Sunday, June 28, 2020

Cape Horn Loop

Next up in the ongoing Columbia Gorge series (part of the larger "Places You Can't Go Right Now Because Pandemic" series), we're doing the loop trail at Cape Horn, on the Washington side of the river directly across from the Shepperds Dell / Bridal Veil area. If you've looked north from there, or from the viewpoint at the Vista House, you might have noticed a stretch along the Washington shoreline where sheer 200' cliffs and a waterfall drop straight into the river, and higher bluffs rise up behind them. That's the spot we're visiting now.

The links above describe the loop in detail so I won't duplicate all of that here. The short version is that you switchback up to the high bluffs and walk along the top for a while, with several dramatic viewpoints along the way. This amazing stretch almost became a gated subdivision for awful rich people back in the 80s, before an array of nonprofits and philanthropists stepped in and bought most of it. This part of the trail eventually dumps you out on a rural back road that looks like farm country anywhere in the Northwest, with no clues to what's right next door. You continue down a gravel road and then through a former farm as you start descending toward the river. This turns into switchbacks down through another stretch of forest with more scenic overlooks, including one directly over the west portal of the half-mile rail tunnel under Cape Horn. So I imagine that would be a fairly unique place to set up and do some trainspotting if that's your thing.

The trail doesn't get you all the way down to the river, because of the aforementioned sheer cliffs. So you continue right along the cliff edge for a while and end up at Cape Horn Falls. What looks like the base of a waterfall is merely the base of the middle of three tiers; the creek continues on down to the lower tier where it drops into the river, but there's nowhere to get a good look at that part along the trail, and I don't think there's any reasonable way to see that part up close without a boat. Where "reasonable" means "something I might consider doing". I say that because, like Palisade Falls, Cape Horn is a popular ice climbing spot when conditions are right, and I ran across a forum thread indicating that you can also get there by walking down some rich person's long private driveway to where it crosses the railroad, and then walking on the railroad tracks until you get to the icy cliff you're going to climb for fun. At least there's a narrow beach along the river at the base of the cliff, when the river level isn't too high, so you wouldn't automatically end up in a fast, icy river if you took a tumble, I guess.

Anyway, the falls are where this photoset ends, because I forgot to put my phone back in airplane mode at one point earlier in the hike and it happily drained itself to near-zero trying to find a cell tower. The rest of the trail is more hiking through the forest, and then ending up on another road, which doubles as the last 1.2 miles of the trail, taking you back to the parking lot. You might think that you could park at this lower trailhead and do a short hike over to the falls, but parking there is absolutely verboten and I gather very bad things will happen to you and your car if you do. So park in the official lot up the road, or take the bus, since the lot doubles as a park & ride for the Skamania County bus system. Which connects to C-Tran at Fishers Landing, so it's possible to do this without a car, if you can work around the limited bus schedule.

Like a lot of recent posts here, these photos are from a couple of years ago, which was actually the first time I'd visited the Cape Horn area. I was about to explain it away because the trail system has only been open to the public since 2004, so I couldn't have gone when I was a kid, or during an early-90s period of "Hey, I have a working car and my weekends are weekdays, explore all the things!" Then I remembered that 2004 actually was a long time ago, and this humble blog has existed since late 2005, and I just sort of didn't get around to it until the Eagle Creek Fire, when many places on the Oregon side of the Gorge either became less appealing or were (and still are) closed entirely. I think one reason I don't pay as much attention to stuff on the Washington side of the Gorge is that I don't like driving on SR14. Not because of the road itself, but because of the other drivers. On this particular trip, I was tailgated by a large pickup truck for the last couple of miles before the turnoff to the trailhead. I was already going a bit over the speed limit anyway but that wasn't enough for him, & he was close enough that I could see him angrily pounding his steering wheel and yelling, before having to grip the wheel again with both hands for yet another hairpin corner. Honked angrily when I braked for the turn and turned off. And sure enough, that truck had a huge Tr*mp bumper sticker on the back. As that was a couple of years ago, I imagine he's either in jail or a federal judge by now.

One sorta-interesting detail just occurred to me -- the name "Cape Horn" of course refers to its more famous namesake at the far southern tip of South America, which it sort of resembles if you squint just right. And apparently the name was in use as early as the 1840s, predating both the Panama Canal and any of the transcontinental rail lines that ended in Portland. So it's entirely possible that it was named by someone who had seen the original on their way here. Although let me add -- and any longtime Gentle Reader(s) out there may have heard me say this before -- that if there's a record of what it was called before pioneers showed up, I would happily support renaming it back, along with anything else named after faraway places or people with no ties to the region (e.g. Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens).