Beacon Rock, Columbia Gorge
Outdoors the sun was mostly shining and it felt and smelled more like spring than winter when Andy and I hiked Beacon Rock on February 14, 2015. It was our first hike of 2015 and it was our first visit to Beacon Rock.
Guide books say the Beacon Rock climb is a great introduction to the Columbia Gorge because of the views. And there is no denying that the sights from every spot on the rock are stunning. But what is just as cool as this two mile hike is the rock’s backstory.
I first read that Beacon Rock was the eroded core of an old volcano, which adds a certain Land Before Time mystique to the hike. But recently I came across a counter-argument that suggests Beacon is the remains of basalt lava oozing up through cracks in the earth’s crust about 50-60,000 years ago, which still gives it a mighty intriguing beginning. So after being born out of lava one way or the other, the rock was further shaped by the big floods that powered down the gorge in the last Ice Age.
Fast forward about 58,195 years. Lewis and Clark named the monolith “Beaten Rock” on their way to the Pacific. Their moods must have lifted on the way back because in 1806 the explorers changed the name to “Beacon Rock”. (Maybe they were happier because they were headed home. I choose to believe they were moved by the monumental beauty of the gorge and shamefacedly took back their original sad-sack name).
Just less than 100 years later a man named Charles Ladd purchased Beacon Rock to save it from the Army Corps of Engineers who wanted to blast it apart and use the pieces to create a jetty at the mouth of the Columbia. Fourteen years later, in 1915, Ladd sold it for $1 to Henry J. Biddle on the condition he would preserve the rock somehow.
This is how Biddle fulfilled his promise: from 1915 to April 1918 Biddle and a helper named Tin Can Johnson built an amazing array of trails, ramps, stairs and railings to the top of the rock. Although with a name like ‘Tin Can’ you can just imagine who did most of the back-breaking work. In 1935 the CCC improved the routes and construction from top to bottom.
Get this, Biddle’s heirs offered Beacon rock to Washington State so it could become a park that everyone could enjoy. Demonstrating their time-proven elitist thinking Washington refused the offer. But wouldn’t you know it and oh boy par for the course, Washington reconsidered when they realized that the same offer was going to be accepted by Oregon. Babies.
Had the park become Oregon’s it would have only cost you, the Rocky Scrambler hiker, 5 bucks to climb to the top instead of the $10 Washington charges at their state parks. Money grubbers.
Okay, all kidding aside, the rock is on the Washington side of the river anyway so it makes sense that Washington is its guardian, the price is worth it, and Washington really isn’t all that elitist.
It’s an easy hike up with awesome views due to the effort of Mr. Tin Can and his engineering skills and artistic sensibilities. After the hike we visited Mr. Tin Can’s grave at Cascade Cemetery, just up the road from Beacon Rock. His headstone spells out the detail of his inspiring accomplishment: 4,500 feet of 4 foot wide trail, 22 bridges, and 52 switchbacks.
If you need a wilderness hike, this isn’t the place. It’s a busy spot out in the open. But if you’re looking for views of the incomparable Columbia Gorge, I don’t know where you’ll find better because sightlines are not obscured by the trees as they are on the paths further back from the river.
Because the hike is short and tends towards ‘easy’ you can add numbers to your fit-bit by travelling across the road and hiking around Little Beacon Rock, Hamilton Mountain, and Rodney Falls.