Saturday morning after what could possibly be THE most delicious breakfast either of us has ever eaten (at the Columbia Gorge Hotel), Jim and I were sitting in the hotel lounge, sipping coffee and perusing various Gorge magazines to find an easy day-hike….
We were hoping to find a simple hike that would include a waterfall. When we saw this description, we thought it sounded perfect:
Three miles seems easy enough… even if it’s labeled as “moderate to more difficult”. A 600 ft Elevation Gain didn’t seem too big. And the hike features a great view and three waterfalls- you betcha! We’re on it!
We grabbed a couple snack bars, 1 bottle of water each, and a backpack to carry those things in. I carried a small purse to store my sunglasses, chapstick, a nail file, my mini-wallet and my cell phone. You know, the essentials. I was also going to carry the magazine with me for trail directions, but Jim suggested snapping a picture of it instead- easier to reference and not carry anything extra.
The “Starvation Creek” parking lot was easy to find, the parking lot was beginning to fill up, though. We grabbed one of the last spots- it was just after 9:00am. We changed our shoes, hit the restroom, then headed for the trailhead.
We didn’t bring any “hiking” clothing or shoes, just wore our running shoes. Jim wore cargo shorts and a Columbia Sportwear “cooling” shirt and I wore my cutoff jean shorts and a cami-style tank-top. It was chilly and I didn’t have a sweater or jacket. I figured I’d get warm on the walk, but I hadn’t anticipated being this cold at the start. Brrrr.
Directly ahead of us was a guy fully decked out in hiking gear- had the sturdy hiking shoes, zip-off pants, long sleeves (or maybe it was a light jacket), a hat, a backpack, etc.
Anyway, we started down the trail and quickly came to the “Starvation Creek Cutoff” trail marker as the magazine said we would and I was delighted to see the guy ahead of us turning up that trail as well.
And there it began. A grueling steep hike. Oh man. It was steep. And narrow. And wild- soft dirt, big rocks, branches, etc. This was not like any groomed trail I’d been on…this was NOT a groomed trail! This was “real” hiking. It was definitely something I’d rather go UP than DOWN. I was grateful that we were on a loop- I did not want to see this section going back down.
I began to realize I was not appropriately dressed. I was slightly embarrassed for myself.
My shoes were doing OK, but it definitely required me to intentionally place each step to keep from slipping. I was making it….and although I was quite cold at the beginning of our walk, I was plenty warm within minutes of our trek. Comfortably warm.
The guy ahead of us felt the heat, too. He had stopped to strip a layer- we passed by him. Suddenly I felt “proud” of my warm weather outfit! Ha! Bet he wishes he was wearing shorts and a tank-top too!
It wasn’t long before the trail turned into super long stretches of relatively steep uphill climbs. Switchback after switchback up the hillside. We were “grinding” it out- staying strong and steady- stepping in a rhythm, breathing in a rhythm, trying to keep our bodies moving and our heart rate from going too high. Just. Keep. Going.
We made it to a trail junction that labeled “Mt Defiance Trail” and “Starvation Ridge Trail” and we referenced our directions which said to turn left at the fork. So we did… and we kept going up higher and higher and higher. The guy was still behind us.
Our hearts were pounding so we needed to slow down every once in a while and at one of those brief points of rest the guy passed us.
Eventually we made it to a meadow area. And there it was- a gorgeous view of the gorge:
I asked Jim, “don’t you think we’ve made it 700 feet yet?” We were pretty high!! He was sure we had to be about that high…. we had to be close.
We looked up the meadowside and could see the guy that was ahead of us. He had caught up to another person- also fully decked out like an official ‘hiker’. They had poles, too. It looked like an even better view up there, so we decided to keep climbing.
I think this was the worst part of the hike because it was not only steep, but slippery. So so slippery. The trail was now super hard dry dirt with a layer of fine loose dirt pebbles. Slick stuff. I just could not get the traction I needed in my running shoes. I really had to agree with the book now- that it was safer to go uphill than downhill. I was so so glad we would not be taking this back down. I can’t imagine how we would without sliding!
More meadowside switchbacks….we stopped to take another picture of our breathtaking view:
Here, let me zoom in on that a bit so you can see the switchbacks….
You can see the trail going through the powerline tower. And then switching back and forth below it. What you don’t see is that every switchback goes into the forested area, it’s not just across this meadow part. It’s steep, and on loose dirt, and in the sun. I was sweaty and hot….
But we continued up higher…
The cars below are barely distinguishable!
This just doesn’t seem right…this seems higher than 700 feet, and we aren’t even to the top yet!?!? So we kept on climbing.
And there it was…. the ultimate viewpoint for the Columbia River Gorge:
See that tiny power line tower on the left? Yeah, that’s the one from a couple pictures back. We were so so much higher than that. Definitely had to be higher than 700 feet.
And look at the parking lot from here- our car is down there!
We took a lot of photos at this viewpoint…
Even had fun with some of them:
It was almost 10:00am by that point. We had done that hike in about 45 minutes! We felt great! What an accomplishment!
We re-read the directions….. it said that once we reach the top, the trail will intersect with another trail and in a short distance we will come to Lancaster falls.
We didn’t see any intersecting trail and it seems like we are at 700 feet already, but I guess we’re not….so we continued on. The trail turned into the forested area, following the top of the ridge, taking us away from the river. We turned around for one last picture of the amazing view and where we’d just been:
The rest of the hike looked like this:
Just a simple trail through the woods. FINALLY, an easy walk. But where the heck is that intersecting trail? We are seemingly going farther away from the gorge and the description of the trail. We should be coming upon three waterfalls, too. There’s no water anywhere near us. We are so high…and seem to be getting higher? And the fantastic views were supposed to be at the top of the trail. That wasn’t the top? There’s not going to be any better view than what we just saw. And if this is a 3-mile loop hike, something is really off. It just didn’t feel right.
Oh gosh, what if we made a wrong turn someplace?
So we re-read the instructions….and we did exactly what they said…. so we kept on going.
The two guys weren’t too far ahead of us, it seemed like we were gaining on them. They had their walking poles out and were trekking along.
Although the terrain wasn’t as steep, it was still tricky in spots and once again I was grateful that I would not have to go back DOWN the way we came!
Or would we?
We stopped again to read the directions….again. According to the magazine we did everything right.
Then we pulled out our smart phones to look at Google Maps and it showed us as being on Starvation Ridge Trail #414….which yep, the directions said, “the trail intersects with Starvation Ridge Trail 414” so we were on the right one. So we kept going.
Not too far up, we stopped again. I looked for the falls on Google Maps…..and um, well, the falls were at the very bottom of the hill- closer to I-84, so I was really concerned now. We had to have taken a wrong turn.
I followed the trail we were on (via Google Maps) and it looked like if we continued following it, it would take us farther and farther into the mountainside until it intersects with a trail not mentioned in the magazine, which then connects to another trail, which then eventually connects to the Starvation Ridge Trail at the BOTTOM. And it certainly couldn’t be just 3 miles because by the looks of it, we were only 1/5th of the way…..which means this is more like a 10-mile trail. And we couldn’t see the elevation to know what we were looking at.
We decided to continue going…..maybe that intersecting trail isn’t much farther and it’s just not on Google Maps. After all, we had followed directions!
Worst case scenario…if we have to hike 10 miles, we can do it. Then we stopped and thought about it. We had no real food. We had just one bottle of water each. Nothing else. We didn’t know the trail we were on, nor where it went, so had no idea what to expect ahead. We were climbing higher and higher….how much higher would this trail go? We also knew we would want lunch sooner than 7 hours from now. We had already hiked for an hour, so it would take another hour to get back to where we started.
Yeah, we better just turn around and go back down the way we came. Maybe when we get to that sign we saw earlier, we’ll see our error. Or maybe we just missed a turn that we didn’t notice?
So we turned around and headed back down that nasty steep trail. This picture shows the easy part.
I would like to share that we passed several hikers on their way up…. every single one of them had full gear, backpacks, walking poles, sturdy shoes and tall socks or long pants. Each person was appropriately dressed for a rough hike. Hmmmm. Probably a good thing we turned back.
I was seriously embarrassed for how we, er I, was dressed. Did they look at us and think, “Losers! Ha ha ha- they were so unprepared that they had to turn around and go back!” or did they think, “Wow! Those guys were daring to hike up to that viewpoint and come back down!”
We made it back to the trail head and found the error… we should have turned RIGHT not LEFT to stay on the trail. FREAKING TYPO IN THE MAGAZINE. Although the magazine doesn’t clearly state what trail you should be on, or take, it just said to go Left, so we did.
Anyway….back on the right track, we fairly quickly came to what was the top of the trail… the 700′ viewpoint. Not nearly the same viewpoint that we had seen earlier in the day! It was so anti-climactic that I didn’t even take a picture.
We talked to a couple that was resting there and confirmed that we were indeed on the right path now, and yes, we were going to see the three falls we had intended to see.
We continued over the ‘peak’ and started down the other side….
Switchbacks through a meadow. This path was just as slippery as the path up top…tiny loose pebble-dirt. I felt like a monkey swinging between trees, except instead of swinging I was slipping and sliding towards the skinny pole tree to grab before falling- then letting go to slide to the next one. I tried walking on the edge where there was grass and such, but not knowing what Poison Oak looks like, and not wanting to walk on the edge of such a steep slope, I decided to just keep doing what was working. Boy, I really need hiking shoes.
Eventually we dropped down to a stream, which we had to cross. Fortunately there was a fallen tree to use as a bridge- although it was a little scary! Higher than I would have liked, longer than I would have liked, with bone breaking fall risk!! I got 2/3 of the way across then Jim got into a position where I could grab his hand to steady myself the rest of the way. Yuck.
The hike went back uphill again, around a bend, then back down a bit. We came upon a fork in the trail….one path (left) went to Lancaster Falls. The other path (right) was Starvation Ridge Trail and it would take us to the Hole-in-the-Wall Falls and Cabin Creek Falls.
Ahhhh, now this makes sense. THIS is the fork in the road that the magazine was mentioning….THIS is where we turn left to see Lancaster falls…….I get it now. The first fork we came upon isn’t even mentioned in the magazine!!!!
Lesson learned, never follow trail routes published in a magazine. It’s likely that A) the editor has never walked the hike for themselves and B) any directional errors will not be caught before publishing. Do your research, folks!
Lancaster Falls was great to see. There was a family there (2 YOUNG kids, 2 adults) and the dad was standing in the falls hootin’ and hollerin’…. getting soaked in his underwear and having fun. I think our presence surprised them all! Ha!
I couldn’t fit the whole falls in my viewfinder…..
It’s definitely one you can stand under, though. It’s not very tall and the flow of water is not terribly heavy. I bet it was cold though!
Here’s a full vertical panoramic view:
We’ll have to bring the kids back here sometime (just not on the route that we took to get here!).
[Side note: the trail actually crosses the falls here and picks up on the other side if one wanted to stay on the Mt. Defiance Trail and not go back to the Starvation Ridge trail.]
I made my husband do selfies with me…. ha!
We went back down to the fork and started hiking the lower Starvation Ridge Trail. What a break! Whew! This is easy stuff here!
Surprisingly we passed A LOT of people heading up the hill….taking the trail in a counter-clockwise direction, which I would not recommend. Unless they were going specifically to this falls and then turning around to go back down. I would not go down the cutoff trail that we initially started up on!
We got to the Hole-In-The-Wall Falls pretty quickly- and I’ll just say it’s aptly named:
I used the Panoramic feature on my phone to take this picture- which has digitized blocks of water cascading down- oh well:
Farther down the trail you can see how tall this falls really is…
Anyway…. it was an easy trek down the rest of the trail. So easy that we ran into another family at the Hole-In-The-Wall falls pushing a STROLLER.
By the time we got to Cabin Creek Falls I was less than enamored with any type of falls or viewpoint. I was done. But I took a picture of it anyway:
And that was it. Our hiking adventure was done by 11:54AM. We spent nearly 3 hours hiking, much of it on very steep terrain with loose footing making it quite slick and slippery. But I would totally do it again.
After we got home we used Google Maps and Google Earth to map the distance and elevation and find out where we went wrong:
– Overall we hiked about 4.95 miles in under 2.75 hours.
– The first segment of the hike, to the fork that wasn’t listed in the magazine- the one where you turn LEFT to go up to Starvation Ridge…..well that section is .4 miles from the trailhead and an Elevation Gain of 446 feet. So yeah, that’s steep. Again, I would not want to take that back down!!
– Our “mistake” hike that took us up to the viewpoint- the viewpoint was an elevation of 1,066 feet. The actual Gain is 912 feet and we did that in about 45 minutes. Distance of 1.5 miles.
– Since we kept going up the ridge before turning back, we estimate that we reached an elevation of 1,476 before turning around.
– If we would have continued going up that trail, it would have intersected with the Warren Lake trail, taking us to Warren Lake, then we could continue up the other side to Mt. Defiance Trail and take that trailhead back down to Lancaster Falls, cross the falls and connect up to the lower Starvation Ridge (Starvation Creek) trail. That loop is 11.6 miles and has an elevation gain of 4,000 feet.
Jim and I have decided some day we’ll go back and tackle that!! Of course with better gear, official hiking shoes, and an ample supply of food and water. EACH.
It’s likely that the people we saw coming up the hike (towards the end, the one’s who were seemingly taking the route counter-clockwise) could have been going to Lancaster Falls to cross the water and continue the Mt. Defiance Trail up to Mt. Defiance. Supposedly spectacular views up there, and something we could certainly try sometime.
Anyway- this map shows the route we took in red and pink:
Here’s a “formal” map of the trail system:
Here are some helpful links if you are considering doing this hike:
This set of directions is also good.
Here’s the crazy part. Jim and I are not hikers. The only other “hike” we’ve done was the weekend prior and it was a half-mile round trip. It was fun, and fueled our “hey let’s find some hikes this weekend”. Thankfully we are physically active people- walking almost daily (I’ve been averaging 15,000 steps daily). We do our HIIT circuit workout classes (less frequently than we’d like to, but hey, we still do them). Anyway- we aren’t “hikers” but we consider ourselves to be decently fit. When we got back to our hotel and researched the hike we’d just completed, we learned it’s labeled as one of the most difficult in the Gorge. Apparently we also completed what many describe as being the most difficult portion, but having not done the giant loop I can’t confirm whether or not that’s 100% true. But we did it and didn’t die of physical exhaustion or have to spend the next day on the couch. In fact, after we got back to Hood River- we ate lunch and then climbed Gil’s staircase (413 stairs) without difficulty. We walked to dinner that night (granted it was only a 1-mile walk each way) but we still walked. The next morning we went on another hike. The hike-fiasco in this story didn’t seem to phase us….so that’s good! The only soreness I felt was Monday- my calves were sore and would tighten if I sat or rested for too long… so I just spent my “downtime” on the treadmill! Ha!
You just gotta keep moving.