Trail details last updated 5/11/2016
The Columbia River Gorge is known for its nearly endless collection of trails featuring everything from waterfalls to epic mountain views and great adventures between but while many hikers stay to the more trail packed Oregon side of the gorge, Southern Washington offers several great experiences for those willing to make the extra drive across the bridge. In particular, one of my absolute favorite adventures is Washington’s Hamilton Mountain. Over the 3.2 mile, 2,100′ hike, the trail includes one of the best waterfalls in the area, a stunning view down to the gorge and river, plus a sweeping summit panorama all the way out to Mount Adams on a clear day. Accessible, well maintained and open year round, I suppose I should be glad it’s not any busier than it already is!
All about the trail: Like many trails on the Washington side of the gorge, Hamilton Mountain is a combination of forest landscape and barren rock, a trail that is heavily impacted by the generally fierce storms that hit this side of the river in winter and the direct sun exposure that follows in summer. This makes Hamilton one of the most diverse trails to explore as the summit can range from nearly unobtainable under feet of snow in January to lush and blooming a few months later only to turn hot and dry by the end of the season.
The hike its begins just a few minutes above highway 14 at the Hamilton Mountain parking lot and trailhead facility. Here you’ll find space for a couple dozen cars (overflow parking at the campground above and Beacon rock down on the highway), full featured restrooms, running water, picnic tables and even BBQs and a kid’s play area, all of which are open during peak season.
Hitting the dirt, the trail sets out under a thick canopy of trees and quickly starts to work up hill. After just a few minutes however, the trees fade away and you’ll cross directly under the area’s powerlines before passing junction to the campground / horse area to your left. Continuing on the main trail, the trees soon return as the trail winds down a bit and then right back up, over a short wooden bridge and past a few run-off waterfalls in heavy water season or barren rock faces in summer.
After hiking for about a mile, you’ll see the first marker for Hardy Falls which you can scope out via a short but steep and often muddy vista trails to the right . There are two ways down / up with different elevations for the view but both get you to the fenced off vista point at the same place. Unfortunately tree growth has obstructed the full view but gazing down it is definitely one impressive waterfall.
Returning to the trail in spring or winter, the sound of Rodney Falls ahead can be near deafening, that’s just how powerful things are with new snowmelt funneling the rivers. While the main viewing area is actually right on the trail as it crosses directly under the falls via an elaborate and interesting wooden bridge, a small vista trail to the left is also worth exploring. This quick walk will take you up to the upper falls (“Pool of the Winds” for the roaring and usually very misty & wet experience they create) which is a spectacular show of the power of water. Note: As Spring, 2016, the trail to Pool of the Winds is closed due to storm damage. It’s a slippery, exposed area so be smart and stay out until repairs are completed.
Hamilton’s 2,100′ elevation gain may not sound like a big undertaking compared to Mount Defiance, Larch or even Dog Mountain down the road but with the bulk of the climb coming after the falls (440′ down, 1,600 and change to go in 2 miles), the experience sure changes as you pass the bridge. After climbing a series of steps, you’ll pass a trail marker reconfirming that you’re in the right place and then it’s up hill time.
For a good half mile the trail is straight incline dirt under the forest canopy. You’ll pass a brief clearing that looks down over Beacon rock on your right, then a junction for the long way up Hamilton which also connects to a few horse areas, vault restrooms and the back of the mountain but few go up that way given the extra mile plus of distance it adds on your left. Continuing up a truly steep hill, the trail makes one final all dirt push before it breaks out of this part of the forest and enters switchback land.
While there’s no visible “staircase” effect, from here to the top is almost all switchbacks of one type or another. For a good half mile, you’ll climb up a mix of dirt and stone switches. Washout has made a few steps into pseudo-scrambles where a hand or two is often required though trail updates will fix that up sooner or later. After rounding several rockier and rockier turns, the trail finally breaks out of the thinly spread trees and shrubs to at least reach the first gorge vista point 2/3rds of the [elevation] to the top.
The vista point is my favorite spot on this trail offering the best view down in my book plus some fun rock footpaths to wander around though there’s plenty of exposure and a long fall if you’re not careful. After taking a good break here to hydrate and recharge, you should be able to power to the top or nearly there.
From the first vista point to the next is just a few minutes of more mellow but still uphill hiking. Smaller hills dot the trail to your right as you head towards it and many have been hiked up enough to have visible paths offering other spots for views or stops though again, watch the slippery rock & dirt slopes as you’re right at the edge of a high cliff. Passing the open rock gap that makes up the second vista there’s only enough room to stop briefly before returning to hiking as the trail leads back into switchbacks under the trees.
Soon you’ll break out of those trees yet again, this time facing two or three switchbacks worth of straight rock. The stone is broken up enough that you can run right up but foot traffic and some trail work have established an actual path if you prefer to be efficient in the climb. As you leave this rock behind, you’ll have your last good look out at the river until the summit.
Meandering back and forth through the trees there’s only a few hundred feet of elevation left to go all of which takes place over around a dozen dirt-trail switchbacks. It certainly gets repetitive at this point but soon you’ll see the last push marked by the lack of anything large above though the summit remains obstructed until you are right ontop of it by shrubs that line the trail. To be entirely honest, the summit is hardly impressive on most days as dense plants obstruct any direct view and the vista points below are simply more impressive stops. Still, a clear day means a sighting of Mount Adams and the flat summit area is another easy break spot.
You can return down the way you came or continue the trail to your left and make a larger loop adding about a mile and a half of distance but getting another, even better view of Mount Adams and a full view of Hamilton’s summit as well as a gentler descent. This loop meets back up either just above the waterfalls or back near the start of the trail if you take the really long way designed for horseback traffic.
Winter warning: Precip on the Washington side of the gorge tends to be more extreme than across the river and Hamilton can become quite the winter experience. I’ve had climbs where the snow was too deep to summit in and where ice covered the rocky parts of the trail though the sun exposure does melt it down fairly fast.
Quick facts about the trail:
- Official Rating: Moderate
- My Rating: Treadmill Run
- Start point: Trailhead off highway 14 @ Beacon Rock (up the hill)
- Distance: 6.4 miles R/T
- Duration: 2.5-4 hours
- Climb: >2,100′
- Crowds: Moderate to Heavy
- Recommended time: Mornings & Sunset
- Facilities: Water, Restrooms in Summer / Fall
- Parking: Moderate sized lot
- Permits / fees: Discovery Pass Required or $10 at the TH