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Wahtum Lake via Pacific Crest Trail Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

Wahtum Lake (bobcat)
View to Nick Eaton Ridge from the Pacific Crest Trail (bobcat)
Oregon anemone (Anemone oregana) on the PCT near the Benson Plateau (bobcat)
The Pacific Crest Trail on the Benson Plateau (bobcat)
The Pacific Crest Trail below Chinidere Mountain (bobcat)
The route to Wahtum Lake from Herman Creek Trailhead via the Pacific Crest Trail (not a GPS track) (bobcat) Courtesy: Caltopo
  • Start point: Herman Creek TrailheadRoad.JPG
  • End point: Wahtum Lake
  • Trail Log: Trail Log
  • Hike Type: Out and back
  • Distance: 33.8 miles
  • Elevation gain: 6010 feet
  • High point: 4,320 feet
  • Difficulty: Difficult
  • Seasons: June into October
  • Family Friendly: No
  • Backpackable: Yes
  • Crowded: Yes
Poison-Oak

Contents

Hike Description

The Pacific Crest Trail's northern terminus in Oregon used to be at the Forest Service's Herman Creek Work Center, and this backpacking option to Wahtum Lake on Waucoma Ridge begins at the nearby Herman Creek Trailhead. You'll use a short stretch of the Herman Creek Trail #406 and then the Herman Bridge Trail #406E to connect to the Pacific Crest Trail. From there, you're on your way up to the Benson Plateau, this long ascent followed by a lope along the Benson-Chinidere Mountain ridge before the descent to lovely Wahtum Lake, where you may find overnighters who arrived via other routes, such as the Eagle Creek and Gorton Creek Trails. You'll skirt areas savagely burned by the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire but never find yourself in the canopy fire zone for extended stretches. An option for the return is to take the Herman Creek Trail back to the trailhead (See the Wahtum Lake via Herman Creek Hike).

The path drops from the Herman Creek Trailhead but then switchbacks up twice before traversing. There are two more switchbacks in shady big-leaf maple, hemlock, Douglas-fir woods. Reach the powerline corridor and cross 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 trail 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.

Bear right here, and descend the slope. At a talus opening, you'll get a view up to Nick Eaton Ridge. After you bend left to follow an old road bed, you'll hike along a forested rim. Switchback down to the Herman Creek Bridge, a large steel truss bridge, and get views up and down Herman Creek as it runs past a verge of alders, maples, and cedars. After the bridge, the trail becomes the northern boundary of the Mark O. Hatfield Wilderness. From here, the trail passes through a maple bottom where both maples and cedars were singed by the 2017 fire. The tread snakes up a moss-carpeted slope and continues ascending, crossing two talus fields. When you reach the junction with the Pacific Crest Trail, make a sharp left.

Rock buttresses rear above - look for vultures soaring out from their high perches. Cross an open talus slope to get views down to the eastern outskirts of Cascade Locks as well as across the Columbia to Table Mountain and Greenleaf Peak. Make two switchbacks up in woods of Douglas-fir and big-leaf maple before passing across a small meadow. Then you'll round the nose of a ridge and find yourself above the Herman Creek valley. The trail traverses upward and makes two switchbacks to reach a rocky ridge crest. There's a long traverse where you pass some big Douglas-firs before switchbacking three times in vine maple woods. Cross a meadow that blooms with balsamroot in June, and reach a spur that leads right to a rock outcrop with views over Herman Creek. Two more switchbacks take you to the crest of a ridge before you switchback twice more, getting views of sheer orange cliffs, part of an exposed Boring volcano. Three more switchbacks rise to an open gravelly slope vegetated with with manzanita, common juniper, and rare Fremont's silk-tassel. Hike past a trailside camp, and switchback again in an understory of vine maple, huckleberry, anemone, vanilla leaf and Oregon grape. Another switchback offers you a view to Nick Eaton Ridge. Pass gushing Teakettle Spring, a fairly reliable water source for PCT through-hikers. The trail switchbacks three times under tall hemlocks, noble fir, and silver fir, but then you'll pass through a section of burned forest, part of the 2017 Eagle Creek conflagration. You'll see a campsite before reaching the Pacific Crest-Benson Way North Trail Junction on the east side of the Benson Plateau.

Continue through montane forest, and keep left at both the junction with the Benson Ruckel Trail and the Ruckel Creek Trail. Past a small tarn meadow, stay left at the Pacific Crest-Benson Way South Trail Junction. The Pacific Crest Trail crosses a small scree slope and drops below a talus field to arrive at Camp Smokey, which was consumed by the Eagle Creek Fire.

The trail alternates between flat areas and gentle grades. The slopes down to the west (on your right) were uniformly scorched in the Eagle Creek inferno of September 2017. Slopes to the left experienced far less canopy fire. You'll pass a large open area of talus and switchback up twice. The trail makes a level traverse below the ridgeline, exits the Eagle Creek Fire zone, and comes to the junction for Chinidere Mountain, which is a switchbacking 0.4 mile detour to your left for the best views of the hike. On a clear day, the views are extensive, with Wahtum Lake gleaming below and a vista of Gorge high peaks from Larch Mountain in the west to Mount Defiance in the east. Cascade stratovolcanoes from Mount Jefferson in the south to Mount Rainier in the north should also be visible. Also look around for evidence of the lookout cabin that once stood here.

The shorter route to Wahtum Lake takes the Chinidere Cutoff Trail off to the right from the PCT, 50 yards from the spur to the summit of Chinidere Mountain. This trail drops down through bear-grass in silver fir/Douglas-fir woods, passing a few campsites. You'll reach the log crossing of the East Fork of Eagle Creek where it drains from Wahtum Lake. After heading up from the creek crossing, go left at the Eagle Creek-Chinidere Cutoff Trail Junction, and make another left turn at the Pacific Crest-Eagle Creek Trail Junction. A lush old-growth forest of massive noble and Douglas-firs towers overhead. There are campsites on the shore of Wahtum Lake or back up the Chinidere Cutoff Trail.

A good backpacking loop can be done via the Herman Creek Trail (See the Wahtum Lake via Herman Creek Hike) or the Gorton Creek Trail (See the Rainy Lake via Gorton Creek Trail Hike). The hike can also be a car shuttle if you have a vehicle parked at the Wahtum Lake Trailhead.


Maps

  • Maps: Hike Finder
  • 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 (or America the Beautiful Pass) required
  • Restrooms, information kiosk, picnic table at trailhead
  • Wilderness rules apply

Trip Reports

Related Discussions / Q&A

Guidebooks that cover this hike

  • Hiking the Columbia River Gorge by Russ Schneider; revised by Jim Yuskavitch
  • Day Hiking: Columbia River Gorge by Craig Romano
  • 35 Hiking Trails: Columbia River Gorge by Don & Roberta Lowe
  • Columbia River Gorge: 42 Scenic Hikes by Don & Roberta Lowe
  • Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail: Oregon by Eli Boschetto
  • Day Hikes on the Pacific Crest Trail: Oregon & Washington by George & Patricia Semb
  • Pacific Crest Trail: Oregon & Washington by Jeffrey P. Schaffer & Andy Selters
  • Hiking the Oregon Skyline by Charles M. Feris

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.