The Cape Horn Trail is a seven mile loop trail located on the less traveled Washington side of the stunning Columbia River Gorge. Located 20 miles east of Vancouver, the drive alone is worth a day out of town. The trailhead is accessible from a parking lot just off Highway 14 and is clearly marked. I had been looking forward to this hike since arriving in Washington earlier this summer.
Beginning the Trek
On the first Friday of November, I was one of three cars to pull up bright and early to the trailhead. Looking out my window and down to the bright blue river below, I could tell it was cold. But 32 degrees was perfect for a hike in the woods. Opening my door, I was immediately grateful for my tendency to over prepare; the wind whipped through the trees and landed momentarily on my bare cheeks. I wrapped a scarf tightly, grabbed my hiking poles and set off for adventure.
The Upper Trail leads right and wasted no time with elevation. Through the first mile uphill, I took in the surroundings and sharpened my senses. The trees were beginning to lose their bright yellow leaves, and I could smell the cold of the mud beneath my feet. I appreciated the constant hum of the wind as I found a rhythm with my step and breath. The first of the switchbacks were intense with a gain of 800 feet. Despite the moderately difficult beginning, there were a few glimpses through the bare trees of what promised to be an awesome view.
Hiking poles were a last-minute grab and I felt a necessity for this hike. The ascent is muddy, rocky and uneven with roots. The giant and beautiful maple leaves covered the trail and forest floor often causing the path ahead and behind to disappear. Much like many other hikes, just as I began to wonder if I was getting anywhere, I saw my first sign pointing to a viewpoint. The wind picked up as I came to a clearing and I braced myself for both the gusts and the anticipation of the sight. I wasn’t prepared for the silly grin that spread across my face as I gazed at the river below and the surrounding mountains. The adjectives used to describe sights such as this are those usually reserved for looking at a postcard or someone else’s vacation pictures. The emotions that surfaced when gazing upon perfect beauty diminished any worry I had when I started my day early that morning.
The blue of the Columbia River could have passed for an ocean shore. The waves swelled and crested just as the sea. That day, the wind blew across the surface of the river creating a rainbow mist in the sunlight. The water was rough, not angry, but certainly in control. I could still hear the cars on the highway. After taking a few moments to question whether I was dreaming, I trudged back to the trail.
Nancy Russell Viewpoint
Only a few instances on the Cape Horn I found myself wondering if I had gotten something wrong. After the first viewpoint (and the duration of the hike), the signs switch back and forth from reading, “Trail” to “Horses”. I had read reviews of the trail and none had mentioned horse trails, so I assumed the instructions were interchangeable.
From the first view, the trail descends back into fairytale-like woods adjacent to farms in the distance, providing a comforting and homely feeling. From the woods the trail leads across a golden meadow with panoramic views of the treetops. After a light snack and adjusting of gear, I met the only other people I saw that day. We walked together until we arrived at the Nancy Russell viewpoint, high above the Columbia River Gorge.
An Indescribable View
Adjectives and emotions came rushing back and I was torn between experiencing the moment and documenting every square inch. The cars I heard just an hour before were like matchbox toys below and the colors of the scenery had seemingly deepened. Everything looked bigger, and I felt smaller. The blue of the river was brooding as the famous Pacific Northwest fog crept around every curve. The friendly hikers took their photos and turned back while I opted to finish the second half. I stopped several times before walking away, making sure to acknowledge my day’s most humbling moment.
Cape Horn’s Hidden Gems
What made this trek perfect to me was knowing I would have the rest of the walk to remember that view. But I was wrong in assuming the sights ended at the lookout. The trail lead back to the woods, descending switchbacks and crossing quaint bridges over creeks. The real surprise was exiting a wooded path directly onto the side of the mountain composed of lava rocks. Once again, I found myself laughing out loud at the wonder of such a place and the brilliance of these gems. The footing was tricky, but not a problem as this leg of the trail was brief. Back into the woods from this point, I knew my adventure was close to an end. The last section was a mile long walk down a country road. Originally, I was concerned the road would sour the experience, but in truth this was a favorite segment. I passed farms with grazing horses that were so perfectly placed they seemed like paintings. I felt lucky to be realizing my dream of exploring the Northwest.
The parking lot was full of afternoon hikers when I returned, and I was glad I started early. I completed the hike in just over four hours. The Cape Horn Trail is one I will not forget and would recommend to anyone with the desire to see the sights that bring out the adjectives we seldomly speak. The physical aspect is appealing, but the emotional reward is far greater than burned calories. Cape Horn is a beautiful and praise-worthy Washington classic.