Nesmith Ridge Hike: In search of a lost trail

 

The Mystery

There are certain hiking trails that have an aura of legend to them. Like El Dorado or the Seven Cities of Cibola, they belong to the domain of mystery and rumor. Those who seek them may not find a trail, but they will definitely find adventure. The Nesmith Ridge hike is such a trail.

Jim, one of our expedition members, flagging a point on the trail

Jim, one of our expedition members, flagging a point on the trail

Described in a 1980s-vintage hiking guide by Don and Roberta Lowe, this elusive path seems to lure a handful of rugged individuals every year to solve the mystery. I recently talked to a guy who claimed to have done it 5 times, starting from the top and the bottom on different occasions, but never following the exact same route twice.

There are a few trip reports to be found on the internet, with one hiker concluding that the presence of an actual official trail, even an abandoned trail, is a hoax, if a published hoax. Another concluded that “there are 3 types of hikers who should not do Nesmith Ridge, those would be your beginners, your intermediates and your expert hikers with good route finding abilities. The remaining 2 groups, those being your fools and your damned fools, will find [Nesmith Ridge] quite entertaining.”

Anyway, on Saturday, 7 February 2009, I attempted the trail with Tom and Jim, friends I know from the Mazamas, and yes, we found it “quite entertaining.” What follows is a description of the portion of the trail we traveled. This trail is not a walk in the park, and it really shouldn’t be attempted in inclement weather. Should you attempt it, you are responsible for your navigation decisions and safety; please read my disclaimer.

The Map

Below is a terrain map with numbered points showing the most important junctions. You can click on the points to view their descriptions, and it is possible to click-and-drag this map. Please be aware that the points, which have precise Lat-Lon coordinates in the code of this page, are approximate and are NOT OUR ACTUAL WAYPOINTS FROM A GPS UNIT.

Center of map
map
1. Trailhead for Elowah Falls
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2. Approximate start of Nesmith Ridge Route
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3. Relatively flat, open area; trail continues slightly to east of ridge divide
map
4. Note the spur ridge that veers off to the east. Be careful not to follow it down
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5. Point at which ridge becomes impassible; traverse to east of ridge necessary. This was our turn-around point

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The Experience

The day we did the hike was sunny and mid-40s; even so, it was a little chilly on the well-shaded and heavily forested ridge. We made it from Upper Elowah Falls to about 2300 feet, at a point to the east of and just below the ridgeline, where we were unable to figure out the puzzle of the trail any further and decided to turn around. We tagged the trail well, so it ought to be easy to follow it back to our previous turn-around point. I hope we do soon; I’d love to see the route become standardized.

Getting to the trail involves parking at the John B. Yeon State Park trailhead (see map marker), which is accessed via exit 35 on I-84, then following the Frontage road about two miles east until the only two options are the trailhead parking lot and an onramp to I-84 E. Following Gorge Trail 400 east will take you to a spur that leads to the Upper Elowah Falls viewpoint (see map marker).

Here’s where it gets tricky. There is no obvious user path intersecting with the official trail. This is where you have to find a good-looking spot, suck in your breath, and plunge in.

The hiker’s first goal is to get from the official trail on McCord Creek to the point on the ridge where I have the third map marker, a relatively flat, open area just below where the real climb up the ridge starts. If you look at the map, you will notice a creekbed that comes down and intersects with McCord Creek just north of where I have the map marker for the start of the Nesmith Ridge route.

It is best to start south of this creekbed, head straight up the hill for about a 100-150 vertical feet, to a point where, according to the old Lowe guidebook, there are the remains of a road. There is indeed a flat area here, but you would have to use a lot of imagination to see a road there, even an abandoned road. (Note: there is no easy way to get to this point that I can see. You’re in for a scramble up loose, moss covered talus, rubble, and hidden roots no matter what.)

Once at this spot, trail flagging (with red or orange surveying tape) should become visible, and a user trail will appear going north toward the end of the ridge. This trail offers a fairly gentle ascent to the general area of the third map marker.

Once at the general area of the third map marker, an open area at 850’ with scattered deciduous saplings and brush, the route now turns due south, following the backbone of the ridge, or just under it to the east. In some places, a faint trail will be evident; otherwise, trail flagging leads from turn to turn.

A couple of sections between here and 2000’ require caution and careful attention to footing. There is one such section, a pile of loose, slippery rock at around 1600’ that can be avoided by making one’s way through some blowdown on the eastern side of the obstacle.

Between 1900’ and 2000’, there is a wonderful opportunity to get lost on the way back down. This is point number 4 on the map. Note how a spur of the ridge splits off to the east. Coming down, it looks like this is the correct way, when in fact, it leads straight down to McCord creek over very difficult terrain. A turn to the west is required to keep on the main ridge.

Just above this spot is another easy place to get turned around. When ascending, it appears that the trail continues on up the ridge right on the backbone. This leads to a dangerous section of the backbone that involves a sheer precipice to the west and an extremely steep, loose and difficult-to-descend section to the east. To avoid this, it is necessary to find a faint trail at about 2200’ that traverses the eastern side of the ridge, descending a hundred or so feet.

At this point, we turned around, so I’m not sure if the trail continues to descend into the McCord creek canyon, or if it continues its traverse at approximately the same elevation. Either way, it has to get back up to the ridge backbone at some point, presumably after it has bypassed the impassible section along the top.

And so the trail waits, beckoning more adventurers to brave its challenges.

Figure 1. Looking down a typical section of the Nesmith Ridge trail. On some sections theres a clear user trail, even if those users are mostly four-footed, herbivorous, distant relatives of Bambi.

Figure 1. Looking down a typical section of the Nesmith Ridge "trail." On some sections there's a clear user trail, even if those users are mostly four-footed, herbivorous, distant relatives of Bambi.

Figure 2. Looking up a typical section of the Nesmith Ridge trail (Note orange tape tagging in foreground)

Figure 2. Looking up a typical section of the Nesmith Ridge "trail" (Note orange tape tagging in foreground)

Jim clipping brush from the Nesmith Ridge route

Figure 3. Jim clipping brush from the Nesmith Ridge route

Figure 3. Im standing next to the faint tread we missed at 2200. Missing this resulted in our heading straight up the ridge until it was too dangerous to continue.

Figure 4. I'm standing next to the faint tread we missed at 2200'. Missing this resulted in our heading straight up the ridge until it was too dangerous to continue.

Figure 5. Tom and Jim with a sapling they bent down so they could tie a flag on it. Note the base of a moss-covered rock pinnacle in the left of the photo. There are places on the route where you have to go up those things.

Figure 5. Tom and Jim with a sapling they bent down so they could tie a flag on it. Note the base of a moss-covered rock pinnacle in the left of the photo. There are places on the route where you have to go up those things.

Figure 6. Coming back down. A difficult section of the route, with slippery mud and loose, moss-covered rubble.

Figure 6. Coming back down. A difficult section of the route, with slippery mud and loose, moss-covered rubble.

Figure 7. Difficult section of Nesmith Ridge route.

Figure 7. Difficult section of Nesmith Ridge route.

Figure 8. Back where the real hike up the ridge started: its a fairly open, level area above the Elowah Falls trail at about 850. It takes a hundred or so vertical feet of bushwhacking from the official trail to find the user path that leads to this area. Various deer trails crisscross the flat, open area, but in order to go up the ridge, it is necessary to turn due south and watch for the flagging indicating the route, rather than following the rim of the cliff over to the west side of the ridge.

Figure 8. Back where the real hike up the ridge started: it's a fairly open, level area above the Elowah Falls trail at about 850'. It takes a hundred or so vertical feet of bushwhacking from the official trail to find the user path that leads to this area. Various deer trails crisscross the flat, open area, but in order to go up the ridge, it is necessary to turn due south and watch for the flagging indicating the route, rather than following the rim of the cliff over to the west side of the ridge (not advised!).

Figure 9. This is the Nesmith Ridge trailhead ...or at least the spot where we stumbled out onto the main trail coming back. Its just past the upper falls viewpoint. Going up, we had taken a route that started a couple hundred or so yards further north. This turned out to be not such a good route, as it involved clawing our way straight up the side of the hill to the 850 point in figure 8. Not that you wouldnt have to do that elsewhere, but the further north you start, the longer you have to go straight up steep, difficult terrain. Its not only steep, but also very brushy and strewn with loose, moss-covered rocks. After taking another (shorter) route straight down from a point further south and inspecting the length of the official trail, Im convinced that theres no easy way up or down the first 100 feet.

Figure 9. This is the Nesmith Ridge "trailhead" ...or at least the spot where we stumbled out onto the main trail coming back. It's just past the upper falls viewpoint. Going up, we had taken a route that started a couple hundred or so yards further north. This turned out to be not such a good route, as it involved clawing our way straight up the side of the hill to the 850' point in figure 8. Not that you wouldn't have to do that elsewhere, but the further north you start, the longer you have to go straight up steep, difficult terrain. It's not only steep, but also very brushy and strewn with loose, moss-covered rocks. After taking another (shorter) route straight down from a point further south and inspecting the length of the official trail, I'm convinced that there's no easy way up or down the first 100 feet.

 
 

The Backpacker’s Thermostat – Winter Layering

 

Ahhhh, Rain! You know it’s winter in the Pacific Northwest when the 10-day forecast shows 10 little gray clouds with raindrops cascading down.

So why am I excited?

It’s simple, really: If it’s raining down here, the snow is likely to be flying in the mountains.

It’s the promise of winter backpacking outings, snowshoeing trips, snow that will be there for the climbing season the following summer, and water that keeps the forest green.

If you’re like me, winter backpacking (and day-hiking) is a pleasure made all the greater by the non-existent crowds and beautiful, stark winter landscapes.

However, anyone who’s done it knows that it takes some special preparation.

And clothing and layering rank high on the list needing special attention.

Adjusting the Thermostat

When you’re hiking in cold weather, you are trying to do more than retain warmth generated by your body and keep cold out. You’re using layers of clothing as a thermostat. Sounds simple, but there are multiple factors determining exactly which combination of layers will keep you comfortable and safe. If you’ve done mostly warm/moderate-weather hiking, you will probably need to pay more attention to when you need to make a layering change than you may be used to.

So let’s look at a basic winter layering system for the upper body (since this is where you’ll be doing the most layering changes):

- A “wicking” layer, closest to your skin, which allows moisture from perspiration to evaporate (for example: synthetic long-sleeve undershirt)
- An insulating layer, which traps the heat your body generates (for example: fleece or wool sweater or jacket)
- A shielding layer, which protects you from rain and wind (for example: Gore-Tex® shell or parka)
- Gloves and hat

OK, so it’s a winter morning, maybe 35°F. You and your partners get out of the car and start dressing up for the trail. You’ll likely put most of that clothing list on to start off with. It’s pretty chilly and damp, and it’s starting to drizzle as well.

15 minutes later, you’re trudging up a steep trail. Your body is suddenly in furnace mode as your limbs move and your heart rate climbs. You’re starting to sweat. This is your cue to stop and shed a layer before continuing on.

In cold weather, being aware of these transition points is especially important.

Why? Because you don’t want to get wet or chilled when it’s cold, and delaying even a few minutes to adjust layers, up or down, can take you there.

If you delay when you’re hiking hard and getting hot and sweaty, you risk a sweat-soaked inner layer, which won’t evaporate quickly in cold and damp conditions. This will work to rob you of warmth.

It’s also very important to put on a layer as soon as you stop hiking. This can be easy to forget, especially when your mind is on lunch. Because you’ve been hiking for the last hour, you’ve been generating a lot of heat, and you may have even shed all but your wicking layer. As soon as you stop to rest, however, all that heat will start dissipating…

…unless you trap it immediately, as soon as you stop, by adding a layer (or two).

Otherwise, one second you’ll be warm, and the next, you’ll be shivering… and your body will have to do a lot of work to heat up again. And you don’t want to be so cold you won’t enjoy your lunch.

It sounds like non-rocket science, but it’s easy to forget, and I’ve seen that happen. It’s not hard to keep comfortable on a winter backpacking trip; a lot of it comes down to anticipation, plus preparedness, plus adaptation.

Of course, depending on the severity of the conditions expected on the trip, you’ll need to customize your clothing list. However, for a normal winter backpacking trip, the list above will likely suffice. In the Pacific NW, you can do a lot of winter backpacking and hiking without ever encountering snow, though you’ll very likely encounter icy-cold rain, subfreezing temperatures and wind. The weather can be more unpredictable in winter, so be prepared.

There’s so much to enjoy out there, why would you want to stop hiking when the leaves fall and the rain flies?

See you on the trail!

 
 

It’s called Devil’s Rest, but you have to pass through Heaven to get there

 

As Halloween rolls up, I thought it would be fun to feature a hike appropriate for the season. Enter Devil’s Rest, the sinister sounding (and less-visited) counterpart of the ever-popular Angel’s Rest in the Columbia River Gorge. Devil’s Rest is a forested hill that sits some 2200 feet above the Columbia River. Why is it called Devil’s rest? Perhaps because at the top of the hill sits a jumble of grotesque, moss-covered boulders, and the surrounding area has lots of large bushes that have somewhat spooky, twisted branches of the sort you’d expect in the yard of a haunted house. My other theory is that there is actually no view at the top of Devil’s Rest! It is so thickly forested at the top that you will see nothing but trees. That is only disappointing, of course, if you were expecting a view at the top. Don’t worry, though: There are several breathtaking views before you reach the top (if you are taking the route I’ll describe), and the last one before the top is the best.

Devils Rest

Devil's Rest

You can get to Devil’s Rest from Angel’s Rest, but I’ll describe the route from Multnomah Falls. Starting from the Multnomah Falls Lodge, follow the throngs up the paved trail to the top of the falls. This is just under a mile. At the top, you will start onto the unpaved Larch Mountain Trail, which crosses Multnomah Creek right away and follows the creek on the right side. After about another mile, you’ll come to a split in the trail. Go right, leaving Multnomah Creek and skirting around a ridge for about another mile. You will then come to a junction where the trail splits off in several directions. One of these goes up to Devil’s Rest. It is clearly marked, but you would have no trouble finding it anyway, because it is the only one going up! From here it is 1.6 miles to the top. The round-trip mileage for the hike is just under 8.5 miles.

You will have several great views along the Devil’s Rest Trail, but the last one before the top is the best. On a clear day, you will see Mount Adams rising above the distant hills across the river. Upon reaching the top, you and your hiking partners can sit on the boulders and swap ghost stories; the surroundings are perfect for that!

Views from the Devils Rest Trail

Views from the Devil's Rest Trail

 
 

The Chills and Thrills of Eagle Creek Trail

 

It’s 8 o’clock on a cold, damp October morning. The clouds hang low over the Columbia as you take exit 41 on I-84 and drive past the Eagle Creek fish hatchery to the Eagle Creek trailhead. You smile, noting that there are exactly two other cars parked at this popular jumping off point.

It’s thirty-eight degrees. That’s where the “chills” part comes from. The thrills, however, you will rack up over the course of the day.

Welcome to the Eagle Creek Trail.

The author is dwarfed by the near-100-foot Tunnel Falls
The author is dwarfed by the near-100-foot Tunnel Falls

This trail hardly needs an introduction for Portlanders. On weekends in the late summer and early fall, you’ll be hard pressed to snag a parking spot, and if you’re lucky and get a parking space, you will likely find the box containing parking permits empty (frequent hikers know to get a $30 annual NW Forest Pass). Even on days when day hikers crowd the trail, it’s a hike rich in rewards: beautiful waterfalls, a dramatic canyon, a laughing creek whose music is constantly in your ears while you hike.

Getting into this time of year, when daytime temperatures may not crack 50 degrees, you’ll face a lot less competition for solitude on this trail. The beauty of this is, you won’t be any colder or more uncomfortable, provided it’s not pouring rain, than if you had gone in the summer. You’ve just got to dress right. As they say in Scandinavia, there’s no bad weather, only bad clothing.

So, ready to hit the trail yet?

Many hikers never get past Punchbowl falls; many more never make it past Tunnel Falls. For serious hikers however, the beauty of Eagle Creek lies in the ways you can customize your hike or backpacking trip. Eagle Creek is truly a jumping off point for exploring the entire Columbia River Gorge.

I recently wrote a Squidoo Lens on the Eagle Creek Trail. It covers the basics of the trail: how to get there, the main attractions, and what to expect between the trailhead and Tunnel Falls. Be sure to check it out, and fave it if you enjoy it!

There is an amazing range of backpacking trips you can take with Eagle Creek as a starting point. Trails split off from Eagle Creek in all directions, giving you the option to explore many parts of the Gorge before you’re done. Many trails in the gorge most commonly hiked as day hikes are interconnected, making it possible to hike from Hood River to Multnomah Falls, if one were so inclined.

You need not be so ambitious, however. Whether you want a long day hike, an overnighter, a 2-nighter, 3-nighter, or more, there’s a tailor-made trip in the Gorge for you starting at Eagle Creek.

Let’s look at the options.

Right from the fish hatchery, you have the option to skip the first section of Eagle Creek entirely. The Ruckle Creek trailhead is just a half-mile up the Old Columbia River Highway, now converted to a paved bike path on that particular section. Ruckle Creek Trail (405) will take you a little over five grueling miles to the top of Benson Plateau. From there, you have access to the Pacific Crest Trail, or you can make your way down to the Eagle Creek Trail via the Eagle-Benson Trail (434). Ruckle Creek Trail rewards your hard work with awesome views of the Columbia River and Cascade Locks from an elevation of about 2000 feet.

Another, non-official, non maintained trail (more of a scramble) is the Ruckle Ridge route, which offers sweeping views even more impressive than those offered by the Ruckle Creek Trail. I do not recommend this route, however, unless you’re experienced, possess route-finding skills, and are willing to take risks. This is not a bad weather route. Do not do it in wet weather!

I mentioned the Eagle-Benson Trail, which connects the Pacific Crest Trail on the Benson Plateau with the Eagle Creek Trail. The Eagle-Benson Trail had fallen into disrepair until this summer, when the Mazamas got a volunteer group together to repair it. It is still a rough-and-tumble trail, but thanks to the vounteers, it’s well marked at easy to follow. If you’re crazy and really in shape, you can hike it from Eagle Creek to the Benson Plateau. Be aware that it gains 3000 feet in its scant 3 miles. The rewards are great, however: sweeping views up and down Eagle Creek Canyon from a bird’s eye view. The trail starts a little past the five-mile mark on the Eagle Creek Trail, just past the wilderness boundary. It is easy to miss if you’re not looking for it.

If you continue past Tunnel Falls on the Eagle Creek Trail, you’ll soon be faced with some choices. Shortly after 7 1/2 Mile Campground, the trail will jog hard back to the north, then continue eastward to Wahtum Lake. At the point of this jog, trail 433 splits off heading westward.

From this point, you can plan your trip based on whether you’ll be heading east, west, south (out of the Gorge and toward Mount Hood) or back north in a loop. Let’s look at the different directions you can go, one at a time.

East
If you’re heading east, continue on the Eagle Creek Trail past the jog, on up to Wahtum lake, which boasts a cozy campground where you can make a stop. Don’t forget Chinidere Mountain, which is a short sidetrip and well worth it. From the Wahtum Lake area, you can head northeast toward the amusingly named Rainy Lake, and from there, it’s a relatively easy hike to Mount Defiance (compared with hiking there from Starvation Creek!), which offers a commanding view of the area from its height of 4,960. From here you can hike down to Starvation Creek, I-84, and the end of your hike.

West
Theoretically, you could hike from Eagle Creek to Multnomah Falls, though I have never attempted this. When you reach the point where Eagle Creek Trail jogs to the north, a little past 7 1/2 Mile Campground, you can take trail 433, which takes you west to Tanner Butte, which is a destination in itself. From there, you can continue north to Dublin Lake. From here there is a trail (448) that continues west and connects to other trails heading west. You should have good route finding skills and a sense of adventure for an option like this. Otherwise, continue north to Bonneville Dam.

South
One of the most adventurous and rewarding options is to connect to the Pacific Crest Trail and continue to Timberline Lodge. This option may not be workable this year because of the Gnarl Ridge Fire, which forced the closure of many roads and trails north of Mount Hood. But put it on your list for next year! Again, Wahtum Lake would make a good layover for this hike.

North
There are an abundance of North/South Trails in the Gorge. Actually, the East/West options I’ve described eventually head back north to the Columbia Rive anyway. There’s Ruckle Creek, the Pacific Crest Trail, Herman Creek, Eaton Ridge, Tanner Butte… the area is full of possibilities for an adventurous loop hike. Be creative, but stay prudent and safe!

Disclaimer

Eagle Creek
Eagle Creek

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