Distance: RT 17 miles
Duration: 6 hours 15 minutes
Party: Casey and Myself
Horsetail Falls – Rock of Ages – Bell Creek – Franklin Ridge – Triple Falls Photos
Casey was home from Graduate School on spring break so we had decided to mark up another adventure with a hike in the Columbia River Gorge. It has become tradition to do an ‘extreme adventure’ in hopes of only topping our last one. Just a few of our hiking adventures have included Dog Mountain, Larch Mountain, Mount Defiance, Cooper Spur, and the Timberline Trail among others. Most of these hikes turn into extreme epic-ness just because we end up hiking up then trail running down at an ungodly pace that can only be good for a few things – screwed up knees and a time to brag about later.
We started the hike from the Horsetail Falls trailhead. From there I decided to take him up the strenuous climb to Rock of Ages. This climb begins at the corner before you reach Ponytail Falls/Upper Horsetail Falls and shoots up the hillside above the falls. I always enjoy taking the quick offshoot trail to a spot atop Horsetail Falls. Here you can stretch a bit to prepare yourself for the real burn ahead and take in the beauty of the falls with the Columbia River Gorge in the background.
Upon reaching Rock of Ages we snapped a few Christmas card worthy pictures before the strong Eastern Gorge winds blew us off the cliff. Just beyond Rock of Ages there is one other great vista view before topping out at between 3,700 -4,000 feet. I like to call this vantage point spot ridge rock – I feel like Lewis, Clark and even Sacagawea would appreciate the name. From “Ridge Rock” we enjoyed the views after the long strenuous climb, but didn’t stick around long fearing the sweat on our backs would turn cold and our muscles would tighten up. From the “Ridge Rock” the steepness of the trail mellowed out and we were well over half way before reaching the Horsetail Creek trail Juncture.
The Horsetail Creek Trail heads both East and West. If you go East on the trail you’ll hike to Nesmith Point (3,872 ft). We hiked West to come upon another trail juncture – Bell Creek/Oneonota Creek Trail Juncture. Notice both trail signs show both trails eventually leading to the Oneonta trail.
The shorter Oneonta trail route (2.3 mi) traverses down a series of steep switchbacks to the Oneonta Creek. The longer route to the Oneonta trail is scenic as it wines through what felt like an old growth forest with small creeks flowing freely and meadows seemingly untouched – a beautiful area that I will definitely have to come back to explore. Below is a picture of moss being divided by a trail occupied by avid hikes and wildlife alike.
The trail continued to meander through the highly dense forest crossing streams. Portions of the trail were snow-covered, which definitely made it difficult to keep the feet completely dry. We saw the occasional paw/hoof print – we were fortunate enough to not come accross anything too big! The terrain was great with rolling trails on a soft pine coated – mossy surface. During our 3.3 mile detour to Oneonta we came across another couple of trail junctures – both accessing the Larch Mt trail. The first trail juncture was just a mere 2 miles from the summit of Larch Mountain, which was tempting to veer off track for some views atop on the clear sunny day. The second juncture splits connecting to either Larch Mountain trail (much further away from summit) or to Franklin Ridge. We split towards Franklin Ridge.
I have hiked on the Franklin Ridge a few times, but I have one vivid memory that sticks out…. Franklin Ridge is a steep ascent and descent. On this particular day Brian and myself were ascending the ridge on one of Portland’s hot summer days with a heat blast aroud 90+ with strong humidity. I regularly carry plenty of liquids – usually my 3 liter reservoir and an extra water bottle (for extra water and to use when purifying water). In most parts of the Columbia River Gorge there is plenty of water to be found; however, Franklin Ridge is one of the areas of little to no water.
We were well over half way from the top of the ridge when came upon 2 women who started their trek from Multnomah Falls. They were in their early twenties, carrying just one empty water bottle each in their hand (less than 24 ounces, which was probably sweated out of them during the hike up to Multnomah Falls). They explained the direction they were heading and how they planed on hiking the loop (Multnomah falls – Franklin Ridge – Triple Falls – Horsetail Falls – then back on the Columbia River Gorge trail, which parallels the old highway). Their ghostly white faces displayed signs of fatigue, exhaustion and dehydration. We immediately filled up their empty water bottles and let them drink most of our liquids. Once refreshed and rejuvenated they admitted they were feeling much better. We explained that not far after descending the ridge there were some great spots to jump into the water to cool off. And off they went…. Hydrated and all.
Starting from the top of Franklin Ridge descending to the bottom to the Oneonta trail definitely requires some trekking poles as the knees were starting to ache. The trail is literally cut into the hillside with steady but steep switchbacks zigzagging down, down, down. The winter snow covers the hillside, which makes it nearly impassable leaving no trace of the trail. With all of the snow this area can recieve throughout a strong winter the ground can be extremely unstable with all of the melt off. We came across many down trees, rock slides, and washed out portions of the trail.
The evidence of the pure strength of Mother Nature is absolutely amazing. A huge reminder of Mother Nature’s power in the Portland area is the year of 1996. The Portland area (mountains included) received high quantities of snow. Spring came fast and was the catalyst for the great floods of 96. In addition to the flooding there were multiple landslides including one that completely picked up a house and slid it down the hillside intact. The house still stands as a structure today and can be seen just East of the Ainsworth State Park exit off of Interstate 84.
From the Oneonta trail juncture it was a long 1.5 miles or so until we hit the triple falls. Just above the falls is a brand spanking new bridge that was helicopter in replacing the old one that was washed out recently. The new bridge is place a tad up the river more and higher above the raging river then the last. At Triple Falls we secured a lunch spot and enjoyed the view and copious amounts of food. After a short break it was difficult to lace the shoes up, put on the pack and get back on the trail. We both dreaded the the section of rocky switchbacks down to the bridge overlooking Oneonta Gorge as the knees were a bit sore at this point. Crossing the bridge we begin the ascent up to Ponytail Falls / Upper Horsetail Falls – it was nice to switch up the muscles being used as the legs embraced the uphill as it had been so long since the climb to Rock of Ages and beyond.
No matter how many times I see Ponytail Falls / Upper Horsetail Falls I am always taken aback. Climbing up to Rock of Ages you gain an entirely different perspective and appreciation for the pure vertical feet to the top of the falls. As we hiked to, behind, and past the falls we reminisced about the start of the hike, at what point the burn began, and the incredible soreness we felt then. The last .5 mile down from the falls we sped down the trail in attempt to get through Portland before traffic hit.
I am looking forward to the next adventure in light of the homecoming of the college buds. I can only imagine something much longer, steeper, and dangerous….