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