I will start by saying two things about hiking Washington state’s Cape Horn:
1) The views of the Columbia River Gorge from there are completely unrivaled.
2) The last 2.5 miles of trail are
a little rough completely batshit crazy.
Cape Horn is not for the timid, the novice, nor the weak. It’s for folks with quite a few hikes under their belts and a decent sense of fearlessness. Cape Horn also receives recognition for being the first hike I’ve taken that proved more mentally taxing than physically. I never thought I’d say this, but the 1,400 ft. ascent was the breezy part.
Before I get into my experience on the trail, just a quick overview first:
- The actual full Cape Horn trail comes in at just shy of 8 miles (the bottom part is closed Jan. 1st – July 1st each year) with an additional 1.3 mile walk on an uphill country road back to the parking lot. (The fitness tracker I wore said we traversed a total of 10.61 miles from the parking lot and back).
- The trail is practically baby new. The first 5 or 6 miles are just a few years old, with the bottom 2 or 3 miles completed only last year in 2011.
The trail starts out innocently enough on well-marked trail. The first 2 or so miles are pure ascent. According to my fancy fitness tracker, we climbed roughly 860 feet on the initial ascent, or 86 flights of stairs. It is here that you get your best glimpses of the Columbia Gorge, an astonishing 240 degree view.
The trail keeps climbing through thick forest on a rather narrow but well-maintained foot path. There are quite a few hiking websites that advise against hiking this trail in wet weather, and I would absolutely agree. At several points you are literally hugging the cliff as you gingerly make your way in some spots as wide as your own feet, with only dirt and loose rock underneath you. It’s a bit treacherous, but in dry weather we did not have any issues for the first 5 or 6 miles.
For about a mile or so you will start descending down through the forest and enter what looks like private property, but it’s open to hikers so long as you stay on the trail. You’ll cross a road (Strunk Road) and continue through what looks like someone’s farm, but again, the trail there is open to hikers. After a ways (perhaps another mile) you will re-enter the forest and begin working your way up to a gorgeous viewpoint. This is a perfect place to rest, rehydrate, and eat something, as there is a circular stone look-out with stone benches to rest and admire the view.
I don’t remember the trail verbatim from after this viewpoint, but this is definitely where things start to get a little hairy. After leaving the look-out, you’ll spend about another mile through the forest before you come upon what looks like a never-ending series of descending talus switchbacks. This is where, for me, the hike went from a great work-out with stunning views to a test of intense mental-focus and the physical stamina to not slip to our deaths and die. Or at the least, take one wrong step or place our foot on one wrong rock and twist an ankle. The rocks here are roughly fist-size and incredibly loose. And by loose, I mean not grounded at all. You could kick the whole trail away if you tried. This is how unstable these switchbacks are. Neither of us had trekking poles, so we took it very slowly, one step at a time and hanging onto the side of the slope for any sense of stability. Eventually we made it down. Fortunately we did not pass anyone on any of the dozen or so taluses, otherwise it would have been an impossible feat of balance for whomever had to pass on the outside while the inside hiker tried clinging to the slope wall. In some particularly tricky parts, Andrew literally had to hold my hand so I could balance.
The talus slopes only broke in spots but they never really let up until the very end of the trail itself. We passed by and then behind Cape Horn Falls, which felt amazing as we let the mist splash our sweaty faces. After the falls, it’s a very sharp descent down more craggy, unsteady rock. Some sites say it is here you will be using your hands for stability, and I will concur. Even if you have trekking poles, you will physically have to grab onto whatever you can to help you down.
Finally, at the very end of the trail, you will come out to a country road. It is here you will turn left and make your way uphill to the parking lot. This section of road is only 1.3 miles, but after the hike we just had, both mentally and physically drained, this 1.3 miles felt more like 5. We made it back to the lot and promptly collapsed on the grass. This hike was the most intense one either of us have ever taken in our entire lives, all thanks to those last 2 or 3 steep descending miles of crazy talus slopes.
Overall, according to my fitness tracker, we climbed an equivalent of 164 flights of stairs, or 17 stories taller than the Empire State Building. And that was the easy part. This hike is a beauty, but dammit if she doesn’t make you work for it. We completed this hike in 4 hours and 35 minutes, at an average of 25 minutes per mile. We had actually made great time until the talus slopes. I would guess at that rate we were getting a mile in 40 minutes at best.
For a more (accurately) detailed description as well as directions on how to get out to Cape Horn, this website has it all.
Treks Down: 19, Treks to Go: 33