Hiking Beacon Rock in the Columbia River Gorge

Ah, the Columbia River Gorge, a National Scenic Area and one of our favorite places in the world. Looking for a quick hike, we opted for Beacon Rock; located along Highway 14 in Stevenson, Washington, it’s only about 45 minutes east of Portland. Towering 848 feet from the ground, the rock is actually the core of an old volcano! There’s only one way up this mile-high giant, on a trail built between 1915 to 1918 by a man with a pickax and a donkey.

There’s a couple ways you can attack this hike. From the base of Beacon Rock to the top is one-mile, all uphill of course, on what seems like countless switchbacks—or 52 to be exact. Parking is available along Highway 14 near the trailhead, but you’ll need a Washington Discover Pass to park in the state park. It’s $11.50 for the day, or $35 for the annual pass that’s valid one year from the purchase date. We opted instead to park at the nearby and much less trafficked boat launch area on Doetsch Road, 0.5-mile west of the rock, and begin hiking on the River To Rock trail. This relatively new trail is quiet and pleasant, and only a short 0.75-mile walk to the base of Beacon Rock.

It was a gorgeous sunny day in July and the views of the gorge were as awesome as ever, clear for miles. Being a Monday, we fortunately didn’t have to contend with the busy weekend crowds; though if you do visit on the weekend, we highly recommend taking the River To Rock trail instead because parking by the rock can get packed. Besides being all uphill, it’s still a pretty easy hike. There’s a nice viewing platform at the summit with plenty of space for several groups to chill and take in the views. (Hopefully you won’t reach the summit at the same time as a family of 20+ spreading the ashes of a loved one… true story, #awkward.) Overall it was a great trip, and we’d recommend it to anyone looking for an iconic Columbia River Gorge hike. Bonus, we always find the Washington side of the gorge to be less packed than the Oregon side.

Now the history of Beacon Rock is also quite interesting! We learned about it while researching hiking directions in the 4th addition of Curious Gorge, our favorite book for exploring the gorge. A gentleman named Henry J. Biddle, often viewed as the philanthropist who saved Beacon Rock, purchased what was once named Castle Rock and constructed the trail to the summit for recreation. Biddle “saved” the rock from a group of businessmen who planned to blow it up and use the rubble for construction materials. After sleuthing through some old newspaper articles, Cook, author of Curious Gorge, discovers that Biddle was already part-owner of Castle Rock, and ten years earlier was involved with the larger group trying to dynamite the thing! Some lawsuits later ensued, exposing a supposed extortion plot involving the businessmen, the Railroad and State of Washington, and Castle Rock fortunately avoided it’s demise by being deemed insufficient quality for building materials. Apparently Biddle thought everyone would forget his scheme by changing the name to “Beacon Rock,” which to some extent actually worked.

You can still explore three tunnels resembling mine shafts that were drilled through Beacon Rock by Biddle and his partner to begin the demolition, or so they said. It’s theorized they were actually attempting to extort the Railroad, that wanted to build by the rock, and never actually intended to blow it up in the first place. Crazy! Now that you know the true story of Beacon, a.k.a., Castle Rock, help us tell the tale, and go enjoy your hike!

Check out this sweet hike and many more on the Curious Gorge blog.


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