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Horsethief Butte Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

Looking to the summit of Horsethief Butte (bobcat)
The Columbia River from Horsethief Butte (Steve Hart)
Cushion fleabane (Erigeron poliospermus), Horsethief Butte (bobcat)
Native American art (Steve Hart)
Approximate location of the main trails (bobcat)
Poison Oak


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!

A trail leads from the new trailhead across a grassy expanse. Pass one junction, and then go right where the trail forks at a ‘park rules’ sign, but go off to the right cross-country through blooming death-camas to overlook Horsethief Butte Lake, the highway bridge, a basalt column at water’s edge, 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. Go left up a gulch and then scramble up to the right for a view from the top on an uncrowded portion. Salsify and cushion fleabane bloom here. Down in the ravines, some cultural sites, including a few very faded pictographs, are marked off and not to be climbed upon. Find a path that leads to left to the southern gulley. There are more visible pictographs here. Then scramble up a notch to the plateau area of the butte. The summit is 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 in a stiff breeze.

Go back down the gulch to the main trail on the west side and 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 in the air. The rocky cliffs above the trail re home to several different colors of lichen. There are lookout points here and the trail ends where you descend through a poison-oak-choked notch to a view over a reed-lined pond and the railroad.

Hike back to the park rules sign and go right to the rock face past blooming bitterbrush. Actually, there should be a way up here for hikers to make a little loop, but I don’t do it because of the crowds. Go back to the rock-lined trace which heads west towards the lake. This descends into a stepp-sided gulley blooming with Oregon grape and big root. Cross a rotting old footbridge and ascend to a rim over the lake. This is directly above the basalt column. Look for members of the local ground squirrel colony. Head back to the trailhead from here.


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

Regulations or restrictions, etc

  • Discovery Pass required
  • Trail closes at dusk
  • Dogs on leash

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
  • 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.