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Beacon Rock Hike

From Portland Hikers Field Guide

Washington State's Beacon Rock, with Hamilton Mountain in the background. (Jen Thomas)
A look down the trail across the west side of Beacon Rock (Steve Hart)
Looking up at the switchbacks (Steve Hart)
The walk down is easier on the quads, if not the knees (Steve Hart)
  • Start point: Beacon Rock TrailheadRoad.JPG
  • End point: Summit of Beacon Rock
  • Trail Log: Trail Log
  • Hike Type: Out and Back
  • Distance: 1.8 miles round trip
  • Elevation gain: 680 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Seasons: Year round, except during ice storms
  • Family Friendly: Yes
  • Backpackable: No
  • Crowded: Yes
Falling

Contents

Hike Description

Beacon Rock is one of the most prominent and distinctive geological features in the Columbia River Gorge, an 848-foot landmark that was once the core of a volcano — what remains is what was not washed away by the massive force of ice-age flooding. It is one of the tallest monoliths (singular piece of rock) in North America, along with California's El Capitan, Georgia's Stone Mountain, and Wyoming's Devils Tower.

The Beacon Rock Trail was built by Henry Biddle and Charles Johnson between 1915 and 1918. That makes it one of the oldest trails in our area. At the time, Biddle owned the rock, so he had complete latitude to blast and bridge his way to the top. Several trailside plaques commemorate his achievement.

Beacon Rock was originally named by Lewis & Clark on the Voyage of Discovery in 1805, but in later years was more commonly known as Castle Rock. The original name was restored in 1916 by the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, at Biddle's request. Before Biddle purchased the rock and began trail construction, it had been slated for demolition — the rubble could have been used for either railroad construction or a new jetty at the mouth of the Columbia. Biddle's estate offered the rock and surrounding acreage to the state of Washington for $1, provided it be retained as a public park — a gift Washington initially declined until the state of Oregon indicated that it would be willing to maintain a state park on the north banks of the Columbia. Washington paid the fee in 1935, and the park now comprises 4,650 acres with nearly two miles of freshwater shoreline.

Today's trail follows Biddle's original alignment and it could hardly do anything else. After a short stroll through the woods, the trail hits the rock with a vengeance. It's not too steep and most of the surface has been paved over the decades at one time or another. You'll walk on rock, small patches of cement paving, concrete platform bridges and wooden bridges. The surface is good for normal athletic shoes. The entire trail is a near-continuous series of switchbacks, many of them less than 20 feet long and the trail loops over itself at least twice. I counted 52 switchbacks, while one of my sons counted 54 and the other came up with 49. That says less bad about our educational system than it does good about the distracting views. The trail is completely lined by handrails and is safe for all but the tiniest walkers.

Most of the trail is up the open, west side of the rock, providing views down the river of Angel's Rest and Cape Horn. With little shade or water, this part of the trail can be really hot in the summertime. Beacon Rock actually has two summits and the trail works around the south one and proceeds up the east side toward the higher, north summit. The trail is forested here, but the terrain is still rocky enough to provide great views of Hamilton Mountain and the river toward Bonneville Dam. At the summit, a few quite large stairs lead to the summit pinnacle. Here, trees block a bit of the view, but it's certainly worth seeing.

The wind is usually howling on one side of the rock and dead calm on the other side, creating a dramatic difference in the perceived temperature. You'll need a jacket most days, but you'll carry it a lot.

Maps

Regulations or restrictions, etc

  • Washington State's Discover Pass is required to park your car here: $10 per day or $30 per year (non-transferable). Non-compliance can — and frequently does — result in a $99 ticket.
  • The trail is closed from dusk to 8 AM. A large, threatening gate prevents access and a sign warns that violators will be cited.

Trip Reports

Related Discussions / Q&A

Guidebooks that cover this hike

  • 60 Hikes within 60 Miles of Portland by Paul Gerald - 2nd Edition
  • Afoot and Afield Portland/Vancouver, by Douglas Lorain
  • 100 Hikes in Northwest Oregon - 3rd Edition, by William L Sullivan

More Links

Contributors

Portland Hikers Field Guide is built as a collaborative effort by its user community. While we make every effort to fact-check, information found here should be considered anecdotal. You should cross-check against other references before planning a hike. Trail routing and conditions are subject to change. Please contact us if you notice errors on this page.