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Nick Eaton Ridge Loop Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

View to Mt. Adams from the Nick Eaton Trail (bobcat)
Blackened trunks on the Gorton Creek Trail (bobcat)
Wind Mt. and Dog Mt. from the Gorton Creek Trail (bobcat)
Indian Point, just off the Gorton Creek Trail (RSDW)
Hall's isopyrum (Enemion hallii) and crab spider, Gorton Creek Trail (bobcat)
View to Mt. Adams from the Nick Eaton Trail (bobcat)
View to the two forks of Herman Creek and top of Mt. Hood, Nick Eaton Trail (bobcat)
Trail sign near the junction with the Herman Creek Trail, Nick Eaton Trail (bobcat)
The Gorton Creek - Nick Eaton Ridge loop (Don Nelson)

Contents

Hike Description

The popular Herman Creek Trailhead, once also the site of a campground, avails the hiker of a number of opportunities to explore deep into the recesses of the Columbia River Gorge. This hike is one of the more challenging day hike options, with a significant elevation gain over 13 1/2 miles. The loop uses the Herman Creek Trail #406 to reach the Gorton Creek Trail #408; that trail takes you up to the popular destination of Indian Point (See the Indian Point Loop Hike). Hiking farther up the Gorton Creek Trail, you're unlikely to see another soul. Since the lower reaches of the trail were affected by the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire, the upper reaches of the Gorton Creek Trail bring the greatest rewards as you hike out of the fire zone, enter lush thickets, cross talus slopes squeaking with pikas, and get views to Mount Adams. The return via the Nick Eaton Trail #447 takes you through zones completely incinerated by the fire, but at least the steep 2,000 foot descent to the Herman Creek Trail from off the ridge is mostly under an unscorched canopy. Bear in mind that trail maintenance in 2018 only went as far as the Deadwood Trail junctions on the Gorton Creek and Nick Eaton Trails. Above the Deadwood Trail, there may be a few spots where the trail is indistinct, but as more hikers use the trails the route may reestablish itself more clearly. Expect some downed trees and brushy spots in these sections.

James H. Herman was an early settler near Cascade Locks. A man named Edward Gorton had a homestead claim near the mouth of Gorton Creek in the 1890s. Nick Eaton was a farmer who lived between Cascade Locks and Wyeth at the beginning of the 20th century.

The trail drops from the trailhead, but then switchbacks up twice before traversing. There are two more switchbacks in shady big-leaf maple, hemlock, Douglas-fir woods. The trail reaches the powerline corridor and crosses it, heading up to the right to reenter the woods. Here, you'll begin to see the effects of the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire, with the understory burned away but slowly recovering and the conifer canopy mostly intact. The path winds through an area of large, moss-covered boulders, and then passes an old forest track leading off the left (This track drops down to Herman Creek Road). Pass around the nose of a ridge, switchback twice, and traverse up to the junction with the Herman Bridge Trail #406E, 0.6 miles from the trailhead. Keep up on the main trail to switchback and then reach a bend in an old forest road. Stay right and head up the road, which levels in Douglas-fir, hemlock, and maple forest. You'll arrive at a five-way junction after 1.3 miles where the Herman Creek Trail reaches Herman Camp.

For the Gorton Creek Trail, go left and take the second trail on the right (The first trail leads a short distance to Herman Camp). Now you're entering the Mark O. Hatfield Wilderness although wilderness signs in this area are still posted higher up at the pre-2009 boundaries. The Gorton Creek Trail rises, steepens, and then makes a long traverse through a scorched understory. Pass a large Douglas-fir, and switchback twice into an area of crown fire. However, Oregon grape, fairy bells, violet, thimbleberry, and vine maple are all leafing out again from their roots. Two more switchbacks afford you views of the Columbia River through the burned trees. Make a long traverse up, and cross a lush gully of large Douglas-firs and an intact understory. Another couple of switchbacks take you into a second old-growth gully. Cross a creek, round the nose of a ridge, and switchback. Make a rising traverse and, at the next traverse, you can go off trail to the left to get a view down to the basalt pinnacle at Indian Point. Across the river is the microdioritic intrusion of Wind Mountain. After one more switchback, you'll come to the Gorton Creek-Indian Point-Ridge Cutoff Trail Junction, 3.9 miles from the Herman Creek Trailhead. The Ridge Cutoff Trail #437 heads right to intersect with the Nick Eaton Trail after 0.6 miles (See the Indian Point Loop Hike); 40 yards farther on, you'll see a steep user trail that descends on the left, the Indian Point Trail #408C.

The Indian Point Trail descends steeply for almost 200 feet to the Indian Point outcropping. You can go along the steep-sided ridge to the pinnacle and ascend it if you're a confident scrambler. The Gorge town of Stevenson can be seen across the river as well as Wind Mountain and Dog Mountain. On a good day, the snowy peaks of the Washington Cascades are clearly visible. The vegetation on this ridge is an interesting mix: chinquapin, manzanita, ocean spray, Douglas-fir, western red-cedar, Pacific yew, and common juniper.

After admiring the views, continue along the Gorton Creek Trail in a descending traverse for another 0.8 miles to the Gorton Creek-Deadwood Trail Junction. Despite having been overrun by fire in 2017, the trail fringe is brushy with thimbleberry, vanilla leaf, inside-out flower, pathfinder, white spiraea, phacelia, and invasive smooth hawkweed. The Deadwood Trail, like the Ridge Cutoff Trail, climbs 0.6 miles to meet the Nick Eaton Trail at nearly 3,000 feet, making a loop that is 1.3 miles longer than the Indian Point Loop Hike. Signs at the junction were destroyed in the Eagle Creek Fire. Next, you'll cross Grays Creek, which can run swift with spring snow runoff or nearly dry in late summer, to pass above the site of Deadwood Camp, now obliterated by fallen trees and burned beyond recognition. If you're backpacking, Grays Creek is your best water source, at least until the end of July, but you're on your own in finding some level ground for a camp spot.

If you continue along the Gorton Creek Trail from Deadwood Camp, expect a steep climb. You're still in the burn zone at first, and only the lower part of this section has been maintained post-fire. Make five switchbacks up, negotiating some fire debris and downed trees on the way. After the fifth switchback, the trail seems to disappear into a tangle of burned brush and fallen trees. Head straight up to the ridge crest from here, and pick up the trail again on the crest. Soon the path slips over to the west side of the crest, and you may lose it again. Keep going straight, and find the switchback that takes you back to the crest and a section of unburned forest where vine maples crowd the understory. Switchback over to the east side of the ridge, and enter more of the burn. You can see east to the burned west slopes of the ridges above Gorton and Harphan Creeks. Exit the burn now in a huckleberry understory, and reach a talus slope with a resident population of pikas. A view opens up to Dog Mountain and Cook Hill across the river. Push your way through a lush vine maple/ salmonberry/ thimbleberry thicket at one of the headwaters of Gorton Creek. Silver and noble firs dominate the slope forest now. Pass through a slide alder thicket, and get a splendid view towards Mount Adams from the next talus slope. You need to drop a little off the tread to avoid the alders which have invaded the original tread. Pass through a thicket of mock orange, thimbleberry, and snowberry to reenter a low intensity tongue of the 2017 burn. Make four switchbacks, passing the old wilderness boundary in the process and getting glimpses of a big talus field. Continue to ascend through bear-grass and huckleberries in unburned woods. Drop over the ridge crest, and come to the Gorton Creek-Nick Eaton Trail Junction at 3,930 feet and 7.3 miles from the trailhead.

If you are overnighting, Ridge Camp is another 0.2 miles farther up the Gorton Creek Trail, on the north end of a plateau that features North Lake, Rainy Lake and a good look at Green Point Mountain. There is no easy access to water at Ridge Camp, however, so you're better off pushing on to one of the lakes. Otherwise, take a right on the Nick Eaton Trail to start your return.

You'll pass through a curtain of vine maple, and then rise along the ridge in a carpet of bear-grass. The forest here is a dense growth of small fir trees. On your left, you'll see an andesite outcropping, the high point on Nick Eaton Ridge at 4,095 feet. There's a fancy cairn here, and it's a good lunch spot although the trees have long grown in to obscure any views. Continuing on the trail, you'll pass another outcropping and then descend alongside a talus slope. The trail gets obscured by blowdown debris, so you may need to detour across a rock pile to the left. Boxwood overhangs the trail, but then, half a mile from the Gorton Creek-Nick Eaton Trail Junction, you reenter the burn zone of the Eagle Creek Fire. The trail drops to the west side of an outcropping and then returns to the spine of the ridge. A short detour to the right will offer a good view towards Mount Adams. Enter an area of crown fire where even ground hugging herbs have trouble coming back: The devastation here was almost complete. You may not notice the Nick Eaton-Casey Creek Way Trail Junction because the sign has been burned, and the Casey Creek Way Trail has been little traveled since the fire (See the Casey Creek Loop Hike).

The trail drops to the east side of the ridge, and winds steeply down the nose of the ridge and out of the crown fire area. From the east side of the crest again, you'll get a view across the Columbia River to Home Valley, Wind Mountain, and Mount Adams. Pass through a thimbleberry thicket, and keep traversing on the east slope of the ridge below the crest (The tread is quite obscure here). Return to the crest at a shoulder, and descend to the Nick Eaton-Deadwood Trail Junction, where there is no signage. From here, the trail has been maintained, but you're in a crown fire zone again with no shade and little vegetation. Hike up to a saddle below Peak 3152, the high point at the north end of Nick Eaton Ridge. Switchback up out of the crown fire zone, and swing left to cross a small meadow where wild onion, cryptantha, blue field gilia, and Oregon sunshine bloom. Descend through more dry meadows to the Nick Eaton-Ridge Cutoff Trail Junction.

Keep to the west side of rocky knoll under dead trees but with healthy forest just to your right. Wind down the nose of the ridge. Here, many species of flowering plants have come back from their roots since the burn, including dogbane, white spiraea, candy flower, miner's lettuce, lupine, and aster. Make six switchbacks down through steep grassy meadows where most of the oak trees are coming back from their bases. At one hanging meadow, you'll get a great view up to the two forks of Herman Creek with Mount Hood's snowy summit peeking up behind Waucoma Ridge. You can also see west along the Columbia River to Beacon Rock and the Bonneville Dam. From now on, you'll generally have a shady canopy as you continue this long descent. Nine more switchbacks will take you through two more small oak meadows, and then you'll get a vista down to Government Cove and the mouth of Herman Creek. Make four more switchbacks, and then traverse through a denuded understory before three further switchbacks carry you to a massive, living, but blackened Douglas-fir. The last two switchbacks on the trail take you to more large Douglas-firs whose thick bark has kept them alive through probably more than one conflagration although some are weeping resin from the stress of the encounter. Wind down through the bracken, and pass the concrete Nick Eaton Way marker. A few yards later, reach the Herman Creek-Nick Eaton Trail Junction, and make a right to rejoin the crowds to hike back past Herman Camp and down to the trailhead.


Maps

  • Maps: Hike Finder
  • Herman Creek Trail #406 (USFS)
  • Gorton Creek Trail #408 (USFS)
  • Nick Eaton Trail #447 (USFS)
  • Green Trails Maps: Bonneville Dam, OR #429
  • 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

Fees, Regulations, etc.

  • Northwest Forest Pass required
  • Restrooms, information kiosk, picnic table at trailhead
  • Some short stretches of the Gorton Creek and Nick Eaton Trails are indistinct; good route finding skills needed

Trip Reports

Related Discussions / Q&A

Guidebooks that cover this hike

  • Afoot & Afield: Portland/Vancouver by Douglas Lorain
  • Day Hiking: Columbia River Gorge by Craig Romano
  • Hiking the Columbia River Gorge by Russ Schneider; revised by Jim Yuskavitch
  • 35 Hiking Trails: Columbia River Gorge by Don & Roberta Lowe
  • 70 Hiking Trails: Northern Oregon Cascades by Don & Roberta Lowe

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.

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.