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Rock of Ages Loop Hike

From Portland Hikers Field Guide

Devil's Backbone at sunset (Jeff Statt)
The Rock Arch (Jen Thomas)
The upper part of the Rock of Ages Trail (Peder Bisbjerg)
Looking East from inside the Arch (Jeff Statt)
  • Start point: Horsetail Falls TrailheadRoad.JPG
  • End Point: Horsetail Falls Trailhead
  • Trail Log : Trail Log
  • Hike Type: Loop
  • Distance: 10.0 miles
  • Elevation gain: 3000 feet
  • Difficulty: Difficult (steepness, length and creek crossing)
  • Seasons: Apr-Oct
  • Family Friendly: No
  • Backpackable: Yes
  • Crowded: Only at trailhead
Falling
Poison Oak

Contents

Hike Description

Rock of Ages and Saint Peter's Dome are two large rock formations standing like Roman soldiers guarding Yeon Mountain in the Columbia River Gorge. While there is no well-worn trail down to either of the formations themselves, the Rock of Ages hike offers some unique perspectives these basaltic domes, while taking you to three lesser-known but worthwhile viewpoints in the Gorge.

This is a primitive, but well-worn trail along a steep, non-maintained path. Parts of the hike are scrambles with some exposure and hikers should be cautioned in less than optimum weather conditions. At about a 1000ft/mile the first stretch of this hike rivals any in the Gorge in terms of difficulty.

The hike begins at Horsetail Falls Trailhead. Start up Horsetail Falls Trail #438, which gains about 300 feet in five switchbacks. Soon the trail levels out with some great viewpoints then veers south (left) sharply as it wraps around a corner and heads into the gorge at the top of Horsetail Falls. Just after this bend, and before hitting Ponytail Falls, watch for a large tree on your left that looks to have been hurdled by a thousand root-clinging children. This is the Rock of Ages Trail Junction and the start of the primitive Rock of Ages trail. About 50 feet uptrail watch for a cryptic "Trail Not Maintained" sign.

Since the Rock of Ages Trail is not maintained, prepare for blowdowns and loose rock on this very steep trail. Make no mistake, this puppy is steep. It can also be really slick if it's wet. You'll be climbing hand over foot in places, so watch that you don't grab any of the poison oak common to this area. Within the first 1/10 mile you'll see an overgrown side-path to the right. The side path is a worthwhile diversion, descending steeply for 50 yards or so to the top of Ponytail Falls. It's a bit of extra work, but since you're here, it's worth a visit.

Continue forward and straight uphill another 0.3 of a mile and watch for a side trail to your left that drops elevation sharply. Take this must-see, 0.2 mile side trek to the Rock of Ages Arch. This is a glorious viewpoint giving you a lesser-seen perspective of Rock of Ages, Saint Peter's Dome and points east looking down the Columbia River. After taking turns snapping photos of each other under the natural rock arch, take the side trail back to the main trail and continue uphill.

The path continues to gain elevation steeply. You'll begin to notice you're traversing a well-defined ridgeline. Watch on your right as you get to about 0.9 miles and you'll see a large, jutting, rock formation. This is Devil's Backbone. Take care as you climb this spine as it's mossy, and straight down on the far side. This offers some of the best views along the trail, giving you a great vantage point of the Horsetail Creek valley as it winds northerly and drops out of sight into the Gorge. On a clear day, Mount Saint Helens is visible. This serves as a nice resting spot after such a tough climb, and possible turnaround point for those not opting to continue the loop. Shortly hereafter where the trail splits, go right as the left-hand trail only leads to a viewpoint.

At this point the steepest climbing is done, but you've barely done a mile of your 10 mile loop. You've got 1900 feet of elevation to gain in the next 1.7 miles.

Continue up the the Devil's Backbone ridgeline and pick up the trail again. The next mile and a half follows the broad undulating ridge through a serene forest. There are some glimpses of Yeon Mountain proper through the trees on your left giving you some idea of how much more vertical ground you have to cover.

Finally at mile 2.6, your path will end abruptly at Horsetail Creek Trail #425. Here, you've reached your highest elevation at about 3200 feet. There's not much to look at here among the spruce and various burnt out snags.

Turn right on the Horsetail Creek Trail and enjoy a slightly downhill pattern for a ways. In the first mile, you'll cross 3 forks of Horsetail Creek, (East, Middle and West) all through simple fords. You'll meet the Bell Creek Trail #459, which heads off to the left into some great old growth (which eventually takes you to Larch Mountain).

After another 0.5 mile or so you'll encounter a series of long switchbacks as you descend down the Oneonta Creek gorge. Keep your eye out after about the sixth switchback for a side trail that takes you to a nice viewpoint of Larch Mountain lording over the gorge valley. When you get to the first of two small creek crossings the bulk of your switch-backing is complete. The trail is very overgrown through here and is wet in places, even in the middle of August. You still have one more small creek to cross and another 300 of so feet to drop before finally arriving at the Oneonta Creek Ford.

This is a nice spot to rest for awhile before the homestretch. You might consider crossing the creek before breaking, as there is a large (very nice!) campsite just out of view on the other side of the creek. There's no bridge here and this can be a difficult ford in the winter or spring, when water levels are high. There is a downed tree just upstream. Some climbers opt to traverse the log rather than risk wet socks.

After crossing the creek, take one of the footpaths up the campsite, then follow the trail uphill about 50 feet until you hit the junction with Oneonta Trail #424. (Going left here would take you to Larch Mountain or connect back to the Multnomah Falls basin)

Turn right and head down Oneonta Creek. You'll cross Oneonta Creek two more times, but your dry feet will be happy with the bridges. The trail continues past Triple Falls to a junction with Horsetail Falls Trail #438. Turn right here, hike down to Middle Oneonta Falls, past Ponytail Falls and back down the hill to your car.

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Guidebooks that cover this hike

  • Day Hike! Columbia Gorge, by Seabury Blair, Jr.
  • Afoot and Afield Portland/Vancouver, by Douglas Lorain
  • 35 Hiking Trails, Columbia River Gorge, by Don & Roberta Lowe
  • Columbia River Gorge, 42 Scenic Hikes, by Don & Roberta Lowe
  • Hiking the Columbia River Gorge - 1st and 2nd Editions, by Russ Schneider
  • 100 Hikes in Northwest Oregon - 3rd Edition, by William L Sullivan

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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.