After being closed for months due to severe, winter storm damage (see this YouTube video of the conditions from climbers before the trail was closed), the Beacon Rock trail is now open daily for visitors! While it’s clear a lot of work was done to fix everything up, the trail has retained it’s classic, almost 100 year old look — a truly great job by Washington State Park teams!
Rising to a summit of around 850′, Washington’s Beacon Rock trail is hardly a huge mountain climb and at the same time, the 1.8 mile (that’s round-trip) trail is not quite enough to make for a long day adventure makes for an all day adventure but what the hike may lack in in difficulty it more than makes up for in adventurous fun. Over this 600-vertical foot climb, you’ll scale the side of the mountain across rock switchbacks and up wooden bridges with viewpoints out (and down) to the gorge at nearly every step of the way on a nearly 100 year old trail!
Getting to the trail: This is one of the easiest trails to reach in the Columbia River Gorge sitting literally on highway 14 and totally unmissable from either direction thanks to the numerous sign posts and, you know, the fact that it’s a giant free-standing rock and all. Parking is located to the east side of the rock just beyond the Hamilton Mountain turnoff with a few more dirt spots in either direction and near the ranger station across the street. Be sure to bring your Discovery Pass for parking or buy one at the trailhead (there are machines for credit card payments and you can get an annual pass across the street if the ranger station is open).
About the climb: While Beacon Rock is most certainly a quick adventure, don’t think that it means you’ll be driving to the top. Reaching does mean 600 feet of climbing in under a mile; nothing challenging for the regular hiker but you will be facing a steep 20-30 minute ascent. Add to this the exposure of walking right along the side of the rock, often on a trail that’s just a few feet wide and sometimes up in the air thanks to the well-engineered switchback bridges (see the photos below) and it’s certainly a unique experience for such a short hike. The trail is open all year but ice, snow and even rain can all turn the stone, wood and metal steps into a potential hazard.
In any event, the trail departs from the west-side of the parking area, opposite of the restrooms, water spicket and historical markers. Here you’ll find a trail bulletin board with the latest conditions, close announcements any updates to the hours which are 8am – sunset most of the year.
As you depart the road-side start, you’ll wander into the forest a few hundred yards passing by some mighty impressive trees and plant life as you approach the river-side base of the rock. A second information sign about the trail is located just before a small, concrete bridge which is where you’ll see the first signs of the recent storms — currently a large downed tree and broken fence posts though there’s little risk of falling here.
Still in the forest, the trail begins to climb up a few switchbacks before it cuts out and over to the open western face of Beacon Rock where you’ll spend the next half mile climbing almost to the top. While the trail is completely exposed for the climb, the direction and size of the rock summit can block a lot of the wind, rain and sun you may have found at the trailhead depending on conditions.
The first section of the exposed ascent is over rock and dirt switchbacks that follow right along the mountain side. This is definitely uphill but well graded and easily followed though you will find some rough steps navigating over the stones below so watch your feet. After a few long switchbacks lead you further towards the back of the rock, the switchbacks begin to change up a bit, become shorter and more exposed as you’re now winding right on up the side.
Dozens of switchbacks mark the climb to the top but it’s the middle to upper middle sections which are most interesting as you move above the stone & dirt back and forth and onto several bridges that were built to span places where the rock just didn’t cooperate with the gradual climbing goal. Started in 1915 and completed in 1918, it’s pretty amazing to think about what went into building this trail (and also a bit sad to think about how much we debate every works project now), especially the detail parts they added in like a few low stone arches and metal railings. There’s one bridge well into the climb that I’ve seen the height adverse really pause on but the sturdy build and solid footing of the trail really does wonders as you wind up towards the top.
Passing the bulk of the switchbacks, the trail pulls away from the rock face and enters back into the forest for its remainder. Just around the point where it does this, you’ll spot a number more signs of major trail updates from the closures with lots of landscaping work and cut down trees, yikes!
After a long single stretch on dirt the trail throws a half dozen final switchbacks before returning to one final dirt path a couple hundred yards long. The summit is accessed via an actual rock staircase with railings to keep you well inside the small plateau while a second view area can be found just below. The best views are found on the switchbacks before you enter the forest around the summit as tree growth has blocked in the view from the top but it’s certainly worth making that final climb up to get there, snap a shot and sit down on the rocks that line the end of the mountain to enjoy a snack or chat.
Beacon is not about the biggest views or biggest hike but rather about the sweet trail up the rock. For a longer adventure head on over to Hamilton Mountain just across highway 14 which rises to a summit of over 2,400′ and looks right on down at Beacon Rock several times!
Quick facts about the trail:
- Official Rating: Moderate for steepness
- My Rating: Walk Up the Hill
- Start point: Highway 14 at Beacon Rock Parking Lot
- Distance: 1.8 miles R/T
- Duration: <1 Hour
- Climb: ~600′
- Crowds: Extremely crowded at peak
- Recommended time: Mornings (crowds) and sunset (views)
- Facilities: Restrooms and water at the trailhead
- Parking: Dirt lot around the trailhead
- Permits / fees: Discovery Pass ($10 / day or $30 / year)