This trail is bound to become a classic, if it isn’t already. The full loop provides fantastic views of the Columbia River Gorge, an intimate look at the Cape Horn Falls and a challenging workout as it climbs and descends the rocky slopes of Cape Horn. The out-and-back, necessary for much of the spring and early summer because of a closure for nesting peregrine falcons, is an equally dramatic outing.
The entire loop is made up of two segments separated by Highway 14; each are mostly single track, along with sections of trail that volunteers like WTA have helped transform from old road to Forest Service standards trail. The description here is a general overview of the loop in a counter-clockwise direction. This is a popular location and the renovated trail is much easier to follow than in the past, but guided hikes are offered if you prefer to explore that way. Contact the Mazamas, Friends of the Columbia River Gorge and the Mt. St. Helens Club.
The main parking area is the Skamania County Public Transit Park and Ride at the intersection of Salmon Falls Road and Highway 14. The clearly signed trail begins on the west side of Salmon Falls Road, opposite the Park and Ride lot.
Take the first fork to the right (the upper trail) near the start of the trail. Cross a small creek on the Twain Bridge and begin the steepest climb of the entire loop under a canopy of big leaf maples, sword ferns and vine maples. You will reach the first overlook at the 1.2 mile mark after climbing about 800 feet. From there the trail ascends several steep switchbacks, then traverses west and south past scenic views of Hamilton Mountain, Beacon Rock and the Gorge. In another 0.1 mile bear left on a short spur trail to Pioneer Point (with the Tipping Tree) with views to the southwest that include Angel’s Rest and Devil’s Rest.
Return to the main trail which now crosses a wide, wooded summit. The trail gradually descends and intersects an abandoned forest road. Bear left at this intersection. After 0.6 mile you will reach paved Strunk Road. Cross the road and follow a footpath left until you reach a wide gravel path. After .2 mile turn left at a signed intersection on a trail to the Nancy Russell Overlook. The overlook is a wonderful lunch spot with stone seating and spectacular gorge views.
If you want to continue on the loop, follow the trail markers and descend 1.2 miles via a series of switchbacks, crossing a creek over the Bootlegger Bridge, to a pedestrian underpass beneath Highway 14. Continue to follow the trail, taking short spurs to two lovely stone overlooks with expansive views. The first is Cape Horn Waterfall Overlook, the second Oak View Overlook. If the peregrine falcon closure is in effect, the trail will be closed just beyond Oak View Overlook.
Assuming the route is open, continue west and switchback downhill. The trail now veers east with occasional river views and a stunning view of Cigar Rock, pillars of basalt rising above the river. The trail climbs and falls in roller coaster fashion, through two moss-covered talus slopes, eventually arriving at a bridge in front of Cape Horn Falls. Sections of this part of the trail are narrow, steep and rocky so exercise caution. Hiking poles will be handy.
Continue to the east. The trail pops out of the woods at paved Cape Horn Road. Walk 1.3 miles gradually uphill, enjoying expansive views of cliffs and pastoral fields with goats and cows. Turn left at the trail sign. Use the new pedestrian underpass under Highway 14 to avoid crossing the busy road.
The top of Cape Horn was originally planned as a subdivision in the 1980s. As the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area was not in place, there was no legal way to stop the development. So in 1983, Friends' Founder Nancy Russell and her husband Bruce Russell took out a loan from a bank and made a no-interest loan to the Trust for Public Land (TPL), enabling TPL to buy 12 of the 16 lots, effectively stopping the subdivision.
The U.S. Forest Service then bought the land from TPL. The Columbia Land Trust purchased two properties in 2001, and with a 2004 U.S. Forest Service purchase, a loop was created by trail enthusiasts, making the area accessible to the public. In 2006, Friends of the Columbia Gorge Land Trust purchased the subdivision's one developed lot, the Cleveland property, and two years later deconstructed the 5,500 square-foot home and 6,000 square-foot barn. Friends of the Columbia Gorge Land Trust also secured an option to purchase the other privately held rim-view property. Friends' Campaign for Cape Horn raised over $4 million to secure the properties and provide a public overlook in 2011 that honors Nancy Russell.
Because of Nancy's vision, all of us can enjoy this beautiful trail with its stunning viewpoints.