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Mount Defiance from Columbia River Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

Mt. Hood view from the summit of Mt. Defiance (bobcat)
The lower portion of Lancaster Falls, on the Mt. Defiance Trail (RSDW)
Shellrock and Wind Mountains from the Mt. Defiance Trail (bobcat)
Slope of blackened trunks from the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire, Mt. Defiance Trail (bobcat)
The summit of Mt. Defiance (4,959 ft.), as seen from the north at approx. 4,000 feet (RSDW)
Mertens' coral root (Corallorhiza mertensiana), Mt. Defiance Trail (bobcat)
Crowd sourced GPS "average" track (aiwetir)
  • Start point: Starvation Creek TrailheadRoad.JPG
  • End point: Mount Defiance
  • Trail Log: Trail Log
  • Hike Type:Out and Back
  • Distance: 11.6 miles
  • Elevation gain: 4840 feet
  • High point: 4,959 feet
  • Difficulty: Difficult
  • Seasons: Mid-May through October
  • Family Friendly: No
  • Backpackable: No
  • Crowded: On weekends
Poison Oak

Contents

Hike Description

At 4,959 feet, Mount Defiance is the highest point normally recognized as being part of the Columbia River Gorge. This hike, along with the accompanying Mount Defiance-Starvation Ridge Loop Hike, are commonly referred to as the most difficult day hikes in our region, starting at a mere 130 feet above sea level at Oregon's Starvation Creek State Park along Interstate 84. From there, it's a long way up, comparable to the vertical distance between Timberline Lodge and the summit of Mount Hood, making Mount Defiance an excellent training hike for mountaineers in late winter or early spring. In warmer months, it's simply a spectacular day-long adventure. In September 2017, a large section of the forest on the Mount Defiance Trail #413 was burned in the Eagle Creek Fire, including two areas which experienced crown fires. The trail remains in decent shape and constituted in places the easternmost extent of the burn, but as the fire snags age, they will fall down and create potential obstacles.

You'll start by heading westward on the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail, which runs alongside I-84 from the Starvation Creek Trailhead. Get views to the the twin microdioritic intrusions of Shellrock Mountain and Wind Mountain as well as Dog Mountain right across the river. Enter shady maple woods, and look down to see markers dedicating this restored section of the Historic Columbia River Highway. Then pass the Historic Columbia River Highway-Starvation Ridge Cutoff Trail Junction. In spring, candy flower blooms profusely alongside the paved surface. Reach two-tiered, 220-foot Cabin Creek Falls, where a huge fallen basalt boulder creates an almost hidden amphitheater. The waterfall sprays directly into this hidden area. The Historic Columbia River Highway heads back out to the freeway under a Douglas-fir/big-leaf maple canopy.

At an open area, arrive at the Historic Columbia River Highway-Mount Defiance Trail Junction. Go left on a paved trail that passes through a circular picnic area. The Mount Defiance Trail picks up its normal tread here, and 95-foot Hole in the Wall Falls can be viewed from the picnic circle. This waterfall is an unusual manmade affair. Highway crews drilled a tunnel through the rock and diverted Warren Creek here in 1938 to resolve issues with the creek undermining the highway. The water emerges from a lengthy tunnel and immediately falls, creating the waterfall. From here, you'll take the footbridge below Hole in the Wall Falls. The trail begins a modest climb, gaining about 140 feet in elevation. You'll reach the powerline corridor, where there's another trail junction, this time with the Starvation Ridge Trail. Honeysuckle, snowberry, stonecrop, and white spiraea bloom here in the spring. Stay to the right.

Soon the trail reaches Wonder Creek and the lower tier of Lancaster Falls. The waterfall seems small at first glance, but from the right angle, the tall 250-foot upper tier is visible through the trees (The best place to get an accurate impression of Lancaster Falls is by traveling the freeway westbound and pulling off at the weigh station west of the Starvation Creek Trailhead. From late fall to the beginning of spring, before the maples leaf out, you'll get a clear view of the waterfall above. You should only attempt this stop when the weigh station is closed, usually on weekends.). Continue hiking west through the brushy power line corridor, where serviceberry, vine maple, thimbleberry, hazel, snowberry, and poison oak abound. Round a bend, and the rugged profile of Shellrock Mountain hoves into view. You'll also note a grassy abandoned trail bench coming up from the woods below: this is the former track of the Mt. Defiance Trail when it came up from a trailhead near Lindsey Creek. Make two switchbacks up, and before entering the slope forest get good views of Wind Mountain, Dog Mountain, and Cook Hill.

From here, it's up, and we mean "up". The trail begins switchbacking up the side of the Gorge almost immediately. You'll gain over 3,000 feet in elevation over the next three miles! Make five switchbacks up, crossing the expanded (2009) boundary of the Mark O. Hatfield Wilderness (There's no sign to proclaim this, though). At the 6th switchback, you'll encounter the lower reaches of the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire: burn damage, here mainly a ground fire, will accompany you for the next three miles. Use a chopped step to hop over a charred log, and make three switchbacks to the rim overlooking Lindsey Creek. Cross an old logging track, and note the green plants that have returned after the fire, including pathfinder, sword fern, wood fern, trailing blackberry, sandwort, thread-leaf phacelia, solomon plume, Oregon grape, and snowberry. At a contorted Douglas-fir, a grassy slope fringed with oaks blooms with balsamroot in mid-spring. Make eleven more switchbacks, crossing the nose of the ridge, and reach a viewpoint to Shellrock Mountain, Wind Mountain, Greenleaf Peak, and Table Mountain. Switchback over to the west side of the ridge, and reach a section of the 2017 burn where there was a crown fire and all the trees were killed. Make three more switchbacks to a gentler grade of the trail in an area less severely burned.

Pass an unscorched vine maple thicket on the left, and head up an old logging track between low ridges of vegetated talus. In this area, the trail served as a firebreak. However, you'll soon wind up into another section of forest that was killed by a crown fire. The ascent steepens again as you rise under a Douglas-fir canopy. Now you're seeing only low scorch marks on trees. Hike up through a leafy carpet of bear-grass, arnica, and vanilla leaf to reach a wilderness sign at the pre-2009 boundary. You only have about 1,000 feet in elevation to go from here! Soon reach the outer limit of the Eagle Creek Fire in a stunted forest of Douglas-fir, mountain hemlock, and noble fir. A spur to the right leads to a view of andesite bluffs and an expansive talus slope. The trail passes up through huckleberry, Sitka alder, boxwood, and mountain ash to a vista over the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge and on to Mount Saint Helens, Mount Rainier, and Mount Adams. Make a rocky traverse, getting more views of Mount Adams. Come to the Mount Defiance-Mitchell Point Trail Junction, and go right.

You'll continue up for less than a quarter mile to reach another junction, this one (in 2018) marked with only temporary signs. Keep straight here for a direct shot at the summit. Continue rising on a rocky tread, pass a wilderness sign, and reach the maintenance road for the Mount Defiance communication array. Hike up through huckleberries under a canopy of mountain hemlock, noble fir, and silver fir. Cross the maintenance road again at a High Voltage sign. The trail rises through the stunted woods until you arrive at the summit. The disappointment here is that there are radio towers and even (gasp) pickups carrying service workers to the site. Furthermore, trees have begun to encroach upon the views. On the other hand, on the way up, you've seen Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, Mount Saint Helens, Mount Hood, Chinidere Mountain, Indian Mountain, Tomlike Mountain, Larch Mountain, Dog Mountain, Wind Mountain, Cook Hill... (Insert your favorite mountain here). Be sure to pick a day with clear weather and unlimited visibility to get the most reward for your efforts.

The best lunchtime spot is a perch on the slope of large boulders on the south side of the summit area. Gawk at an expansive vista towards Mount Hood for as long as you like.

Maps

  • Maps: Hike Finder
  • Mount Defiance Trail #413 (USFS)
  • Green Trails Maps: Hood River, OR #430
  • Green Trails Maps: Columbia River Gorge - West #428S
  • Geo-Graphics: Trails of the Columbia Gorge
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service/Bureau of Land Management: Columbia River Gorge
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: Hood River Ranger District
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: Mt. Hood National Forest
  • National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map: Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

Regulations, facilities, etc

  • Restrooms and picnic area at trailhead

Trip Reports

Related Discussions / Q&A

Guidebooks that cover this hike

  • 100 Hikes in Northwest Oregon & Southwest Washington by William L. Sullivan
  • Hiking the Columbia River Gorge by Russ Schneider; revised by Jim Yuskavitch
  • Day Hiking: Columbia River Gorge by Craig Romano
  • Take a Hike: Portland by Barbara I. Bond
  • Afoot & Afield: Portland/Vancouver by Douglas Lorain
  • 70 Virtual Hikes of the Columbia River Gorge by Northwest Hiker
  • 35 Hiking Trails: Columbia River Gorge by Don & Roberta Lowe
  • 70 Hiking Trails: Northern Oregon Cascades by Don & Roberta Lowe
  • 100 Oregon Hiking Trails by Don & Roberta Lowe
  • Oregon Hiking by Sean Patrick Hill
  • Pacific Northwest Hiking by Scott Leonard & Sean Patrick Hill

More Links


Contributors

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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