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Horsethief Butte Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

Looking to the summit of Horsethief Butte (bobcat)
Cut-leaf penstemon (Penstemon richardsonii var. dentatus), Horsethief Butte (bobcat)
The imposing eastern buttress of Horsethief Butte (bobcat)
Cushion fleabane (Erigeron poliospermus), Horsethief Butte (bobcat)
Faded pictograph panel, Horsethief Butte (bobcat)
Horsethief Butte, showing the routes described (not a GPS track) (bobcat) Courtesy: Google Maps
  • Start point: Horsethief Butte TrailheadRoad.JPG
  • End point: Horsethief Butte Summit
  • Trail log: Trail Log
  • Hike type: Out and back or loop
  • Distance: 1.7 miles round trip
  • Elevation gain: 250 feet
  • High point: 498 feet
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Seasons: Year round
  • Family Friendly: Only on easier trails
  • Backpackable: No
  • Crowded: Yes, on spring weekends


Hike Description

Rugged Horsethief Butte, part of Washington's expansive Columbia Hills State Park, looms above the glassy waters of Celilo Lake on this now becalmed stretch of the Columbia River. It is composed of hexagonal columns of Wanapum basalt flows, about 15 million years old, which were scoured and cleansed of most of their soil by the Bretz Floods at the end of the last Ice Age. Rock climbing groups take over the Butte on spring weekends, but the flower displays are worth the crowded battlements. In any case, the rock climbers stick to a few sheer faces, and you may wander in the gullies, search out Native American pictographs, and scramble to the Butte's windy summit. A network of trails allows for interesting explorations among the rocks, but look out for poison oak and rattlesnakes! Those with young children or who have strong sensitivity to poison oak should stick to the central defile and plateau of the Butte itself rather than attempt the route around the base. Avoid the Butte on hot summer days, when the rock reflects heat and makes an oven out of the narrow ravines.

A trail leads from the new trailhead across a grassy expanse. Keep right at a junction, and look for blooming death-camas in the spring as well as views over Horsethief Lake and the hexagonal columns of the Wanapum flows. Mount Hood stands starkly to the west. Part of The Dalles is also visible. On the west side of the butte, the trail splits. To circle around the base of Horsethief Butte (Poison oak alert!), go right to continue towards the river. You can smell the pungent desert-parsley here; also, listen for the cascading notes of canyon wrens coming tumbling from the ramparts. Swallows dart about overhead, and vultures soar the thermals. The rocky cliffs above the trail are home to multicolored splashes of lichen. There are lookout points to the right, and the trail drops through a poison oak-choked notch to a view over a reed-lined pond and the railroad.

Continue a scrambling traverse before descending above an incised gulch with a basalt pinnacle at its head. Circle around to the left under the imposing eastern buttress of Horsethief Butte, noting the columned overhang. On the Butte's north side, wind your way up a bouldery talus field that hosts thickets of Oregon grape and some poison oak. Pass beneath The Slab, a smooth sloping boulder where climbers test their scrambling skills. Wander through the defile in the center of the Butte, and look for a notch on your left which will take you up to the plateau area. Once up through this passage, you'll see the summit to your left. Go towards the river and then, to avoid a deep gully, pick up a trail leading around the southern edge of the butte. Then head up to the Horsethief Butte Summit, which can be very breezy.

Descend from the summit plateau down the same notch to the central ravine. Make a left, passing a cordoned off site which displays a few very faded pictographs (There are other pictographs among the defiles on Horsethief Butte as well, all of them very faded by weathering and some vandalized.). Drop to a junction at the base of the Butte to reach the main access trail. Go right to return to your vehicle.


  • Maps: Hike Finder
  • Green Trails Maps: Columbia River Gorge - East #432S

Regulations or restrictions, etc

  • Discover Pass required
  • Trail closes at dusk
  • Dogs on leash
  • Restrooms at trailhead

Trip Reports

Related Discussions / Q&A

Guidebooks that cover this hike

  • Curious Gorge by Scott Cook
  • Best Hikes With Kids: Western Washington by Susan Elderkin
  • Best Hikes With Kids: Oregon by Bonnie Henderson & Zach Urness
  • Columbia Gorge Getaways by Laura O. Foster
  • 100 Hikes: Eastern Oregon by William L. Sullivan
  • Oregon Favorites: Trails & Tales by William L. Sullivan
  • Hiking Washington's Mount Adams Country by Fred Barstad
  • Best Desert Hikes: Washington by Alan Bauer & Dan Nelson
  • Day Hiking: Columbia River Gorge by Craig Romano
  • Hiking the Columbia River Gorge by Russ Schneider
  • 70 Virtual Hikes of the Columbia River Gorge by Northwest Hiker
  • Columbia Gorge Hikes: 42 Scenic Hikes by Don & Roberta Lowe
  • Fire, Faults, and Floods: A Road & Trail Guide Exploring the Origins of the Columbia River Basin by Marge & Ted Mueller
  • Hiking Washington's History by Judy Bentley
  • Washington State Parks: A Complete Recreation Guide 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.

Hiking is a potentially risky activity, and the entire risk for users of this field guide is assumed by the user, and in no event shall Trailkeepers of Oregon be liable for any injury or damages suffered as a result of relying on content in this field guide. All content posted on the field guide becomes the property of Trailkeepers of Oregon, and may not be used without permission.