Friday, August 6, 2021

A Pacific Crest Trail Day Hike: Herman Creek Pinnacles

At some hazy point in history, a landslide dragged some pieces of the Columbia River Gorge's famous cliffs downhill and left them sitting nearly upright on a hillside below. The resulting odd formations now lie beside the PCT above Cascade Locks. The Pinnacles may be easily visited on a day hike of about seven-and-a-half miles round trip, including a side path to Dry Creek Falls, which isn't dry but does fall.

During the hike to Herman Creek Pinnacles, you will see unique rock formations, imposing basalt cliffs, a variety of wildflowers, two waterfalls, and a great deal of poison oak. One thing you will NOT see, however, is Herman Creek, which runs somewhat east of this route. Carry water and wear sturdy boots; the trail is a bit rocky in places and climbs fairly steadily, though never steeply.

The usual starting point for this hike is the Bridge of the Gods Trailhead in Cascade Locks. To find the trailhead, drive as if you were going to cross over into Washington and look for a modest parking lot just before the bridge. This is a popular spot, and you may have to arrive early in the day to find a parking place or else leave your car in Cascade Locks and walk over. A Northwest Forest Pass is required at the parking lot.

Cross the road and begin walking on the PCT. When you come to a street, turn right under the overpass and walk to a small parking area. From here take the trail on the left, which is marked as the PCT (the trail on the right is the Gorge Trail).

You will soon see traces of the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire; this massively destructive conflagration appears to have hurried through here, merely scorching tree trunks and wiping out the undergrowth. Unlike many nearby areas, this part of the forest remains lush and alive despite its scars. Wildflowers flourish alongside bigleaf and vine maple saplings; the understory seems eager to refill the void. The trail travels in the shade of tall, resilient Douglas firs as it gradually climbs. After about a mile, turn right to briefly walk on a powerline access road and rejoin the trail where it re-enters the forest. This is a beautiful, rugged area of steep slopes and rock falls. Listen for the squeak-toy cry of pikas as you approach the rocky stretches; these chubby little mammals live in rock crevices, munching on vegetation and making hay to store for winter.

Cross the footbridge over Dry Creek (more on that later) at about two miles in. Continue on the PCT over gently rolling terrain. Watch for a view of the Columbia River and Stevenson, Washington with Table Mountain and Greenleaf Peak standing nearby. A bit further on you will see a small creekbed; watch on your right in this area to see the impressive basalt cliffs that make up the edge of the Benson Plateau. Continue until the Pinnacles come into view. A short side trail explores the three largest outcroppings, and a bit of scrambling offers outstanding views of the gorge, as well. Looking up at the nearby cliffs, it's easy to see where the Pinnacles came from. Continue briefly on the PCT to find several smaller formations tucked into the woods. Then walk for a few more minutes to see Pacific Crest Falls, where a slender creek spouts through a slit in a sheer rock face, then tumbles in a long cascade on its way to find the Columbia.

Turn back here and retrace your steps, watching for views and wildflowers you may have missed on your way up. When you recross Dry Creek on the footbridge, leave the trail and turn left on an old roadbed. Walk along near the lovely little creek, which is anything but dry, to find a 74-foot waterfall in a basalt amphitheater. Here in this lush, beautiful place you will find a clue to the creek's baffling name: at the base of the falls stand the remains of an old waterworks. In the 1930s, when Bonneville Dam was being built, this creek was rerouted to provide water for the town of Cascade Locks. Part of the long-disused structure is now a convenient bridge over the creek for those wishing to photograph the falls (or stand underneath).

Return to the PCT and walk back to your car, perhaps taking time to explore the 1,856-foot-long steel cantilever Bridge of the Gods. Back in town, if you need an excuse to indulge in a generous cone of extra-creamy soft serve, stop by our favorite drive-in (look for the line out front) and relax after your hike. Maybe we'll see you there!

Distant mountains visible on the Washington side

Not Herman Creek. Bridge over Dry Creek.

Look for views and listen for pikas along this stretch of trail

Table Mountain and Stevenson, Washington
Not Herman Creek. This one's unnamed. Feel free to name it.
First view of the pinnacles

The pinnacles and Benson Plateau
Small pinnacle on the far side of a nearby rocky hill. Please exercise caution if you climb
the hill, as the rocks are steep and loose. This photographer didn't make it to the top. No
one is questioning your bravery. People love you.
Small pinnacles along the PCT
Not Herman Creek. Pacific Crest Falls.
Near the falls
Inside Out Flower and a candid ant
Back over the Dry Creek Bridge

Old roadbed near the falls

Dry Creek. Not to the falls yet. Still not Herman Creek.

Dry Creek Falls and old waterworks

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Hiking to God's Thumb

There were rumors over the years. A place known only to a few Lincoln City locals, a hike with amazing views. Access was a mystery, no one knew who owned most of the land the paths passed through, and it was best to go with someone who had been there before. 

Then word started getting out, and determined hikers  began unravelling the route in increasing numbers. The hike's reputation grew: a baffling maze of trails, downed trees, angry landowners, slippery paths, injuries, daring rescues. Of course, this only drew more attention to the area, along with the many intriguing photographs posted on social media.

These days, the hike's popularity has worn a reasonably clear trail, the trailheads are (somewhat) marked, and the recommended parking area has been announced. If you go, you probably won't get lost, you shouldn't get towed, and you definitely will not be alone.

Wood Violets

For those hikers who aren't solely seeking the adrenaline rush of summiting God's Thumb, this is a wonderful walk through coastal woods with stunning views, wildlife, and plentiful wildflowers. It is definitely worth the effort for those who can keep their footing on the sometimes steep and muddy trails. This peaceful place has been a local haunt for good reason.

First, allow yourself plenty of time. The distance is given variously from 4.5 to 6 miles; likely this is due to different access points and to a loop option that adds a bit of mileage. In any case, the walk will probably take longer than you expect. The path is often steep; it makes a good early-season leg burner for those of us who have not been out as much as we should over the winter. The footing is frequently quite muddy when it's wet and crumbly when it's dry. Wear supportive shoes with plenty of traction. You might want to consider trekking poles if you want to scale the Thumb itself. Please keep children close and dogs on a leash.

Now, to the hike. Parking has been a serious issue on the narrow streets of the local neighborhood, so we are being asked to use the "official" parking area, a disused cul-de-sac. From Highway 101, turn north on NE Devil's Lake Blvd, keep straight at 50th Street, pass through a gate, and continue to the cul-de-sac to park. Please note that there are no facilities. Don't be confused by signs referring to "The Knoll," you will be visiting that, too. 

The Knoll

Look for a small pullout where two or three cars might be able to park; here you will find the beginning of the trail. Drop down into coastal forest and go straight at an intersection to a bridge that crosses a small creek and wetland. Pass a gate and turn right onto gravel Sal la Sea Drive. Go up the hill, where there is space for a few cars to park, though this is no longer recommended. Turn right on Port Drive and walk around the gate. Hike up an old road bed, keeping right at a fading "Y" in the trail. After about a mile of climbing, watch on your left for the side trail to The Knoll, an open, grassy crest with views south all the way to Depoe Bay. Devil's Lake and the Siletz Estuary are also visible. This is a great turnaround spot (after snacks and photographs) for families with children and those who simply want a shorter hike.

Looking north from the final meadow

Those who yearn for more climbing (and more mud) can continue through thick woodland along a ridge top and pass (respectfully) through a section of private property. Keep left at a junction where another trail heads back towards the parking area. Watch on your right for views of the Salmon River's estuary. Drop down into a broad, sheltered meadow, cross the meadow, and climb to another small opening in the trees. Continue through the forest until you reach a wide clearing high above the ocean. The trail dissipates somewhat here, but just keep walking through the grassy meadow until suddenly...the Thumb appears.

First glimpse of God's Thumb

Many folks turn around at this meadow, which is definitely worth the hike. People with children or dogs, as well as those with a fear of heights or any physical issues, would do well to stop here, relax, and soak in the stunning views from all sides. The views of God's Thumb show the singular topography of the area; this strange rock formation is actually a volcanic plug towering above a tiny cove.

If the weather is cooperative and you wish to scale the Thumb, the trail picks up again beneath a weathered tree. You will find a muddy drop to a deeply-worn groove; this is your route. This is the stretch where the accidents happen. It shouldn't need to be said, but apparently it does: stay on the trail. Let's keep this hike open to the public by not straining local rescue resources.

That being said, this is an exhilarating cliff-top walk, with the waves crashing below on your right and a steep grassy slope on your left. Drop down a bit into the saddle, then climb. This stretch is slippery and crumbly, so use caution. You may find some small footholds as you ascend the last bit, but then it turns into a brief, straight chute to the top. If you are there on a weekend, you may find it already occupied; be cautious and respectful as you summit.

Alternate route back

Return the way you came, watching for views you may have missed on your way out. There is also the possibility of a loop if you would like to add slightly to your mileage; simply take a left at the "Y" just before you cross the stretch on private property.

Don't miss this beautiful woodland path and its panoramic views. Next time you visit Lincoln City, if the weather is kind, climb up this forested headland and hike as far as you are comfortable going. As a stranger's small child said to me on the way out, "It's worth it. That's all I can say."

Note the sides of an old road bed that you will be following for part of your journey

The Knoll

Devil's Lake from The Knoll

A rather sad tree

The trail runs atop a ridge as you get close to the meadows

 Sheltered meadow

Final meadow

Looking south

Trail across meadow just before you see the Thumb

Thumb from the final meadow

View from the path up the Thumb, looking towards the Salmon River mouth

Walking back down

One last look back at the small cove below the Thumb