Tuesday, August 9, 2016

A Stop on the Way Up the Mountain: Castle Canyon

Rhododendron is one of those blink-and-you-miss-it little towns. If it weren't for the reduced speed limit, most summer motorists wouldn't even slow down for this small collection of businesses tucked against the forest beside the Mount Hood Highway (Hwy. 26). Few know that these thick woods hide a short, steep hiking trail that is snow-free for much of the year. If you're up for a challenge, pull over in Rhododendron and check out this quick climb to a series of unusual rock formations.

It took us a while to find the trailhead; we had gotten some rather imaginative directions from an outdated source. Once you know the way, though, it's easy to find. Coming from Portland, watch on your left for East Littlebrook Lane, which immediately turns left and becomes East Arlie Mitchell Road. Before long the road curves to the right; instead of following the curve, continue onto unpaved Henry Creek Road (FR 1819).
It's worth noting that this potholed, single-lane residential road follows the old Barlow Road route, once part of the Oregon Trail. This peaceful, shaded, nearly-level section must have been a wonderful respite after the perils the pioneers faced when descending infamous Laurel Hill. Nowadays, quaint vacation cabins nestle in the quiet, dim woods, disturbed only rarely by a passing car. NOTE: in 2016, we noticed signs warning of a closure on this route. Don't worry, the slide is beyond our trailhead.

Continue on the Barlow Road for nearly half a mile, watching for a small trailhead sign for Castle Canyon. Park in one of the wide spots alongside the road, being careful not to block anyone's driveway. Don sturdy boots, and take trekking poles or a walking stick if you have them. Note that there is no water along the trail. Even though the hike is less than a mile each way, leash your dog and be prepared for a climb.

You will need to fill out a free wilderness permit near the trailhead. The trail here wanders peacefully through lush forest. Watch for wildflowers alongside the path and listen for songbirds as you gradually leave the highway sounds behind. Ignoring small side trails, continue at a gentle pace for half a mile or so. Tall evergreens shade the path, vine maples form a leafy canopy, and you will begin to wonder what all the fuss was about. Then the trail steepens.

The first formation is a relatively small one on your left. Then more appear as the trail continues to ascend. There really is no canyon here; in fact, you are climbing an eroded volcanic ridge. The official trail ends on a rock outcropping that makes a perfect picnic spot, with treetop views over the hills. It is not easily reached by the average daytripper; be prepared to clamber briefly up a sheer rock face where a fallen tree has peeled away the trail. Scramble trails lead to other, similar rock formations nearby; use caution if you decide to explore these, as they are very steep and footing is unstable.

When the time comes to descend, the advantage of a walking stick will be fully appreciated. The path here tends to be very slick during wet weather and loose and crumbly when it's dry. Step carefully during the steep sections, then enjoy the woodland stroll back to your car.

At less than two miles round-trip, Castle Canyon may not seem to be much of a hike, but it's well worth a stop along your way. Escape the frenetic traffic headed up Mt. Hood, get a little cardio in, and explore this ridge of craggy pinnacles.









Picnic area at the trail's summit



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