when a teenage hiker threw fireworks into bone dry forest, igniting a 50000 acre inferno that burned much of the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge and that once again rained ash in Seattle and Portland. As of early 2021, many of the trails damaged during that fire- including the once famed Eagle Creek Trail- have still not reopened.

Mount Defiance rises over the Columbia River Gorge
After thoroughly enjoying the summit views, I completed the loop around the summit, following the West Table Mountain Trail along the west side of the mountaintop and past a large basalt ledge with good views of the volcanoes. Past the ledge, the West Table Mountain Trail started its steep descent. Shortly afterwards, I passed an intersection with a trail that led to the left back towards the Heartbreak Ridge Trail; I continued forward on the West Table Mountain Trail, which descended steeply through forest along the mountain's western south ridge. This descent was just as steep as the Heartbreak Ridge Trail: in 0.8 miles, the West Table Mountain Trail dropped 1200 feet to rejoin the PCT. As I descended, the trail broke back out into the open along the top of the rocky ridge, delivering some final views on the hike. In addition to lovely views of Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge here, I also had nice views east to Heartbreak Ridge, along which I had ascended. I could see the high overlook over the Gorge atop Table Mountain's cliffs as well as the sharp profile of Sacaquawea Rock.

Descent along the West Table Mountain Trail
Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge from the West Table Mountain Trail
The trail was composed of loose rock along much of the West Table Mountain Trail, making footing treacherous and forcing me to pay total attention on the trail. Tackling such a steep downhill grade with poor footing was just as difficult as the lung-busting ascent. When I finally exited the talus slope, I had a final steep descent through the forest before the West Table Mountain Trail ended at a junction with the PCT.

Back on the PCT, I breathed a sigh of relief as I returned to a properly graded trail. I followed the PCT gently downhill through the forest on the lower slopes of Table Mountain and passed the Heartbreak Ridge junction after a half mile; from there, I retraced my steps for the final, long 6.4 miles back to the trailhead. I saw just a single other hiker all day, although I'm sure that this hike will be a bit more popular than that in summer. I rewarded my long day's effort when I returned to Portland with dinner at Bollywood Theatre (it was okay) and by watching Alex Honnold climb El Capitan in Free Solo.

The views atop Table Mountain are magnificent, but I'm still not prepared to recommend this hike to most people. The neverending approach and its ugly clearcuts and the brutal steepness of the Heartbreak Ridge and West Table Mountain Trails combined to make this a tough hike. I'm glad I saw Table Mountain's sweeping panoramas but I'm in no hurry to return to this corner of the Columbia River Gorge.

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