Defiance-Starvation Loop Hike
From Portland Hikers Field Guide
- Start point: Starvation Creek Trailhead
- End point: Mount Defiance
- Trail Log: Trail Log
- Hike Type: Loop
- Distance: 11.6 miles
- Elevation gain: 4940 feet
- Difficulty: Difficult (and that's only because we don't have anything harder)
- Seasons: June-October
- Family Friendly: No
- Backpackable: Yes
- Crowded: No
This is the mother of all day hikes in the Columbia River Gorge. It starts out flat, paved and populated and then seems to pride itself on changing all of that. You'll go up here. The climb is nearly 5000 feet, no matter how you slice it.
This hike starts in the Starvation Creek Rest Area. There's a paved, restored piece of the original Columbia River Highway here, that heads east to Viento Park. There's also a nice universal access trail to the base of nearby Starvation Creek Falls. These might be nice trails, beautiful and all, but they're not for you. You're about to tackle the monster.
To start, head west along the freeway shoulder passed the sign reading "Mt. Defiance Trail". The Warren Falls distance is off by half a mile, but who's counting? When you're done, "Warren Falls" (Hole in the Wall Falls) will seem like the parking lot. In about 1/10 of a mile, you'll step away from the freeway on an unrestored section of the Columbia River Highway. In another 1/10 mile, you'll be at a trail junction with the Starvation Cutoff Trail #414B. This steep trail is your return route. For now, continue west on the abandoned highway and you'll soon come to Cabin Creek Falls. There's a mammoth boulder here that's fallen from the cliffs, in front of the waterfall creating a kind of amphitheater. There are quite a few interesting photos here and tourists have been pausing here since the days when Model-Ts filled the highway. On the other hand, dawdling might be better left for less packed days.
A short distance later, the trail leaves the old highway, and crosses Warren Creek on a new wood bridge at Hole in the Wall Falls. This is what the sign was calling Warren Falls. This waterfall was created in 1938, when highway crews blasted a tunnel to divert Warren Creek away from the road. From here, the trail begins gently climbing to a junction with the Mt Defiance Trail #413 (turn right onto this trail) and then to Lancaster Falls. The lower tier of Lancaster falls directly on the trail, but the real show is hidden above another huge rock. The upper tier is well worth the trip, but it's a tricky scramble up a loose slope filled with Oregon grape, loose rocks and sneaky little poison oak plants.
From here, it's up, and we mean UP. The trail leaves powerlines and re-enters the forest, and begins switchbacking up the side of the Gorge almost immediately. In the next 3 miles, you'll gain over 3000 feet in elevation. Somewhere around the 3500 foot level, and 4 miles from the beginning you'll pass a wilderness boundary sign. At about 4100 feet you come to the first scree field with a good view west and northwest - it's the first time when you can appreciate all the elevation you've just gained. From then, the landscape opens up to more rocky environment with dwarf trees and occasional views (turn back just after rock field to see a view down to Dog Mtn, and towards white-capped Mt. Adams). The high amount of rock here creates an ambiance that feels more alpine than the elevation would merit on its own. Soon, the climb eases considerably, and 5 miles up you'll come to a junction with the Warren Lake Trail #417. Keep right for now, but keep this junction in mind, because we'll be using the left trail on the way back.
Now, it's back to climbing - there's another 700 vertical feet to go to the summit. About 1/3 mile up from Warren Lake trail junction, look for Defiance Cutoff Trail branching off to the right. There's no sign at this junction but Defiance Cutoff Trail was marked with 2 rock cairns on each side. This trail is about 1/3 miles longer than the one going straight ahead, but it has about half of the distant views this entire hike has to offer, so you don't want to miss it. On the other hand, you may want to continue straight on the main viewless trail, if you want to avoid hiking over a large boulder field.
Assuming you turned right onto Defiance Cutoff Trail, you'll soon break out of the forest and onto boulder fields. The footing may be rough at times, but the views will more than make for it. You'll see most of the central Columbia River Gorge (no river views as it was covered with lower hills), nearby Green Point Mtn and a small Bear Lake. The scree field is nice in itself, with groups of trees growing among big boulders.
Ignore the trail going right (downhill). As the Defiance Cutoff Trail slabs around the west side of Mt. Defiance, you'll finally see Mount Hood over the trees to the south. Take the photos here, as the summit of Defiance is almost viewless. The added disappointment at the top is that there are radio towers and even (gasp) pickups carrying service workers to the site. Now, you've just climbed nearly 4800 vertical feet, and all you can see are trees obstructing everything in every direction except for a small opening to the south. But, hey, you've just summited the Columbia River Gorge and Hood River County. And don't forget all the mountains you see on the way up here if the day is clear (let's see how many I can work in): Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, Mount Saint Helens, Mount Hood, Dog Mountain, Augspurger Mountain, Wind Mountain, Cook Hill, and the rest of the lesser southern Washington Cascade Mountains. Trust me, it has to be seen to be believed. The "aerial" views of these mountains - especially of Dog Mountain, Wind Mountain, and Augsperger Mountain - are among the best. Unfortunately, you don't get views of the southern Cascades, because you can't get good views south from any section of the hike.
You've got two options for the return trip. You can go back the way you came on Defiance Cutoff Trail, but for this hike cross the summit area and look for hidden main trail that goes off NE side of the top. This well-trodden trail goes steeply down in fir forest (no boulders here, but no views either), crosses the road two times, and soon passes Defiance Cutoff Trail junction. Keep straight downhill here, then turn right onto Warren Lake trail to start a lower loop.
The rocky Warren Lake Trail goes among dwarf trees with occasional views for a while without losing much elevation, then it comes to a rock field with a good view of Warren Lake and the mountains to the north. From the rock field, the trail goes down steeply, and passes by the lake about 2 1/2 miles from the last junction. There are some good campsites near the shore, and this nice, shallow lake is the only water source on this hike when there's no snow around (if you don't count waterfalls down near the freeway). From Warren Lake, there'll be another flat stretch for a mile or so (ignore the trail going to the right), and then you'll hike down the steep Starvation Ridge Trail almost 3 miles to a junction with the Starvation Cutoff Trail. There is another scenic rock field along the way, and then a couple of nice viewpoints of Columbia River. Hang a right at Starvation Cutoff Trail Junction and head down 0.4 miles of even steeper Starvation Cutoff Trail #414B to the old highway near Cabin Creek Falls. Only 2/10 of a mile of pavement is between you and your car.
- Maps: Hike Finder
Regulations or restrictions, etc
- NW Forest Pass required at Starvation Creek State Park
- Search Trip Reports for Defiance
Related Discussions / Q&A
- Search Trail Q&A for Defiance
Guidebooks that cover this hike
- Columbia Gorge Hikes (42 Scenic Hikes), by Don and Roberta Lowe