- Level: Easy to Rodney Falls (Beginner Level: Challenging)
- Length: 2.2 miles (2.6 if gate is closed)
- Elevation: 600 ft. gain (740 if gate is closed)
- Type: out and back
- Open: all year
- Level: Difficult
- Length: 7.6 miles (8 if gate is closed)
- Elevation: 2,000 ft. gain (2,140 if gate is closed)
- Type: lollipop loop
- Open: all year
- Permit: Discover Pass or $10
- Drive time from Portland: 1 hour
- Google map: “hamilton mountain trailhead”
- Features: Columbia River Gorge, Beacon Rock, Rodney Falls, Hardy Falls, Pool of the Winds, Bonneville Dam
It had been a couple of months since I’d done a “difficult” trail, so I turned to the one I always turn to to get my stamina and muscles back in gear, Hamilton Mountain. When I haven’t had my butt kicked by a trail in awhile, pre-hike anxiety and negative self-talk cloud my head, fueled by nothing real or intuitive. This active body and lifestyle still feels new to me. I wonder when I’ll get to fully possess them.
I rolled up to the turn-off to the trailhead, right beside mammoth Beacon Rock, and the gate was closed. A twinge of relief and fantasies of coffee and a hot meal flashed before me. Hey, at least I tried! I could spend the day writing instead of trying to climb a stupid mountain and eating dried fruit and nuts! I knew better. I had cell-reception and within a few minutes of sleuthing, discovered the gate is closed during the week in winter due to budget cuts (this is common). The trailhead was still accessible by foot.
It was a bitterly cold day and windy. I had to keep my head, ears and hands covered the whole time. However, it was sunny and in the Pacific Northwest you have to give it up to the gods and white knuckle every sunny moment. It can be weeks or months before you get another one. The 1.1 mile and 600 feet elevation gain up past Hardy Falls to Rodney Falls was reassuring. The mountain was not going to kill me, just spank me a little too hard. Rodney Falls is incredible. It’s a 50-foot, tiered waterfall that tumbles and fans over lava rocks giving the illusion it’s more than a hundred feet tall. It’s hard to describe. At the top is this wondrous little alcove called, Pool of the Winds, where the spray of the falls creates rainbows if your timing is right with the sunlight. Just past Rodney Falls the real “fun” began as I gained over 1,400 feet in just two miles. This trail always fools me with it’s many-viewed outcroppings and the way the tree line sort of comes and goes. I always think I’m almost to the top, but nope! That first view of the face of Hamilton Mountain, with it’s huge, smooth-seeming basalt columns astounds me every time. It is so unbelievably beautiful. My next thought, and soon I’m going to be on top of that. Taller than the trees. Bigger than any of the nonsense that almost kept me from this moment. I dragged ass, taking too many pictures with the rough and tumble outdoorsy digital camera Brie got me for my last birthday, finally reaching the brushy summit ridgecrest. On a clearer day, you can see Mt. Adams and the tip of Mt. Hood, but today I could only see snow-brushed Table Mountain and called it good.
Pool of the Winds (nine months ago)
I turned left to begin the loop. After about a mile, I came to one of my favorite parts of the trail, a gorgeous saddle in the mountain. As I continued to traipse down, I came across a couple of older hikers I’d seen earlier who appeared to be going the wrong way. Before I continue, I just want to say these two previously left me in the dust and I am forever humbled when this happens. To know I have so many years ahead of me living this nature life fills me with gratitude and comfort and I look forward to being older and leaving young bucks in the dust, too. I asked them if they’d done this trail before and they hadn’t, confirming they’d made a wrong turn. It felt good to be able to provide them with information and we ended up hiking and talking for a bit, which I never do. They were husband and wife, taking a hiking break on their way from Seattle to Bend to visit a daughter. We talked a little about hiking and the woman asked me if I’d read Wild By, Cheryl Strayed, which I had and we talked about that for a minute. She was polite and kind, but kept her cards close, careful not to tell too much of a story, wary of inviting me in. I saw myself in her and I took my cue. I could either slow a little or pick up my pace as a challenge. With the sun leaning ever low in the sky, I chose the latter. “Nice talking to you guys,” and I was off.
Dodging a few trees downed from wind, I soon met up with the original trail just before Rodney Falls and jogged back to my car, beating the sunset. I smiled my fool head off, tears in my eyes. I hiked a fucking mountain! I hadn’t “lost it” or whatever I was worried about that morning. I was grateful down to my marrow for muscle memory and the supernatural way my body took care of me. I haven’t loved this body enough. I am beholden to its forgiveness.
From the trailhead:
Just behind the bathroom, take the trail uphill through dense woods for 0.5 mile before passing under powerlines. Ignore the trail on the left to the campground. After another 0.5 mile, a side trail to the right leads to a viewpoint of Hardy Falls. It’s not a very good viewpoint and it’s slippery in the rainy months, I usually skip it. Just beyond the side trail, you’ll reach a railed bridge beside Rodney Falls. Follow the signs for Pool of the Winds, using caution on the slippery lava rock. This is the turnaround point for Option 1. If you’re heading on, cross the bridge and begin switchbacking uphill, ignoring a fork to the left (you’ll be returning on that trail). After two miles, you’ll reach a T-shaped junction at the summit ridgecrest. There used to be a sign that said “Hamilton Mountain Summit,” but it wasn’t there this last time because some hikers suck. The path to the right dead ends. Turn left to begin the loop. After .9 mile, you’ll reach a saddle in the mountain. Stay left at the end of the saddle, ignoring the enticing trail signs, turning down an abandoned road. Keep left on the road (ignore Don’s Cutoff) and eventually veer left over the creek crossing. After 1.1 mile, the path joins the main trail. Turn right to continue back to your car.