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The Mystery Trail, Oregon Columbia River Gorge, 1983

GPS Data: Map, Track, Waypoints:

Download GPS track and waypoints - this data cobbled together from multiple sources ca. 2006


Rock of Ages Trail (red) and The Mystery Trial (yellow)

Directions to trailhead:

  • Drive east from Portland on I-84
  • Drive approx 35 miles and take exit 35
  • Head back west on the History Columbia River Hwy
  • Go 0.5 miles and park at Ainsworth State Park or 1.3 miles and park at Horsetail Falls.
  • If you park at Ainsworth you can hike the 0.8 miles to Horsetail Falls on the road or find the trail uphill from Ainsworth till you intersect the #400 trail. Go west on the #400 trail about 0.8 miles till you reach Horsetail Falls. Note there's not much day parking at Ainsworth but sometimes Horsetail Falls parking is a zoo. Ainsworth parking also has the advantage that you have less distance to hike at the end of a long day.

Trip Report 1883 (posted 1/7/11)

This is the story of the first time I did The Mystery Trail... back in 1983.


The Mystery Trail has been called a "climbers trail", a scramble, a bushwhack, scary, and dangerous. It's all those things. It is a trail that is meant to be down from the top down. It requires some climbing skills (scrambling, rope handling, anchor setting, rappelling and comfort in exposed cliffy places) and route finding skills. Don't do it if you aren't ready for it.

That said, it is easily one of the coolest most unique hikes I have ever done.

Memory Lane - hiking the Mystery Trail in 1982:

It is the summer of '83 and my rock climbing buddy Jeff tells me about the Mystery trail. He hears about this "secret" trail from a hiking buddy Mike who heard about it from Ethan van Metre (Mazamas) and over time they uncover enough info to find it and have just done it... "a SECRET trail that requires rappelling" is how Jeff describes it to me ... how cool is that ! I had only been climbing for about a year and was still in that phase where rappelling was one of the most fun parts 8P. In fact, it sounds so cool that, at my request they are willing to do the hike again right away. Jeff also drafts a couple flatlanders (work buddy Paul and his wife Sheryl). They hear his description and despite never having rappelled, they want to go with us. Clearly we all share a thoroughly inappropriate sense of adventure!


It is a beautiful summer day, not too hot even in the gorge. Now, although I like hiking, I haven't really done very much of it. I do have a problem with that pesky gettin-up-early part of it, something Jeff understands as well as the importance of a good breakfast... and time to digest... Not sure exactly what time we arrive at Horsetail Falls but for sure it isn't early. There are lots of tourists here already...


Jeff's wife Julie is our designated driver. She is going to stay at the car all day - something to do with studying. The rest of us collect our gear and ready to hike. Now, like I said, I like hiking but there's another part of it I don't like much - carrying weight. So today we're bringing a full climbing rope, harness slings, a bunch of carabiners, a couple figure eights, and some chocks for making or backing up rappel anchors. Oh yah, food and beer.


Jeff leads the way - we hike up to the picturesque falls then take a minor left fork that continues up and up and unrelenting f**king up for approximately an eternity. I don't remember a bit of it except the part where Jeff loses the path. I'm right behind him clinging to a STEEP moss covered hillside that drops away steeply below us until I can't see where it goes. I try to hang on tight because I'm scared but everything I pull hard on comes out. So I don't pull hard. We end up backing up and finding the place where we walked off the trail.


We continue up to a spot which I (much) later learn is called the Devil's Backbone. A sharp ridge with absolutely gorgeous views everywhere detracted immensely by the fact that you have to walk across it. Jeff, the experienced mountaineer goes first striding confidently and relaxed across the very top. I look for another way (a skill which I will hone to perfection in later years ;) but there isn't any. To the left the ridge slopes away, moss covered and steep toward open forest below. There wasn't anything to be gained by going that way other that risking another adventure pulling out moss covered rocks. To the right the ridge drops precipitously into the unknown. Ok the lesser of evils is to walk the plank... er, the ridge along the very top where at least the rock is bare and you can see what you're stepping on. GAK! Behind me Paul asks "um... is there another way to go here?". I do manage to walk just a bit to the left of the crest imagining that if I slip I can grab the top and arrest my fall. I try to be relaxed and inspire confidence - I R climber after all. Paul and Sheryl follow on hands and knees.


The trail continues... (up of course) till it reaches the rim of the gorge, nearly in the stratosphere. Here the trail becomes mercifully flat. I can finally relax. It's wide and open and filled with sunshine. I'm wondering if this is the remnant of an old road along the top? We follow it for a while till we come to a tree with a little tin sign tacked to it saying "Mystery Trail". We stop for lunch and to just enjoy the sun. The "road" stretches on but our destiny lies on a little path winding through moss and green into open woods to our left. It heads about 150 feet to THE RIM.


Now from below, from the BOTTOM of the gorge, from the earth, from near the river or the highway, you can look up at... THE RIM. THE RIM is 2500 feet above you and it is ALL cliffs and most of them are dead vertical for hundreds of feet. As we approach THE RIM now it's a little hard to tell but it appears that we are perched on the edge of one of those spots that looks so awesome from below. And just as our little path reaches the very edge of where I'm sure the world is going to end, there appears a ridgeline, lightly wooded, descending. Our little path is perched on the very edge.


We follow it and it's a fairly easy if steep dirt path. The flanks drop more and more steeply into what are surely death cliffs but where we are is ok. If I slipped here I could probably grab one of these trees... probably. As we go, the ridge gets broader until it feels more like a hill side and then it ends in a cliff.


"The first rappel" says Jeff. We drop our gear, open packs and take out the long lengths of slings we've brought. These are the days before climbing harnesses - I make a harness by wrapping 30 feet of nylon webbing multiple times around my waist, through my crotch, around my legs and back and tied and held together with a couple carabiners. Paul and Sheryl have never climbed or rappelled so while Jeff is setting up the rappel, I help them make there harnesses. I'm trying to get them to pull the webbing tighter everywhere "so that if you tip over you don't fall out of your harness" I tell them. While Paul is pulling the line tight through his crotch he remarks "This would actually be kinda sexy if I weren't so scared!". 


Jeff goes first. I'll go last, so there will be someone experienced at either end to help the newbies. I give Paul my figure eight and instruct them both on how to rappel. They both get to the bottom ok but I can't really see. It's not very far, maybe 60 feet but pretty much vertical AND it turns out that the last 20 feet or so is free. For you non-climbers that means that the cliff is overhanging and that you dangle in mid-air unable to touch your feet to the wall. Bit of a rush for your first rappel eh?


At the bottom I tell everyone to go on, I'll pull the ropes and catch up which I do, but before I leave I turn around to look back at the cliff behind me and there, tacked to a tree is a little tin sign (facing downhill !?). The signed is imbedded in the tree which has grown around it. The sign says "MYS" on the left and "AIL" on the right. That seems odd...


Not too far from here is the second rappel: Not really a cliff but merely very steep forest. The trail continues down a broad, wooded shoulder to a short, steep, dirty section that gets your attention. After this last obstacle, the ridge narrows down and exits the forest to become a 2 to 4 foot wide sidewalk in the sky. This is the most spectacular part of the Mystery Trail. We call it "The Great Wall" because it snakes out ahead, narrow and flat on top and dropping into nothing on either side!  The angle is gentle. The view is spectacular. The river and the world is 2000 feet below us. Where we are is just plain crazy. Old growth trees rise out of the unknown on either side topping out even with us, seeming so close you could almost reach out and touch them... almost.


The start of the Great Wall


The Great Wall isn't very long - it ends abruptly in a vertical step maybe 8 feet. Jeff says there's a short rappel that avoids the down climb but that it's not very hard, there's lots to hang onto though the moves are kind of blind. He helps Paul and Sheryl from below and I from above. From here down, the ridge is very broad again and never really feels like more than a steep hillside. There are occasional great views of the river or Saint Peter's Dome which is right in your face.


About 200 feet above the notch behind Saint Peter's it gets steep and loose. About 100 feet above, it gets cliffy but there is a very large tree that's just right for an anchor for our third and final rappel. At the notch I'm eyeballing Saint Peter's dome which is a spectacular spire (visible from the freeway). My climbing guide says there's a 5.6 route on it. I don't see anything that looks 5.6. In fact it all looks scary as hell.


Steep, moss covered talus below the St Peter's Dome notch


It's getting dusky and we're worried about getting over the next section before dark so we don't dally. We head down a steep, loose, moss covered talus slope on the west side of the tower. Slowly picking our way down until we could drop into the woods. From here we find a creek and follow that pretty much continuously for about a mile until we reached the road. It's now pretty much dark. I think this was before headlamps were invented... in any case, we didn't have any, but walking the road even in the dark will be easy.


It's getting dark


At the road, we are elated, dirty, exhausted and have about a mile to walk back to Horsetail Falls - when suddenly headlights appear and it is Julie waiting for us!


Distance: 4 miles

Elevation Total: 2700 feet

Related Links:

My 2006 Mystery Trail TR via the Russ Jolley Horse Tail Falls trail

Another Mystery Trail TR and directions on how to go UP the trail.

Another TR with nice pics.

Photo Credits: Chris M. All photos are from 2006

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Last modified: 01/17/11