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Rock of Ages, Devils Backbone, Mystery Trail Hike (w/ Jeff)

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  • Click here for TOPO.EXE v3.4.3 TPO file.
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  • Click here for MAPSOURCE.EXE GPX output.
  • GPS data includes tracks and waypoints for trail forks, views, parking, etc.

Trip Report 9/18/05 Sun

Rock of Ages trail is a cool, steep, strenuous hike in the Columbia River gorge. It has a great waterfall, lots of great views into the gorge, a natural rock arch, big (BIG) cliffs, the fun Devils Backbone and many places to explore. To get there, drive about 31 miles east of Portland on I-84.  The trail begins near Horsetail falls (2.5 miles past Multnomah Falls).


This was mostly an exploratory trip to see if we could find a way out onto the huge ridge which IS Rock of Ages, ie. the "point" just west of Saint Peters Dome. Jeff and I enjoy a lazy breakfast and get an even worse start than our usual crack-o-noon. We arrive at horsetail falls, gear up and begin our hike a little before 3PM. (Plenty-o-time). I've done this trail before but not for a long time so just to play tourist, we first follow the trail to and behind the falls and a little beyond. Most of the real tourists only come this far - about a quarter mile and then go home.


Upper Horsetail Falls aka Ponytail Falls


Our trail begins just before you get to the falls. It's not very obvious but it takes off to the left, straight up past a sign that tells you "this trail is not maintained". The trail forks several times on the way up. The first fork occurs almost immediately and is a faint trail to the right probably to the top of the falls. The second and third forks both occur about .75 miles (at elevation 800 feet) after leaving Horsetail falls.  The first of the pair (which we didn't take this time) goes to a cool natural arch and nice views into the gorge. (The arch is pretty crumbly - see it soon before it erodes away). The second fork of the pair we did take. We went left up to a spot where you peek over the crumbly ridge a some steep, precipitous nearby cliffs and view out across the Columbia. The view is great but if you go this far I suggest you backtrack the short distance to the main trail before continuing. We didn't do this - following the trail as it traversed on the ever steeping hillside until we were clinging to dirt, rock and grass in order to overcome a very short steep spot with exposure just before it reconnected with the main trail. Although it was passable it was a little more excitement than I wanted. All in all, if I had it to do over, I'd go the other way.


Jeff on the Devil's Backbone. Archer point in background across the Columbia.


The devils backbone is another cool spot just a quarter mile farther (elevation about 1300 feet).  The ridge you've been following becomes naked rock - to the right it drops forever into the unknown - the left side drops a mere 30 feet or so. For fun you can walk directly along the top or take the tamer route on the east side. There are spectacular views in all directions here.


View from Devils Backbone looking north: Columbia river, Beacon Rock, Hamilton mountain, Bonneville dam.


From here, the trail gradually becomes less and less steep. After another half mile or so is another faint fork to the right (elevation 2100 feet) which Jeff thinks goes down into the Horsetail creek drainage and eventually back to the falls. Another quarter mile on is where we had hoped to find access out onto the Rock of Ages "point". We explored off-trail to the north hoping to find some small trail where others had gone before us but ended up finding nothing. Lots of steepness, brush and blowdown blocked the way. I followed one ridge to a lucky view east out over the top of Saint Peter's Dome. At least we knew we were in the right area. Well, this was obviously going to be more serious than we were prepared for on this day - It was getting late to be bushwhacking so we decided to give up.


Since it was only a little farther, Jeff and I decided to see if we could find the Mystery Trail cutoff. We had done the Mystery Trail together back in the early 80s. I hadn't been back since but Jeff had been to the cutoff at least a couple times after that. It's another .75 miles of pretty flat trail to the general area. By the time we got there it was getting pretty dusky. I explored the area north of the trail to the edge of the escarpment trying to find sign of a path but found nothing. Jeff stayed mostly on the main trail trying to find the fork and also found nothing. I think that so few people have done it in the last few years that it has literally disappeared.


I'm about to give up when Jeff gives a yell. He's found the "fork" - that is to say - he's found the "sign" that marks the fork.  Twenty plus years ago I remember a fir with a thin, tin sign tacked to it. The sign had been there a while because the fir had grown around it so that on the left you could only see "MYS" and on the right side "AIL". He thought he was in approximately the right place and saw a tree that seemed like it could be THE tree. In the dusk he peered at it. No tin sign... but a small, vertical crease in the bark about seven feet up... about where the sign would be... he reached up and felt the crease and felt a sharp poke - the last quarter inch of corner of tin sign marking the Mystery Trail! Wow. It's astounding that he found it but the trail itself seems to have gone the way of the tin sign - gone. 


It was getting pretty dark so we decide to beat feet. I suggest we dig a snow cave and wait for help. Jeff suggests that we
make it back to devil's backbone and drink beer until the full moon comes up. Beer wins. It's dark enough that we have to break out headlamps to reach the backbone... We finish our lunches and the beer that Jeff carried up but discovered a major error in our strategy: we didn't bring enough beer to out-wait the moon. We finally give up and head down without it.


Round trip 5 hours, 5.5 miles, 3300+ feet elevation gain.

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Last modified: 01/17/11