Cougar Rock via Elevator Shaft Hike
From Oregon Hikers Field Guide
|This page is marked as a Lost Hike. The "trail" may be dangerous and hard to follow and is not recommended for beginning hikers without an experienced leader. Beginning hikers should check out our Basic Hiking Information page.|
- Start point: Multnomah Falls Trailhead
- End Point: Cougar Rock
- Trail Log : Trail Log
- Hike Type: Loop
- Distance: 6.7 miles (depending on options)
- Elevation gain: 1860 feet
- Difficulty: Difficult
- Seasons: Apr-Oct
- Family Friendly: No. Stony scramble & poison oak
- Backpackable: Yes
- Crowded: No
This hike has a little bit of every kind of trail, from paved, well-graded tourist trap to a scramble up a talus slope. The main attraction of the hike is the Elevator Shaft (also known as the "Fire Escape"). Various hiking guides show it to be lost, found, or even "not as lost as it once was." Plan ahead, wear good boots for the rocks, long pants for the poison oak, and plan on working hard.
The hike starts at the Multnomah Falls Trailhead. Hike up the Larch Mountain Trail #441 to the Benson Bridge, along with scores of day hikers and tourists. About 1/2 mile from the lodge, you'll come to a switchback where the unpaved Gorge Trail #400 connects. Continue east on the Gorge Trail, signed the "Ak-Wanee Trail." In about another half-mile of generally flat walking, you'll come to a large talus slope. This is the base of the Elevator Shaft, where the fun begins!
The talus slope is not hard to find, but the trail is. Continue east on the Gorge Trail across the talus field. After passing a small section of scrub and saplings, you enter a second talus field. You should see an old, partially buried chain link fence above, paralleling the trail. Near the east end of the second talus field, you will see a faint trail heading diagonally up and to the right. This is the beginning of the Elevator Shaft.
It's easy to suspect that the Elevator Shaft is limited to what you can see from the Gorge Trail, as the scree meets a solid bank of trees and low brush about 300 feet above. Were it just this, it would still be an impressive climb. However, once you work your way through a tangle of poison-oak and blackberry bushes, the forest scrub relents to another wide-open scree slope more than twice as high as the first you have nearly 700 feet to go!
This main section of the Elevator Shaft is series of short, faint switchbacks. Local climbers have counted the switchbacks in excess of a hundred. Years of cross-cutting have made the trail sometimes indistinguishable amid the rocks. If possible, do your best to resist the temptation to head straight uphill your hiking is the only maintenance this trail gets!
When you've reached about halfway up the visible section of the shaft, keep your eye out to the left you'll start to see the remains of a large and quite violent landslide, a powerful reminder of what it is you're standing on.
Unless you're in incredibly good shape, it likely will take you more than an hour to get to the top of the rockslide. From here, the unofficial trail enters to the forest off to the right (west) at the top take a moment to see if you can locate it before simply continuing uphill. And before entering the forest, don't forget to look behind you. Archer Mountain is the peak directly across the river. You're now high above Gorge Trail 400 and Interstate 84, and you've gained about 1,000 vertical feet in less than a half-mile.
Upon entering the forest, you may be surprised to find that your climb is far from over. In fact, you have another 700 vertical feet to gain before reaching the ridgecrest of Multnomah Basin. It's not quite a quarter-mile and some strenuous hiking before you get to an unmarked trail junction.
The trail heading to the right (west) continues for about a 1/3 mile to an exposed clifftop overlook high above Multnomah Falls and the Columbia River. Some yards back from this viewpoint, experienced scramblers can down-climb and pick up a light path that connects to the Larch Mountain Trail near the Multnomah Falls Upper Viewpoint. However, most hikers should not attempt this highly dangerous cutoff.
After visiting the overlook, backtrack uphill the trail is fairly visible amid the forest brush, but it's plenty steep as well until you reach the ridge near 1,800 ft. Depending on conditions and time of year, this trail can be hard to follow, making a GPS and map valuable equipment, while a compass on this hike is mandatory in all seasons (always bear in mind that the Larch Mt. Trail your exit crosses to the south).
After cresting the ridge, you'll be on the north edge of the Multnomah Basin. The trail will eventually intersect at a T with an unmarked, unmapped east-west trail. Follow it left (eastward). This is an area rich with history, so watch for evidence of old homesteads. There also are several blazes hung from limbs along the route, which should be observed and followed with care.
Continue heading east for another half-mile or so to a junction with a path to the left (north), down the hill. This path switches down steeply toward Cougar Rock. There really isn't a trail once you get to the ridgeline. There are two options. Follow the top of the ridgeline, which is a bit of a scramble to its end. You'll have a bird's-eye view looking straight down. Perhaps the better option is to find a light path that heads downhill, to the right of the ridge, to a great viewpoint to the northeast of the rock (pictured on this page). The trail to the viewpoint may be loose soil and rocks with some exposure, so caution is warranted.
After taking in the view of Cougar Rock, backtrack to the previous trail junction. Heading left (east) for 3/4 mile would take you to the rustic and very picturesque Nesika Lodge, private property of the Trails Club of Oregon. The property and lodge is closed to the public, but the club does host visitors on occasion. Instead, turn right (west), back the way you came. After a half mile or so, you will return to your first unmarked trail junction. Keep left at the junction. Heading to the right (west) takes you back towards Elevator Shaft, not a recommended descent route. After about 1/2 mile, you will intersect with the Multnomah Basin Road.
Turn right and walk generally southwest along the level road for 1/4 mile, watching for an unmistakable hairpin turn. An unsigned path cuts off from the road at this point, switchbacking down to the Larch Mountain Trail and a sign indicating that you're 1.5 miles from Multnomah Falls. (Should you somehow miss the cutoff trail, eventually you'll come to a crossing of Larch Mt. Trail itself, where you'll turn right.) Now that you're back on an official USFS trail, you can hike north past Ecola Falls, Weisendanger Falls, and numerous other scenic spots, including the Multnomah Falls Upper Viewpoint. Follow the paved trail #441 back to the Multnomah Falls Lodge and your car.
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Guidebooks that cover this hike
- 50 Hiking Trails: Portland and Northwest Oregon by Don and Roberta Lowe