- Level: Easy to fence + Labyrinth Trail (Beginner Level: Challenging)
- Length: 3.7 miles
- Elevation: 680 ft. gain
- Type: loop
- Open: all year
- Level: Moderate to top of meadow + Labyrinth Trail
- Length: 6.1 miles
- Elevation: 1520 ft. gain
- Type: lollipop loop
- Open: all year
- Permit: n/a, $2 for Hood River Bridge crossing
- Drive time from Portland: 1h15 min.
- Google map: doesn’t come up. In short, after crossing the Hood River Bridge from I-84, turn right on WA-14 for 4.6 miles. Then turn left onto Courtney Rd. Trailhead is immediately on the right.
- Features: Columbia River Gorge, Coyote Wall, Labyrinth Trail, Ponderosa Pines, grassland, waterfalls
Coyote Wall calls to me. I know I give “favorite” status to at least a dozen trails and I earnestly mean it every time, but this one is a little extra special. I have done it in every season but winter, which I will get to rectify very soon. It is a perennial gift-giver. Something electric happens when the Columbia River Gorge goes from lush, green rainforest to dry metallic desert. The silver trunks of scrubby oaks and the clouds that make this place look a thousand types of ways. The grasses, gold in every season but deep spring, covering every exposed area. All of that gold and silver pulling bits of blues and greens and rolling it all over the hills, lazily. Softly.
(I revisited this trail on April 6, 2016.)
This trail has magic. The birds pay attention to you. Twice now a raven has landed a couple dozen feet away and just watched me, craning its head with my every movement. I always sort of feel like they are trying to tell me something. Something good. What if we just decide that things that seem magical actually are magical? What is the point of always trying to explain things away? There is no joy in that and I have decided I’ll take joy wherever I can get it.
Watchful ravens at Coyote Wall. April 2015 / September 2014.
Unfortunately, this time in particular didn’t go as fantastically, but it wasn’t short on magic. The weather was terrible. Actually, the weather was terrible and then it wasn’t and then it was great and then it was terrible again. The Pacific Northwest in a nutshell.
As my girlfriend, Brie, and I hit the start of the Gorge from Portland, the sprinkling rain began falling in sheets. We hike in rain all of the time. Rain, snow, whatever, but it’s those days where the weather changes fast and hard that give pause. When it feels unsafe to be driving in rain that awful you sort of have to ask yourself if it’s a good idea to physically be in it. I don’t know, hypothermia is, like, a thing. We were so pumped for a full day off together of adventuring! After individually throwing a hissyfit about things not going our way, we decided to proceed with the drive. If things remained shitty, we’d find an indoor adventure in nearby White Salmon or Hood River.
As we crossed the Hood River Bridge, the dark clouds dramatically rolled away, opening up a bright white sky. The sun threatening to come out. We pulled up to the trailhead triumphant with good fortune. As we began the trek up the rocky terrain we exclaimed, on repeat, how amazing this place is, how gorgeous, how happy we were that we didn’t have to change our plans, the trail veering ever close to the cliff. The height of the cliff and the proximity of the trail is dizzying at times. I’m afraid of heights, but hiking has helped me a lot with it. Fortunately, though I no longer use them, every cliffside bend has a neighboring path made over time by the fellow faint of heart. The ravens circled above, but did not come down to socialize with us and as fat raindrops began to fall from the sky, they disappeared completely. We reached the path through the fence that marks the start of the steepest part of the trail, gaining over 800 feet in about a mile. In spring, this area is covered in massive beds of yellow balsamroot and blue lupine.
As the good brain stuff started kicking into gear and our bodies switched into overdrive in that way that feels mechanical in the best way possible, we were delivered the swiftest betrayal. Clouds zoomed in from the higher nearby peaks darkening the sky. The noncommittal drops of yore, turned into streaming rain, then stinging hail. Hail?! Oh, hail no! In that moment, I finally admitted to myself after an entire year of denial, that my waterproof windbreaker was neither. We neared the top of the meadow, the part where you get to congratulate yourself on being a total badass before traipsing down the steep hill to turn onto the whimsical green maze of the Labyrinth Trail, and were faced with a decision that made itself as snow started to fall. It wasn’t necessarily the snow that made us turn around as much as the dreaded anything-is-possible feelings overtaking us. It all happened so fast and we managed to be soaked through within just minutes. My hands became so numb they no longer worked, reminding me for the last time that I need to stop being a shithead and put my fucking gloves in my pack already.
No Labyrinth Trail, which I’m certain would’ve been pure hiking magic, obviously, but I’ll never know. We went back the way we came, careful to not roll an ankle while stepping and jumping off the big slippery rocks that make up so many parts of the trail. I threw about thirty-three tiny baby tantrums about not getting to do the whole thing, while my girlfriend gently lectured me on how I take too many risks while hiking. She isn’t wrong.
From the trailhead:
Walk east from the parking lot to the paved gated road strewn with fallen boulders for 0.7 mile. Turn left at the fence opening (which might be an old cattle baffle) onto an eroded trail. In 0.2 mile, veer left onto a smaller path that curves along the beginning of the wall, past a few stately ponderosa pines. Something to bear in mind, this trail started out mainly as a mountain biking trail so there are tons of side trails and eroded areas that can be mistaken for the main trail. Most of them only skirt for short distances and lead back to the main trail. Be aware, but don’t stress too much about taking the wrong path. This is a mostly wide open area, let the location of the wall and river be your guides. Keep left on the rim’s edge for 0.8 mile until you reach a dirt road edged by a barbwire fence. For the longer hike, continue uphill through the gap in the wire fence for 1.2 miles through the meadows. When you reach the inviting area at the top just before the forest thicket, turn back downhill the way you came and proceed with the following details to make the loop. For the shorter 3.7-mile loop, skip going through the fence and veer downhill to the right, not on the path that precisely parallels the fence, the one that sort of veers off and downish. The next part can get confusing with all of the side trails, but stick to the clearest path. Start watching for Poison Oak, especially in later spring. When the road turns right, veer down to the left on the unmarked Labyrinth Trail, which crosses a creek and switchbacks down so exaggeratedly (hence the name) you may start wondering if you’re still on the right path. Just past the waterfall, you’ll soon meet up with the old gated road that leads you back to your car.
Check out other times I’ve done this trail: April 6, 2016
Some photos from past hikes of Coyote Wall. The wildflowers!