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Russ Jolley Trail to The Mystery Trail, Oregon Columbia R Gorge, Sept 30, 2006 With Jeff W.

GPS Data: Map, Track, Waypoints:

Russ Jolley Horsetail Creek trail (red), Rock of Ages trail (green), Mystery Trail (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 September 9, 2006 (posted January 7, 2011)


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.


What it is

At milepost 35 on I-84 look up at the basalt cliffs on the south side of the Columbia River gorge. Lush forest at the bottom (elev 100) rises steeply for 500 feet.  At the top (3000 feet) is another 500 feet of forest. In the middle are cliffs, cliffs and more cliffs, multi-hundred foot vertical cliffs, gullies, pinnacles, ravines so deep and dark and inaccessible that no one has every been in them... 2000 feet high and miles wide of that. The Mystery Trail winds its improbable way down from the top right through the middle of the most spectacular, seemingly impenetrable part. 

Some History

There never has been much info to be found on the Mystery Trail. I first did it in the summer of 83. Then, an occasional guide book might reference it in passing but people found out about it pretty much by word of mouth. I had started rock climbing a year or two earlier and was spending a lot of time in the tutelage of a work buddy Jeff who learned the craft from his father when he was a youngster. We climbed a lot and when we weren't climbing we hiked some. Jeff had heard about the Mystery Trail from another hiking buddy Mike, who heard about it from Ethan Van Metre (in the Mazamas). Jeff scored further info when he met an acquaintance of his wife's while out hiking who was planning on writing a guide book and he knew some details about the trail attributing it to Leon G. Darling. Jeff and Mike collected enough info to find and do the hike. Jeff tells me about it and I'm so intrigued I badger him and Mike into taking me to do it again.

That's what it took to do this hike. You had to know someone who knew someone who knew someone...

Outing the trail (this hike has politics!)

Now everyone who has done the hike seems to have an opinion about whether it should be documented. Over time, a lot more has appeared in print regarding those opinions than facts on the hike itself. (1) Many would say that some sleuthing and some "word of mouth" was part of the adventure required to do this hike... (2) It's also been said that it's desirable to keep the hike in the style to which we've become accustomed. It is suggested that telling everyone about it will somehow destroy both of these. And (3) if everyone finds out about it and does it, it will be somehow be destroyed by too much traffic.


Regarding the first issue (1) I tend to agree - the mystery was part of the fun. But as I write this in 2011 there are already two or three other TRs on the web with route info and pictures... so the bloom is off the rose... the mystery is pretty much a moot point at best.


And (2) re preserving the style of the hike: the hike is pretty much gone. All the work that was originally done to create this trail is gone - the path is gone almost everywhere, the signs that were placed to mark the way are mostly gone, a mile section near the bottom has been obliterated by mudslide, and 30 years of tree growth, blow down and brush has blocked the way. The best you can do now is bushwhack where the trail used to be. There is nothing in danger of being destroyed. It is already gone. There's not much to preserve though It's interesting to note that most people want to preserve the route in the style in which THEY did it, so for instance, if they did it as a bushwhack, then it should stay a bushwhack.


Regarding (3), it seems really unlikely that this trail will EVER see a lot of traffic. It's got a big approach, it's hard, everyone who writes about it is clear that it requires climbing skills, it always had and probably always will have some element of bushwhacking and most hikers aren't interested in that. Most telling of all is that since 2008 there's been info on the web and in 2009 there were only three new entries in the register.


I'm not saying my word is the last word here. I'm open to discussion on all of this. I do think that keeping trails secret leads to their deaths.  There are literally hundreds of trails that have disappeared over the last 50 years often because they weren't well known and no one was hiking them. In the past (at least) if a hike wasn't in the latest "hundred and one hikes of the XYZ" no one knew about it and no one did it. There are whole websites devoted to preserving (at least) their memories. They were beautiful. They were someone's labor of love. They're all gone. Here's a web site, itself obsolete and archived that lists approximately 200 lost trails in western Washington alone.


The Mystery Trail really needs some people on it, to trample a path, to beat back the underbrush, to tell their friends about it, to love it.

Memory Lane - hiking the Mystery Trail in 1982:

My rock climbing buddy Jeff tells me about the Mystery trail in the summer of '83. He hears about this "secret" trail from someone who knows someone who knows someone... a secret trail that has rappels on it. We do it (1983 TR) and it is one of the coolest hikes I've ever done.

Oh yah, the TR - September 30, 2006


For years Jeff and I have been talking about a reprise of our first Mystery Trail hike. He's done it a couple times since then but I haven't. It's been years. We talk about it often but I'm living in Seattle and he's in Portland and the opportunities are few. Finally... more than 20 years later we're finally doing it again.


The weather is beautiful, not too warm, sunny. Jeff and I get our traditional crack-o-noon start (actually 11AM). I am so totally excited to finally be doing this again after all these years ! There are a lot of tourists at the Horsetail Falls - in fact we have to get a bit creative in order to find a parking spot. I'm eager to get going and get away from all the people.


In the Columbia Gorge, picturesque falls are a dime a dozen


It's a short hike to view the falls and the obligatory photo op. There's also a trail fork marked only by the sign "Trail not maintained". This is the Rock of Ages trail and our highway to mystery and adventure and a route I've been up several times. Jeff however, mentions that there is an alternative. We had been by here on a rainy day a while back and he'd shown me the start of the Russ Jolley trail that goes up the Horsetail Creek drainage... yet another not very well documented but really cool trail. He suggests that it could be an alternative route for us that might add an extra mile or so. He offers me the choice and I opt for the new and unknown. We cross to the other side of the falls on the #400 trail where a faint trail angles steeply up into the woods. We follow it.


Jeff and Horsetail Falls

I don't know much about Russ Jolley except that he and his family had played in this part of the gorge ever since he was a kid and had created this trail. Not too many people know about this trail either though there are descriptions on the web in at least a couple places from 2008.


The trail is a very pleasant path through the forest that parallels the east side of the creek till about 1200 feet where it crosses in a really cool grove of older growth trees. It continues to follow the creek till 1400 feet when it turns northeast. Soon after it steepens as it climbs up to the ridge above. There are at least a couple forks along the way that traverse southeast into unknown territory. We choose "up" at every fork eventually joining the Rock of Ages trail on the ridge at 2070 feet. We follow that to the top.



Horsetail Creek


Horsetail Creek


On the way up to the Rock of Ages trail


It's different than I remember. I remember the ridge trail turning into an old road on the flat at the top. It used to be wide and open and sunny but now there is only a narrow path amidst 20+ years of new forest. It's shady and even dark. At 2770 the path is hard to follow and there is zero sign that this is where the Mystery Trail starts. (3 PM)


Now Jeff has done the Mystery Trail 3 or 4 times and I've done it once and we came up here in September of 2005 just to see if we could find the start. We scoured the area for a half an hour finding no evidence of the Mystery Trail at all. We were all set to give up when Jeff saw a cedar tree that struck him as possibly the one that originally had a tin sign tacked to it marking the trail start. There was a crease in the bark right where the sign might have been if the tree had grown around it. Jeff reached up and touched that spot discovering the last 1/4 inch of tin sign! So it's only because we had reconnoitered last year that we knew where to start this year.


Look for this tree. The Mystery Trail starts here.


That's just the start though: Knowing where the "trail" begins isn't really enough because actually there was no trail, at least not anymore. We know we're supposed to go in the general direction of the rim of the gorge (to the left) but that isn't much help. The forest is young and thick and brushy and dark and full of blow down - not easily passable. We know there will be a ridge descending from the rim and we should follow it... but where. We separate to search. I head straight for the rim which is...  interesting. First because I suspect the forest is perched on top of a vertical cliff and I always wonder when I'm near the edge if I'm really on solid ground... all this made even more interesting by the fact that the ground here is really flat except where it isn't. Where it isn't, it has "dips" in it the size of small houses. I don't remember these dips from years ago...


This seems kind of odd until I remember exploring with Jeff around the bottom in 2005. We were bushwhacking up through the forest from the #400 trail toward the west side of St Peter's Dome when suddenly the forest disappeared and we found ourselves on top of a huge mudslide. The top was smooth, brown, solidified mud with absolutely NOTHING growing in it. Also odd was that there were no logs imbedded in it either. I'm pretty sure there used to be a forest here and it was totally gone! The slide surface extended maybe a quarter mile above and below us and was at least a hundred yards across. I thought it must be new but Jeff says it's at least a couple years old.


So now I'm thinking about these huge dips and imagining they might be sink holes and the rim area being saturated with rainfall or snowmelt and huge hunks of hillside just losing integrity and flowing down the cliffs into the drainage below. It's dry now of course but Yikes - all in all it doesn't make me feel good about getting close to the edge.


In the mean time, while I'm imagining falling all the way to the bottom, Jeff finds the descent ridge.


Ok, for those who wish to follow, it's pretty hard to describe where the Mystery Trail starts. It's at approximate elevation of 2770. At this time (2006) the Rock of Ages trail is pretty faint here and there is no visible fork. The angle is slightly uphill. There are 30 year old cedars here though for all I know there may be cedars everywhere up here... There's a waypoint in the GPS data that you can download that marks the spot ( 45.58461 N, 122.0402 W if that's any help ). From here go about 200 feet northeast toward the rim and find the descent ridge. In 2006, the descent ridge has a bit of dirt trodden trail on it - don't get used to it because this is the only piece of trail on the rest of the hike.


The Mystery Trail descends from the rim of the Columbia River gorge


Why is it that Sasquatch pictures are ALWAYS out of focus ?


I remember a sunny forest with a pleasant little path winding through thick grass, clover, and ferns. No more. But there is a trail and I'm excited to be here. We follow the crest down for about 400 feet where it ends abruptly at a vertical cliff - the first rappel. There's a cable anchor around a solid looking tree and the 50 foot drop goes free for the last 20 feet or so. Jeff goes first and I follow. When I get to bottom he has gone ahead. I look briefly for the tin "MYSTERY TRAIL" sign I saw in 1983 but I don't see it. (Jeff tells me later that he did see it.) There's no sign of trail and the way is not obvious. The ridge is broad enough now that following the crest is a rule that just doesn't work anymore. I call out and follow Jeff's voice (NE) through a tangle of vine maple and blow down to where we do the second rappel - it's not cliffy here but the forest is really, really steep.


We continue to bushwhack and wander downhill a bit east of north for a couple hundred yards. There's another short, really steep, dirty section that used to be a little scary. It now has small trees growing all over it so that you can throw yourself bodily from one to another. This leads to "The Great Wall of China" - the ridge exits the forest into sunshine and narrows to a knife edge. This spot is spectacular - the trail winds OUT into space anywhere from 2 to 4 feet wide. The sides fall away into the unknown and there are great views here - cliffs everywhere to the right and left and the gorge is straight ahead. About 2/3 of the way along the "Great Wall" there's a rappel sling on the left side. We've never gone that way preferring the short but exposed scramble at the end.


The "Great Wall"


Below here the route if pretty well defined. To the left and above you can see big red scars - presumably the source of the mudslide I mentioned before. Straight ahead you can see the top of St Peter's Dome now and then. We come to a cool little viewpoint - a flat spot perched in the midst... and there's a registry in a plastic pipe ! There were records of only three other parties during the summer though they were interesting: One said he descended with his dog and we're wondering how he did the rappels. Another claims he actually ascended the trail. Until I read that I never would have even considered it!


We continue down into a scree gully that gets steeper and steeper. Just when you start to get nervous there's a large evergreen in the middle with another cable anchor. Here we rap to the notch behind St Peter. We have one more bit of unexpected adventure when my 165 foot rope, which has grown shorter over the years, is not quite enough to get us down. We untie the safety knots and with rope stretch we just manage to reach the last little ledge. From here there's a little traverse and some more steep talus to get to the base of the notch. Be Careful with your group through this whole last section as anything you knock loose will fall straight onto anyone below you. We drink a celebratory beer, watch the sun go down and eyeball the nearly vertical moss covered wall we just rapped and wondered what it would take to climb it. Juevos Rancheros ! Time to beat feet and get out of here.


There's one last steep, loose, moss covered talus slope to negotiate on the west side of St Peters. It's getting dark and it's hard to move fast. The farther down we go the steep it seems to get so we traverse to the right seeking easier ground. The exit used to be a nice forest and babbling brook but all that is gone due to the mud slide. Even the mud slide is "gone" - actually it's overgrown with 8 to 10 foot alder. And the brook is now a deep  ravine cut through mud and cobbles. I get tired of clinging to the sides of St Peter and plunge straight down into the ravine. It's a total mess getting into it and up the other side just to reach the marginally penetrable alder. Headlamps out now. I remember that the mud slide is substantially narrower than it is long so I claw my way across the fall line till I reach the forest. From here the going is open and easy, though dark. We head straight downhill till we find the #400 trail and then head west.


Steep, moss covered talus on the west side of St Peter




We're approaching Horsetail Falls and it's pitch dark. Just when we thought the adventure was over, there are cops driving the road back and forth below us with lights flashing. In the distance, at the parking area there are more. Uh... sh**t, could this be an over reaction to our less than marginally legal parking spot... I did pay all those parking tickets didn't I...  I'm pretty sure that 1978 warrant was quashed... taxes are paid up... GAK! They are calling out to us. We hold our breath and head down. Turns out that there's a family out hiking that hadn't come back so we we're off the hook. Never did find out the end of that story.


Ah... beers and burgers at McMenamins in the Gorge.



  • distance: 6 miles
  • elevation gain: 3170 feet
  • time car to car: 10 hours with breaks

Miscellaneous Stuff:

  • I know of at least three tin "Mystery Trail" signs marking the way. One at the top that used to mark the fork, the one at the bottom of the first rappel, and Jeff says he's seen another.
  • The trail was created in about 1978 at the latest. That's my guess in that I did the trail in 1983 and I estimate that the tin signs had at least 5 years of tree growth wrapped around them.
  • The hike is attributed to Leon G. Darling. I don't know anything about him but his initials "LGD" are also on the tin signs. It's said he had a sense of humor.
  • There is some confusion: The Rock of Ages Trail IS NOT the Mystery Trail.
  • It never even entered my mind that someone would try to or want to do the trail from bottom to top... but at least one person has done that (see the Related Links section below). I think most everyone does it from top to bottom. Interestingly, the register is near the bottom (above the notch behind St Peter's Dome).
  • Bring sling material to make rappel anchors in case the cable aren't there.
  • The recommended approach to The Mystery Trail is to ascend via the Rock of Ages Trail

Rock of Ages trail is behind this sign

Related Links:

My first hike down The Mystery Trail with Jeff in 1983

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

Another TR with nice pics.

Russ Jolley Horsetail Falls trail TR 2008

Russ Jolley Horsetail Falls trail TR 2010

Photo Credits: Chris M.


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Last modified: 01/17/11