PDX Runs: Cape Horn
If you’re looking for a new route with viewpoints and a manageable climb in the Columbia River Gorge, Cape Horn on the Washington side should be on your list. The route boasts outstanding viewpoints of the Gorge, it's dog-friendly (on-leash), and it has easy-to-follow signs along the seven-mile loop. Not to mention, it's not too far from the city.
- Parking, signage, viewpoints = Fantastic.
- Footing = Technical. No poles required, but lots of boulders, rocks, and tree roots; I had to walk a few rocky switchbacks.
- Elevation gain = Yes. You’re in the Gorge after all! My watch counted 1600' climbed over the route.
- Open = Fully. Part of the loop is closed every year from February until mid-July for nesting falcons. You can still run, but it becomes an out-and-back during that period.
- Drive = Forty-five minutes from Portland. A good close-in trail run.
- Amenities = Bathrooms at the start.
- Fee = Nope.
I ran a seven-mile loop starting from the Cape Horn Trailhead in Skamania County, Washington. There are two latrines (handicap accessible) and a map at the start. I took a picture of the map but didn’t end up needing it. The parking lot held 50 cars or so. At 9 AM on a weekend, I was the very last free spot. Get there early or plan to park roadside.
From the parking lot, cross the street to start the trail. Almost immediately, you’ll have to choose your adventure: Lower or upper viewpoints first. I chose upper because I usually want to get the elevation gain out of the way first, but I think I will run the other direction next time. On the map above, I ran the loop counter-clockwise.
Running uphill to start I climbed 800 feet in the first 1.5 miles. The first viewpoint is just over a mile in. Take that break; you earned it!
The path is single-track, with a fair number of roots and rocks. The plus side? You could totally do this route even in the muddy season because of the extra footing assistance they provide. Just don’t take your mother, who’s always scared of running trails.
You pass a number of viewpoints not far off the main path with expansive views of the Columbia River. Follow the signs for “viewpoints” or “trails.” (Your other option is "horses," according to the signs.)
Eventually the path levels off and you’ll cross a small road (Strunk), leading you on a short gravelly segment to another fantastic viewpoint with stone walls and a little seating area. Leaving that viewpoint, you’ll return to a single-track trail with ample opportunities to enjoy some serene Pacific Northwest woods.
After a panoramic river view from a high bluff around mile 4, I noticed it getting a little rocky. I never worried about tumbling down a cliff, but I did worry about rolling an ankle. Besides, on a hot day the glistening water way below looked inviting!
Traveling down toward the river, the path becomes a little more technical. Eventually, it's entirely made of rocks, small enough that they shift under your feet. I walked these parts because the footing was too treacherous to run.
At 6 miles, I exited the single-track trail and came out on Cape Horn Road. The sign directs you left, and there’s a distance marker letting you know you have 1.2 miles to go. The road has a slight incline and is completely exposed; this incline felt harder than the first mile! Be on the lookout for a return to the single-track just before coming to SR 14; the path takes you through a tunnel under the highway and brings you back toward the parking lot to the finish—that is, if you don't want to do the loop a second time!
I only saw two runners, but a fair number of walkers and on-leash dogs. All were courteous and friendly.
This is an easier climb than Dog Mountain and still rewards with fantastic Gorge views. Be forewarned that you’ll probably be watching your footing most of the run; the viewpoints will be your chance to look up and savor the PNW scenery.
Take I-5 North into Washington. Exit immediately East onto SR 14. Stay on SR 14 (straight at the roundabouts in Washougal) for about 20 miles. You'll see a sign for Cape Horn Trailhead at Salmon Falls Road. Turn left and take an immediate right to find the parking lot. Park on the side of the street if the lot is full. The Forest Service has a map and directions right here.
Julie Baker is a former collegiate swimmer who runs for the Portland Running Company Race Team. She lives in Portland with her husband and two small children. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.