Thursday, April 12, 2012

Angel's Rest - Columbia River Gorge

Angel's Rest
4.6 miles round trip | 1500 ft elevation gain

Angel's Rest - Columbia River Gorge
Columbia River from Angel's Rest
Angel's Rest: one of the most popular and crowded hikes in the Columbia River Gorge. It is so crowded, in fact, that one of my guide books states that on any given summer weekend you'll likely see more dogs on Angel's Rest than you will hikers on many other gorge trails. It also took me a good twenty minutes of illegal u-turns on the Historic Columbia River Highway to finally find a parking spot near the trailhead. But then again, I arrived shortly after noon- not a good time to find a parking spot anywhere in the gorge on the first dry, sunny Saturday of the year.

But, in my opinion, there are three really good reasons as to why the Angel's Rest hike merits the crowds that it draws weekend after weekend.

First, Angel's Rest is one of the closest "great gorge hikes" to the greater Portland Metropolitan area. It is only 28 miles from downtown Portland (or, about 15 miles east of the metropolitan area city limits) via interstate 84; and the trailhead is a stone's throw from the interstate exit. Literally.

Second, Angel's Rest is a moderate hike with a great reward at the end- therefore it has a wide appeal. You will get a workout on this hike but you don't have to be an athlete to do it. The climb is gradual enough for families with children or those out-of-shape, but also enough exercise to please your habitual hiker. And the reward at the end: the view! Most hikes that lead to panoramic views like the one you'll experience high above the river at Angel's Rest are significantly more difficult and harder to get to, which of course limits the appeal of the hike to the masses (but greatly reduces the crowds). Some of those views come at the cost of extremely steep hikes that exceed 6 miles round trip. But Angel's Rest won't kill you; and the reward you get at the end of this hike is well worth the moderate effort you'll put into it. The view from Angel's Rest is amazing, but there's something that makes it even more amazing...

Third, think of Angel's Rest as a big rocky park / natural jungle-gym. Right before you reach the summit, the trail traverses a rock slide. Chances are you'll see groups of friends lounging on the rocks, conversing, laughing, just straight up hanging out 1,600 feet above the river. That's only the start of it. Keep going just a little further to the summit and you'll see the same thing and more. People sunbathing, couples posing cheek to cheek for photos, families picnicking, thrill seekers bouldering, teenagers texting, hipsters sitting indian-style writing poetry into little beat-up leather journals, you name it. You will feel as though you are in a city park, only you're not- you are at least fifteen miles away from the closest city and you had to break a sweat hiking about two and a half miles just to get here. It left me feeling really quite grateful to have a place to hang out that is this magnificent and unique. Rather than hanging out at home on such a beautiful day, various groups of Portlanders migrate to Angel's Rest to do the exact same thing they'd do in their backyards or front porches! If there is one thing Portlanders do exceedingly well it is loiter outdoors; and Angel's Rest is like the holy land for outdoor loiterers.

Without a doubt my next trip to Angel's Rest will include the intent of spending a few hours loitering at the summit with, hopefully, a picnic, my wife, and some friends. Or at the very least a good book and some beef jerky...

Unlike most blog entries, where I begin at the beginning and work my way to the end, with Angel's Rest I want to start at the end. Here are photos taken around the summit area of Angel's Rest and the rock slide.

Lounging around on the Rock Slide just below the summit of Angel's Rest
Angel's Rest - Columbia River Gorge
Angel's Rest - Columbia River Gorge
Angel's Rest - Columbia River Gorge
The view from Angel's Rest in the Columbia River Gorge and some hikers living on the edge
Now that you've seen the end, let me show you the means to that end: the hike itself.

The trailhead is located just off Interstate 84 at exit 28. There is a paved parking lot, but that fills up very quickly. If you arrive to this trailhead after about 10 a.m. on a weekend during spring, summer, or fall, expect to parallel park on the road or use the second "spill-over" parking area located not far from the main parking area.

Throughout the hike itself you will experience a few different kinds of forest. Right away, you will experience a very typical Northwest forest of tall mossy trees, ferns, and little white trillium blossoms.

The first leg of the Angel's Rest Trail - Columbia River Gorge
Trillium - Angel's Rest - Columbia River Gorge
Angel's Rest - Columbia River Gorge
Shortly after passing a view of Coopey Falls and the bridge over Coopey Creek, you will enter into a different kind of forest. This forest burned in a wildfire in the early 1990's, and you will notice that the forest here feels much more "second-growth" than the old-growth forest you just hiked through. Also, you'll start to notice some blackened trees, some of them dead, some alive, that survived the wildfire. One thing you will also notice is that it gets a lot sunnier and warmer through this younger, shorter forest. You will, however, still hit a few more patches of tall, shady, old-growth forest that was spared by the fire along the way.

The second leg of Angel's Rest trail - notice the blackened, dead trees to the left that burned in the 1991 fire
Angel's Rest - Columbia River Gorge
At around the half-way point you will round a corner to the right and get a glimpse of Angel's Rest's rocky summit above in the distance. At this point the forest will change yet again. The hike becomes a lot drier, open, and sunnier, which feels more like hiking in Southern California than Western Oregon. You will likely start to notice more and more of the blackened tree trunks mentioned above too. The hike emerges out of the forest and becomes a walk along a ledge with many switchbacks. You will also begin hiking among a thick brush and the bare, pointed tops of trees that survived the fire. At this point you will start to get great views of the Columbia far below, but don't stop and admire the views yet, they get much much better at the top.

The third leg of Angel's Rest Trail - Columbia River Gorge
Angel's Rest - Columbia River Gorge
Angel's Rest - Columbia River Gorge
Once you hit the rock slide (and trust me, you'll know it when you get there) you are almost to the summit. As much as you'll want to stop and take a load off for a moment I wouldn't recommend it. Keep going, you're almost there; and the summit has more than enough places to sit, relax, enjoy the view, converse, contemplate, climb around, eat lunch- whatever floats your boat.

Path through the Rock Slide - Angel's Rest - Columbia River Gorge - an adventurous Portlander's loitering spot
Once you get to the summit you have entered a huge natural park/playground. Have fun, relax, take a load off, have a picnic- as long as it's legal and respectful to your fellow hikers, do whatever you want up here! I only recommend two things: 1) if you're climbing on the rocks please be careful: it's a long, deadly way down if you were to fall in some areas. There is a big difference between being adventurous and being stupid; 2) take your time up on Angel's Rest- don't be in a huge hurry to get back to your car. Savor the time you have up here.

If you're a local, be thankful that you have the option of doing something this extraordinary on any given weekend- having grown up in rural Illinois myself, I can safely say that the majority of Americans may get the chance once or twice (if that) in their lives to experience something similar to this, but we locals can do this every weekend if we so desired. I, for one, felt the need to live in an environment that gave me the ability to experience outdoor adventures like this, hence why I now call Portland home.

Plenty of perilous photo opportunities at Angel's Rest - Columbia River Gorge
Now, from the summit of Angel's Rest you have three options: 1) return the way you came back down to your car; 2) continue on to Wahclella Falls (which I'd only recommend doing if you had another car parked down at Wahclella- a round trip would be quite a draining hike); or 3) continue on to Devil's Rest. If you continue on to Devil's Rest be prepared to climb some more, as you'll gain another 700 ft, roughly, of elevation. But, the hike to Devil's Rest has the advantage of being significantly less crowded. Curious to compare Devil's Rest to Angel's Rest, I decided to make the extra effort and continue on, albeit unsuccessfully.

Why unsuccessfully?

Well, my old Teva hiking boots blew out completely after my hike of Coyote Wall a few weekends ago. The tread, already loosening from lots of hiking wear, had finally begun to completely separate itself from the rest of the shoe. Knowing that I could use a new pair of hiking footwear anyway, I decided to lay the Tevas to rest and get a new pair, ultimately deciding on an extremely comfortable, very breathable, non-water-resistant pair of Vasque trail runners. These are dry/warm-season shoes. I can actually feel a breeze through the tops of them. When nearing Devil's Rest, I came to a point where I came across patches of snow. Then more snow. Then ultimately, the trail itself cut through wet, slushy snow with only a few boot tracks imbedded into it.

Not wanting to deal with wet feet for the remainder of the day, and realizing that Devil's Rest was not going anywhere, I decided to save my trek to Devil's Rest for another day, pulled a 180 in the snow, and started back the way I came. I will say this, however: the trail to Devil's Rest was beautiful. It was starkly different than the main Angel's Rest trail in that I did not meet a single other hiker the entire time I spent on the trail. It was the first time I had experienced sheer solitude and silence all day. And the forest that you walk through is magnificent, mossy old-growth with a soft, pine-needle floor. Even if you don't make it all the way to Devil's Rest, a quick side trip up into this area from Angel's Rest is highly recommended, if only to escape the crowds and noise momentarily and enter a beautiful old forest.

The following photos are of the path that joins Angel's Rest to Devil's Rest, ending at my snowy final destination for today's hike. Don't you worry, reader, I will be back one day in the near future to photograph Devil's Rest.

The woods from Angel's Rest to Devil's Rest - Columbia River Gorge
The woods from Angel's Rest to Devil's Rest - Columbia River Gorge
Snow on trail to Devil's Rest- Columbia River Gorge


  1. I love {LOVE!} the pictures and still need to go back and read everything. I'm planning on moving to Portland and can not wait to get on the trails! I don't think you will find me doing what the person in the picture "The view from Angel's Rest in the Columbia River Gorge and some hikers living on the edge" was doing! I have a similar shot of a person in the Grand Canyon. I love your blog & photos!

  2. Favorite quote? "If there is one thing Portlanders do exceedingly well it is loiter outdoors; and Angel's Rest is like the holy land for outdoor loiterers."

    Great writing.

  3. hey first time reading these but nice job! i did that one last weekend on the 14th and agree completely with what you say in this. although one thing is that while the traffic for this hike is very heavy on weekends, you don't feel crowded. Overall great job and I'm looking forward to more entries! And if you get around to it, you should try Dog Mountain, I did that one the next day and it is absolutely amazing! Just hold off until May so you can catch the flowers in bloom.


  4. Thanks Bryce! And yes, Dog Mtn coming up. I was going to do it this last saturday but had to spend the first half of the day working. If I tackle Dog Mtn I want to spend the whole day out there, not blaze it quick in a half day. But yes, Dog Mtn. post coming up in the very near future. And thanks for your comment!