The Cape Horn Trail, with its stunning views of the Columbia River Gorge, offers an accessible and family-friendly hiking experience that captures the essence of the region’s natural beauty. When it comes to hiking destinations, the Pacific Northwest offers an abundance of natural treasures, but the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area is one of my favorites.
In this comprehensive blog post, I’ll provide all the information you need to make the most of your visit to this classic hike of Washington. From detailed trail descriptions to tips for a smooth hike, I’ll ensure you’re well-prepared to explore the Cape Horn Trail. Whether you’re seeking a classic hike, a dog-friendly adventure, or simply the best views of the Columbia River Gorge, Cape Horn has it all.
Let’s embark on this breathtaking expedition and discover the story behind its conservation. Get ready to experience the magic of Cape Horn Trail as we reveal its wonders, step by step.
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Breathtaking Columbia River Gorge Views on the Cape Horn Loop Trail
From breathtaking vista, cascading waterfalls, and impressive geological features, Cape Horn Loop Trail really has it all when it comes to a Columbia River Gorge Hike. This blog has everything you could possibly need to know about this trail, from how to access it, what to pack, what to expect, and some commonly asked questions about the trail. I even discuss if the trail should be considered a “100 Classic Hike of Washington”.
Follow along! I am glad that you’re here.
General Trail Stats
Region: Columbia River Gorge
Distance: 7.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,350 ft
Time: 3.5+ hours
When to go: Year-round
Dogs Allowed?: None
Date Completed: November 13th, 2022
Accessing Cape Horn
Before you set out on your adventure along the Cape Horn Loop Trail it’s essential to have all the information you need to make your journey as smooth as possible. In this section, I’ll guide you through everything you need to know before you start your trek.
Cape Horn is located on the ancestral lands of the Cowlitz, Confederated tribes of the Siletz, Confederated tribes of Grand Ronde, and the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla tribes. We are grateful for the stewards of this land past and present. We are honored to be and recognize that we are guests on this land.
Getting to the Trail
If you’re coming from Vancouver, Washington or Portland, Oregon, the Cape Horn Trail is just a short drive away, making it a perfect day trip or weekend adventure. Here’s how to get to the trailhead:
From Vancouver, take Highway 14 East for 26.5 miles. The drive along the Columbia River is full of breathtaking views to prepare you for an amazing hike. After about 30 minutes of driving, turn left on Salmon Falls Road and then take the first right onto Canyon Creek Road. Drive 300 feet and Salmon Falls Park and Ride will be on your right. That’s where you’ll park your car. After you park, you’ll walk back over Salmon Falls Road to access the trailhead.
Get there early! On weekends the lot fills up very quickly.
The trailhead offers a pit toilet and some garbage cans along with some signage about the history of the Cape Horn Trail and the peregrine falcons that nest there.
Season to Visit
One of the remarkable features of the Cape Horn Loop Trail is its ever-changing character throughout the seasons. Each time of the year offers a unique and captivating hiking experience. It’s also nice to have a trail that is accessible year-round. Let’s explore what to expect in each season:
Spring brings a burst of life to Cape Horn. This is the season of vibrant wildflowers, as the trail comes alive with colorful blooms. While the warmer weather invites hikers to embark on the full loop, it’s important to note that some sections may still be closed due to nesting peregrine falcons. Be sure to check for trail updates before planning your spring hike.
Summer is the prime time for hiking Cape Horn Loop Trail. The trail fully opens up, offering hikers the opportunity to explore the entire loop. The lush greenery of the surroundings is in full bloom, and the canopy of big leaf maples provides ample shade. This season provides the best conditions for enjoying the sweeping views and taking in the stunning vistas of the Columbia River Gorge. Make sure to bring plenty of water and sun protection, as the sun can be intense during this season.
Autumn transforms the Cape Horn Trail into a symphony of colors. The leaves of the maples, sword ferns, and vine maples transition into a brilliant display of reds, oranges, and yellows. It’s no wonder that Cape Horn is often touted as one of the best fall color hikes in the Columbia River Gorge. The cooler temperatures make for a comfortable hiking experience, and the trail’s beauty in fall is nothing short of breathtaking. Cape Horn is one of the best trails for fall colors in the Columbia River Gorge.
Though less popular than the other seasons, winter on Cape Horn Loop Trail offers a different kind of magic. The crisp air and the occasional dusting of snow create a serene and tranquil atmosphere. While the full loop may be less accessible during winter, some sections are still open for those seeking a quieter, snow-covered adventure. Be prepared for cooler conditions and check trail conditions to ensure a safe hike.
No matter which season you choose for your Cape Horn adventure, you’ll be greeted with captivating beauty and a trail that never ceases to amaze. Whether it’s spring wildflowers, the lush greenery of summer, the vibrant hues of fall, or the serene winter landscape, Cape Horn Loop Trail has something to offer year-round.
This trail does not need a parking pass or entry pass!
I hope this helps prepare you for making your way out to Cape Horn in Columbia River Gorge! Not to be confused with Cape Horn in Chile!
What to Pack for Cape Horn
The trail has a variety of terrain, from dirt, to rocks, to road, so a good quality pair of hiking boots is a must! I stand by my Oboz Bridgers, but if you prefer trail runners, Altra trail runners are great too.
Let’s look at what clothes to wear for our venture!
I hope this helps you feel prepared for your hike! Now let’s dive into what to expect when you hit the trail.
Hiking Cape Horn Loop Trail
The Cape Horn Loop Trail offers an unforgettable hiking experience, filled with stunning viewpoints and natural wonders. Let’s break down the journey into several key sections to help you make the most of your adventure:
Your Cape Horn adventure begins at the trailhead, conveniently located at the Skamania County Public Transit Park and Ride. The initial leg of the journey takes you through a dense canopy of big leaf maples, sword ferns, and vine maples, creating a serene and shaded path.
As you ascend, you’ll be rewarded with your first breathtaking overlook, providing panoramic views of the Columbia River Gorge at Pioneer Point. There is a lower lookout that many people will stop at, but Pioneer Point offers impressive sweeping views of the gorge. From this view Angel’s Rest and Coopey Falls.
The trek to this point includes most of the elevation gain of the trail! Gaining just under 900ft in 1.5 miles, you have almost gained half of the elevation in one fourth of the trail length.
Cape Horn Lookout
As you continue on the trail, the trail widens and you continue to gain some elevation. Eventually you will reach a gravel road and will end up passing by some privately owned land. Wave to the horses and continue on your journey. The trail changes from being owned by the Forest Service to the Friends of the Gorge Land Trust. You will learn about this at the Nancy Russell Overlook.
The Nancy Russell Overlook gives hikers impressive views of Hamilton Mountain, another Classic Hike of Washington, and Beacon Rock, one of my favorite hikes on the Columbia River. Stone seating and an inviting atmosphere greet you at this scenic spot.
It’s an excellent place to pause, catch your breath, and savor the breathtaking gorge views that unfold before you.
Hiking to Windblown Fir Viewpoint
As you journey further, the trail unveils the Windblown Fir Lookout. As you continue to lose elevation, you will be surrounded by douglas-firs. Eventually reaching Highway 14, you will walk under a tunnel to pass under the highway. Cross a bridge over a bubbling creek to see the upper viewpoint of Cape Horn Falls.
As you continue to hike you will eventually reach the turn around point for the closure for peregrine falcon nesting season. This occurs between February 1st and July 15th. If you continue on you will reach Windblown Fir Viewpoint just after 4.2 miles.
Cigar Rock Viewpoint
A true highlight of the trail, the Cigar Rock Viewpoint offers a unique perspective on the basalt pillars rising above the river. Continuing to make the loop around the trail, switch back down some of the impressive cliffs of the trail.
Before reaching the viewpoint, you will cross through the Cape Horn Railroad Tunnel Viewpoint. The Cigar Rock Viewpoint gives hikers grand views of large basalt structures.
Take a rest here before gaining some elevation before Cape Horn Falls.
As you continue your hike, not long after Cigar Rock you’ll encounter the Cape Horn Falls lower viewpoint, a majestic waterfall surrounded by lush vegetation.
This section of the trail may be narrow, steep, and rocky, so be sure to exercise caution and utilize hiking poles or the railings on the bridge for stability. The enchanting waterfall views provide a refreshing break during your adventure.
Your journey concludes with a peaceful walk along Cape Horn Road. This 1.3-mile gradual uphill walk offers expansive views of cliffs and pastoral fields, complete with goats and cows. Be mindful that this is a private road and to be respectful of the people’s homes you will be walking past.
At the trail sign, take a left and use the new pedestrian underpass beneath Highway 14 to avoid the bustling road, ensuring a safe and enjoyable finish to your hike.
As you hike Cape Horn Loop Trail, you’ll witness the incredible transformation of the landscape, from dense forest canopies to sweeping Gorge vistas, waterfalls, and tranquil farmland. Each section of the trail offers its unique charm and breathtaking views, making your journey an adventure to remember.
Commonly Asked Questions About Cape Horn
Before embarking on your adventure along the Cape Horn Trail in the Columbia River Gorge, it’s only natural to have some questions.
To help you plan your hike with confidence, I have compiled answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about this iconic trail.
Where is Cape Horn?
Cape Horn is located within the magnificent Columbia River Gorge, a renowned natural wonder in the Pacific Northwest. Specifically, it’s situated along the Washington side of the Gorge, near the town of Washougal.
The main parking area and trailhead can be found at the Salmon Falls Park and Ride, which is at the intersection of Salmon Falls Road and Highway 14. This strategic location makes it easily accessible from Vancouver, Washington, and Portland, Oregon, making it a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts from the Columbia River Gorge region.
Is the Cape Horn Hike Hard?
The difficulty of the Cape Horn hike largely depends on your hiking experience and fitness level. It’s considered a moderately challenging trail with some steep sections, particularly on the ascent to Pioneer Point and the switchbacks leading to the Cape Horn Lookout.
However, it’s important to note that the trail is well-maintained and has become more accessible over the years, thanks to the efforts of volunteers. With proper preparation, suitable hiking gear, and a moderate level of physical fitness, hikers of varying skill levels can enjoy this trail.
How Long Does It Take to Hike the Cape Horn Trail?
The time it takes to complete the Cape Horn Trail varies based on your pace and the stops you make along the way to savor the views. On average, hikers typically spend around 3 to 4 hours to complete the entire loop, including stops at various viewpoints and natural attractions. The full loop, which takes you through Pioneer Point, Windblown Fir Lookout, and Cigar Rock Viewpoint, is approximately 7 miles in length.
Keep in mind that individual hiking speeds and the season can impact the duration of your hike, so it’s advisable to allow some extra time, especially if you plan to take in the scenery and enjoy the journey to its fullest.
Should you hike the trail clockwise or counterclockwise?
Whether you hike the Cape Horn Trail clockwise or counterclockwise depends on your preference and the season.
The trail can be hiked in either direction, and both offer unique perspectives and challenges. Some hikers prefer the counterclockwise direction, starting with a steep climb to Pioneer Point and ending with a gradual descent along the road.
Others prefer the clockwise direction, which offers an initial gradual ascent along the road before steep switchbacks leading to Pioneer Point.
Consider your fitness level, the current trail conditions, and your desire to tackle the steeper sections when choosing your preferred direction.
Do you have to hike the entire Cape Horn Loop?
No, you do not have to hike the entire loop to enjoy the Cape Horn Trail. The trail offers flexibility for hikers of varying abilities and time constraints. You can choose to hike only a portion of the trail, such as the section leading to Pioneer Point or Nancy Russell Overlook, which provides rewarding experiences and stunning views without completing the full loop.
Tailor your hike to your preferences and available time.
Is the Cape Horn Trail Open Year-Round?
The Cape Horn Trail is open year-round for hiking, making it accessible to outdoor enthusiasts in all seasons. However, it’s essential to note that a seasonal closure is typically in effect from February 1st to July 15th for the lower section of the trail due to nesting peregrine falcons. During this closure period, hikers can still explore the upper section of the trail, providing a different but equally captivating experience.
Always check for any updated trail conditions or closures before your visit.
I hope this answers some of your burning questions about Cape Horn!
Should Cape Horn be a 100 Classic Hike of Washington?
I am hiking all “100 Classic Hikes of Washington”. But the question is, Should Cape Horn be a 100 Classic Hike of Washington?
While I thoroughly enjoyed the Cape Horn Loop Trail in the Columbia River Gorge, I do not believe that it should be a Classic Hike of Washington. The views were impressive and sections of the trail were well taken care of, but I hesitate to include trails that involve so much hiking along private roads and in areas of fragile nesting environments.
There are so many great trails along the Columbia River Gorge that offer amazing views, this one left me wanting more.
Let me know in the comments if you think Cape Horn should be a 100 Classic Hike of Washington!
If you’d like to complete your own 100 Classic Hikes journey, you can purchase the book here.