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Cape Horn Loop Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

View upriver to Phoca Rock, Cape Horn Trail (Dan Huntington)
Sign at the beginning of the Cape Horn Trail (bobcat)
The "Tipping Tree" at Pioneer Point (Steve Hart)
Pholiota mushrooms, Cape Horn Trail (bobcat)
Approaching Cape Horn Falls on the lower trail (bobcat)
View to Cigar Rock, Cape Horn (bobcat)
Leafy woods on the traverse to Cape Horn Road (bobcat)
The loop hike at Cape Horn; road walk on Cape Horn Road in orange (bobcat) Courtesy: Caltopo/MapBuilder Topo
  • Start point: Cape Horn TrailheadRoad.JPG
  • End point: Cigar Rock
  • Trail Log: Trail Log
  • Hike type: Loop
  • Distance: 7.4 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1230 feet
  • High point: 1,300 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Seasons: July 16th to January 31st for the loop
  • Family Friendly: No
  • Backpackable: No
  • Crowded: Yes


Hike Description

The Cape Horn Trail is one of the closest Columbia River Gorge trails to the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area. It features wide-ranging views up and down the river, rocky cliffs and crags, streams and a waterfall. The route is well signed and has seen numerous improvements over the years, including sturdier trail treads and new overlooks. The trails here take advantage of slivers of public land surrounded by private property, so make sure you stay on the route. The key to completing a loop option here was the acquisition of land on the east facing rim just west of Biddle Butte, a 22 year process. In 1984, the Trust for Public Land accepted a loan from Gorge activist Nancy Russell and her husband to purchase the clifftop property of a proposed subdivision. The U.S. Forest Service acquired more land and, in 2006, the Friends of the Gorge Land Trust bought a home where the Nancy Russell Overlook is now situated. All these parcels are now administered by the Forest Service.

Note that the loop is only possible between July 16th and January 31st in order to protect nesting peregrine falcons on the basalt cliffs of Cape Horn. You can still hike to some of the viewpoints at other times of the year, however (see the Cape Horn Overlooks Hike). Keep your dog on a leash: There are numerous unprotected clifftop vantage points, and dogs have fallen to their deaths on several occasions. The last 1.2 miles of the loop is up paved Cape Horn Road, which is verged by private property.

From the Park and Ride lot, walk past an information kiosk with its large map, and cross Salmon Falls Road to pass a sign for the Cape Horn Trail. Keep right at a junction to stay on the Upper Trail. Hike above a blackberry-choked gully, and pass a gnarly Douglas-fir. Switchback down to a footbridge over a creek, and then begin walking up a slope of maples and alders. Make a switchback on a rooty trail that rises past boulders draped with licorice fern. Seven more switchbacks take you up through sword fern, snowberry, and thimbleberry. Ignore side trails leading off to the right to reach a powerline corridor. Enter a Douglas-fir wood, and make a traverse along a steep slope. Switchback under a mossy basalt face, and then wind up along the powerline corridor, where you'll get views to Silver Star Mountain on a clear day. At a junction, make a left for a viewpoint (horses must stay right). The view from here to the east and south includes the Prindle Cliffs, Hamilton Mountain, Beacon Rock, Phoca Rock, Multnomah Falls, Mist Falls, Yeon Mountain, and Larch Mountain. Looking west, you'll see the promontory of Cape Horn and the viaduct that carries Highway 14. Continue up from the viewpoint to where a short spur leads left to Pioneer Point, also known as Tipping Tree Point because of the large tree that fell over here with rootball exposed. Views from here are similar to those from the lower viewpoint. See if you can make out Angels Rest, Devils Rest, and Coopey Falls on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge.

You're now 1.4 miles into the hike. Back on the main trail, keep left at the junction with the horse bypass. The trail turns away from a fence at the meeting of Forest Service and Friends of the Gorge Land Trust property near the high point of the hike. Drop down a slope, and switchback to pass between gate posts and follow an abandoned road bed up an alder/maple hillside. Soon leave the road bed, and hike up under powerlines before bearing left past a fence corner. Now you'll follow a straight line with young Douglas-firs, a blackberry hedge, and a horse pasture to your right. Cross Strunk Road at a sign, and bear left along the edge of a field. A small communications tower juts skyward, and you'll pass by a closed gate.

Follow the gravel road leading right from the gate, and get views west across open fields to the forested prominence of Biddle Butte, also known as Mount Zion, with its communications array. At a neat line of alders, you'll see the trail leading off to the left. Descend past the site of the house that was demolished in 2008 after being purchased by Friends of the Gorge Land Trust. Switchback down twice from a grove of impressive Douglas-firs, and take the spur trail heading left to the walled amphitheater at the Nancy Russell Overlook, 2.6 miles from the trailhead. Views from here extend up the Columbia River Gorge as far as Hamilton Mountain and Beacon Rock. Return to the main trail, and switchback down four times in mixed forest to keep left at another horse bypass. The trail reaches a viewpoint directly above the Highway 14 viaduct, and you can see the anchors that hold the nets which prevent rockfall onto the road. There is a great view of lonely Phoca Rock from here.

Rejoin the main trail, switchback, and keep left at the horse bypass. Pass through a dense vine maple thicket, and switchback down three times above a deep gully. Pass a couple of imposing Douglas-firs, and switchback at a small overgrown shed. Cross a wide footbridge over the blackberry-choked gully, switchback up, and make a traverse under rustling alders. You can see Highway 14 down to your left. Switchback again, and walk through the tunnel under Highway 14. Descend, and cross a footbridge over Cape Horn Creek to reach the junction with the trail that leads down from the Cape Horn West Trailhead. A spur trail drops down to the left and reaches the Upper Waterfall Viewpoint at 3.9 miles. The upper tiers of Cape Horn Falls spill down the basalt face here, and views extend to Beacon Rock as well as Bridal Veil Falls, Coopey Falls, and Angels Rest. Sand Island, part of Rooster Rock State Park, is across the main Columbia River channel to the southwest. Make a traverse to cross another footbridge, and hike along a rim of white oaks and contorted Douglas-firs. At the next junction, 4.2 miles from the Cape Horn Trailhead, horses must turn around, and this is also the farthest point you can hike during peregrine falcon nesting season (February 1st to July 15th). Take the spur that switchbacks steeply down to the Windblown Fir Viewpoint at a copse of oaks.

Return to the main trail (the old trail tread that leads west from the viewpoint soon ends at a slide), and continue west. Switchback down seven times to descend another layer of cliffs, and enter a Douglas-fir forest with a dense carpet of sword ferns. You can see scree slopes and the base of the cliffs above. When you get close to the edge of Cape Horn's cliffs, find a brushy spur leading right. (This is actually a short loop that begins in the Douglas-fir wood, but that end of the loop is easy to miss.) In succession, you'll find three clifftop viewpoints, with the last one, the Cape Horn Railroad Tunnel Viewpoint, offering a perch looking straight down to the western portal of BNSF Tunnel 1, the longest railroad tunnel in the Columbia River Gorge at 2,382 feet. It's worth waiting here to watch a train snake by. The shipping channel is very near the shore here, and this is also a great place to watch river traffic. You may observe a bald eagle or two soaring above the water. Take care on these 225-foot cliffs, however. There is no surviving a misstep!

Go back to the main trail, carefully avoiding the poison oak that makes this place home, and continue east. Reach a viewpoint to pointed Cigar Rock, a distinctive basalt pinnacle. Then switchback up four times on a scree slope luxuriously cloaked in moss and licorice fern. Cross the long footbridge below Cape Horn Falls' middle tier. (The trail used to go behind the falls before the bridge was installed.) There is a second, even spindlier waterfall, just west of Cape Horn Falls. The trail drops steeply, at one point using a vertical set of rock steps, and rises along a forested slope to a viewpoint towards Phoca Rock. Descend, and switchback twice to traverse gradually down past an old Private Property sign to where the trail meets Cape Horn Road. To your right is the gate to private Cape Horn Landing, once a thriving steamboat port, but you'll be hiking 1.2 miles back to the trailhead up the road. There is no public parking here, so don't even consider a car shuttle!

Hike up the road, and pass a field that offers a view to the upper cliffs of Cape Horn, the Highway 14 viaduct, and Pioneer Point. The bridge across the cliffs has a dubious history. In November 1927, during construction of the highway, engineers wanted to blast a road bed across the slope. However, the dynamite blew away the section entirely, creating a void rather than a ledge, and buried farmland and the railway below as well as destroying the old steamboat landing. The casualties, in addition to property, were six pigs. Plan B was construction of the road bridge which was initially protected from rockfall by a wood covering. Cable nets replaced the wood covering in the 1960s. The road levels and then continues to rise, with woodland to the left and cattle pastures on the right. Curve up to the left, and find the trail departing from the road to the left. Hike through a pedestrian underpass, reach the end junction to the loop, and make a right to cross Salmon Falls Road and reach the trailhead.


Regulations or Restrictions, etc.

  • Restrooms and information kiosk at trailhead
  • Day use only
  • Dogs on leash
  • Share trail with horses
  • The lower part of the loop is closed February 1 to July 15 to protect nesting peregrine falcons. The upper part of the loop, down to the Windblown Fir Viewpoint 1/2 mile below SR14, is open all year.

Trip Reports

Related Discussions / Q&A

Guidebooks that cover this hike

  • PDX Hiking 365 by Matt Reeder
  • Day Hikes in the Columbia Gorge by Don J. Scarmuzzi
  • Day Hiking: Columbia River Gorge by Craig Romano
  • 100 Classic Hikes: Washington by Craig Romano
  • Take a Hike: Portland by Barbara I. Bond
  • Best Hikes Near Portland, Oregon by Fred Barstad
  • Afoot & Afield: Portland/Vancouver by Douglas Lorain
  • 100 Hikes: Northwest Oregon by William L. Sullivan
  • Oregon Favorites: Trails and Tales by William L. Sullivan
  • Pokin' Round the Gorge by Scott Cook
  • Fires, Faults, and Floods: A Road & Trail Guide Exploring the Origins of the Columbia River Basin by Marge & Ted Mueller

More Links


Oregon Hikers Field Guide is built as a collaborative effort by its user community. While we make every effort to fact-check, information found here should be considered anecdotal. You should cross-check against other references before planning a hike. Trail routing and conditions are subject to change. Please contact us if you notice errors on this page.

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