Update: As of January 2018, this trail is closed because of the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire. Check the National Forest website for the latest info.
If you’re looking to see what kind of shape you’re in, or start hiking yourself into better shape, go tackle the Nick Eaton Way in the Columbia River Gorge.
It’s part of an 8-mile loop that gains about 3,000 feet — much of it in two particularly steep miles towards the middle. Near the top is one of the more spectacular, and scary, viewpoints in the whole Gorge. But we’ll get to that.
The hike starts at the Herman Creek Trailhead on the east end of Cascade Locks. (You will need a NW Forest Pass to park here, but they now have a way to pay on your phone at YourPassNow.com.) The first part isn’t too exciting, as you pass under some power lines and into the canyon of Herman Creek, which you can hear but hardly see. Stay left and uphill at a junction (for Nick Eaton), and the trail alternates between flat and slightly climbing until you reach a big junction in a flat area. Stay straight ahead here (for Herman Creek Trail), and in a minute or so look for two signs to the Nick Eaton Way. This is about 1.3 miles from the car.
Here is where the fun starts. In just over two miles on Nick Eaton, you will gain a little over 2,000 feet in elevation. For comparison, that would be steeper, on average, than Dog Mountain. And there is basically one view on the way up to provide some variety — unless you’re lucky like I was and spot a black bear. I heard rustilng in the brush above us and looked up just in time to see, maybe 30 yards up the hill, the back half of a bear slowly disappearing behind the ferns. So I have now seen 3.5 bears in Oregon!
When you get to this meadow viewpoint, you’ve gone about 1,500 feet up and have about 500 to go:
At the top of Nick Eaton Way, you will eventually go left, but if you can handle a bit more climbing, stay right and then look for an unofficial but clear trail that goes up to the left. This summits a grassy peak with tremendous views; it’s called Peak 3152 on the maps for its elevation, but it looks better than it sounds.
For a bit of drama, and a unique view into the Gorge, go back down to that junction and follow Ridge Cutoff Trail over towards the river. When you get to Gorton Creek Trail, turn right for about 50 yards and take a steep path down and to the left. This leads out to Indian Point, which is an amazing place — read “terrifying” if you are at all afraid of heights. I have photos in my gallery, below, but this video from my Youtube Channel will give you some idea:
I suggest going back down the Gorton Creek Trail, because it’s longer, and therefore mellower on your knees. It also has some remarkably large trees, and it’s just a lovely, soft, lush hiking experience. Keep an eye out for a few signs of serious trail maintenance, whether is a massive log you walk through (because someone cut it for you) or a recent re-route over a gaping hole in the trail caused by a tree falling.
At the bottom of the hill, you’ll be back at that wide open junction area with the Herman Creek Trail; turn right and you’re just over a mile from the car.
On a personal note, I have to say hello to Kathy S, one of the “lost ladies of Catherine Creek” I met 10 years ago. If you’ve ever heard me give a talk in person, you have almost certainly heard that story; someday I will write it up as a blog post. It was kick to see her again, and to get some recon information from her.
I also found out I’m in pretty good shape, met another friend on the trail, and bumped into two others back at Gateway. So I think this hiking thing is pretty good for you.
All in all, Nick Eaton is a fine hike, and a good alternative to something like Dog Mountain. It has similar elevation with much fewer people and two terrific views all its own.
Here is my Gaia track, which you can see in full here.
And finally, here is my photo gallery (click on the first one to scroll through them all):