Where the heck is Hamilton Mountain, you may be asking. Even if you live in Washington, you are probably wondering. It’s high above the Columbia River Gorge, that’s where. It was my first hike in the area. Though not my usual wildflower meadow, far from the madding crowd fare, it is pretty darn spectacular.
I spent way too much time on the Washington Trails Association website (WTA.org) over the weekend trying to find an adventure that wasn’t still under snow pack or too far away. I can’t bring myself to drive north on I-5 for a day trip to the Central Cascades. Those treks need to be planned with an overnight with the Littles. And I do need to schedule another camping trip for more exploration of the North Cascades. Anyhoo, trails I haven’t been on that I think my almost 67-year-old body can manage are getting scarce down in the South Cascades, and it’s too early for those I want to return to. I’ve got one in the Olympics waiting in the wings for when the rhododendrons are in bloom there. Maybe next week.
I just haven’t been interested in the Gorge, but I was down to the wire Sunday night: I needed a destination. What the heck, I decided to go for it.
I headed out in the fog after a 5:30 latte stop. I love the early pre-sun fog that is often present for a few miles north and south of Centralia. On Tuesday the beautiful and mysterious mist drifted above the ground while the sun sneaked up through it; the diffused light taking my breath away.
I was feeling pretty virtuous about my early departure, aiming to do this hike that has a 2000 foot elevation gain in under 4 miles before the heat reached the predicted 80 something degrees. I overlooked the fact that the 5:30 departure would put me in Vancouver at 7:15 in heavy traffic. I was on the trail a bit after 8, though, so all good.
The trail begins at Beacon Rock State Park and ascends quickly through a conifer forest.
The WTA’s first suggestion is to skip Hardy Falls—have to climb back up from the spur and vegetation mostly hides it anyway—and go on to the upper and middle Rodney Falls and Pool of the Winds. The middle falls are magnificent with their own switchback path down the precipice! But I missed the upper falls and the pool on the way up, not quite understanding the trail configuration, so you will have to wait for that.
At the intersection of the loop, the WTA suggests doing it counter clockwise, going up the Hamilton Mt. trail (“more difficult”) and returning on the Hardy Creek trail (“difficult”). Great. The up is shorter and steeper, but the longer Hardy Creek stretch is easier on the knees coming down. I am a direction follower when it comes to suggestions from the WTA. Turns out there are also many views of the mighty Columbia, the frothing Bonneville Dam (and all the buildings and roads associated with a major power plant and Interstate 85 on the other side of the river), and the tip of Mt. Hood on the Hamilton side to distract you from the switchbacking climb. Smart, that WTA.
It was odd to be high in the wilderness and in view of so much civilization. That’s probably why the Gorge has never risen to the top of my list of places to hike.
One scary rock outcropping almost sent me home; but I shoved my poles up onto the trail above and held onto rocks, watching and testing every spot I put my feet, trying to keep breathing. As usual, I forgot to take a photo, so busy taming my panic. At the top of the mountain, when Rainier joined the choir and (I think) St. Helens was hiding behind a cloud, a couple about my age from Lake Tahoe commented on the beauty of the trail, “but there was that one scary part,” the woman said. It’s not just me. I suppose those millennials who passed me running, both up and down—who clearly have a death wish—just jumped up it.
I carried my mother with me, imagining her asking me what flowers were blooming. Lots, as it turns out. I don’t know all their names, but I tried to name them for her as we walked: paintbrush, chocolate lily, asters, twin flower, spring beauty, Solomon seal (real, not false), coreopsis, columbine, thimble berry, bleeding heart. And several I don’t know the names of, but I want to.
And shadow-casting water striders in Hardy Creek where I sat on a rock and ate my late lunch.
The highlight of the hike was a return to the falls on the descent when I decided at the last second, however tired and ready to be done I was, to climb up and see what the unsigned spur above the falls went to.
It was jaw-dropping, as the mist from the thundering drop of upper Rodney Falls, even slowed by a log in the funnel through the rock, sprayed my hot face as it hit the all-but-secret pool. I wondered how many hikers miss it altogether.
(My camera—and limited skills—couldn’t capture it; here’s a video, though even it doesn’t do justice.)
The heat caught up to me the last mile or so. The people just starting out at 2:00 were a little bit nuts, in my opinion.
The thing about traveling south, there is a fresh fruit smoothie reward at Burgerville in Camus. And the last treat of the day? Ibuprofen.