Considering Chinook Trail’s elusive nature, its tentative status, and its less-than-half-marked route, I knew it would take a high degree of versatility to complete this thru-hike. Going into it, I decided to leave nothing off the table and consider anything a possibility. I wanted to go with the flow of the trail, regardless of what it would throw at me: road walking, Cascadia’s misty peaks, the dry heat of Oregon and Washington’s central parts’ high desert, or even two bulls duking it out in the middle of a country road, blocking my passage.
The concept of the Chinook Trail, a footpath through Columbia River Gorge, originated in 1986 with two lifelong hiking companions, Don Canard and Ed Robertson. According to Steve Jones, the president of the CTA (Chinook Tail Association), this trail is a hidden gem in the rough. The Chinook Trail has majestic waterfalls, ridge-top vistas, and forested glens for those who seek them out. Steve feels hopeful that as more hikers become aware of the Chinook Trail, new sections of the trail can continue to be developed for future generations of outdoor enthusiasts. I completely agree, considering my experience walking the trail in July 2022. Considering my previous experience with long trails, I feel as if I was prepared to take on this project. Having tackled the Pacific Crest Trail in 2010, the Appalachian Trail in 2015, the Arizona Trail in 2019, the Oregon Coast Trail in 2021, and a few others, I had every bit of confidence I could adjust to what the trail would throw at me as I hiked about 300 miles around the gorge. There is a general description of the route on the CTA’s website. I resolved to follow the route as closely as it would be practically possible and safe, with one change. I would start and end my trip
at my house in Portland, not needing transportation to or from the trailheads.
Having experience with urban walking in the Portland metro area, doing that sounded like a breeze. That added about 60 miles to CTA’s estimate of the trail’s 240-mile length. On the first day, I crossed the Columbia River from Portland into Vancouver, WA, walked to Battle Ground, WA, and camped in the hiker/biker section of Battle Ground Lake State Park. I was near the trail’s official terminus at Moulton Falls Regional Park. The next three days would prove to be the most remote and demanding – I was relatively deep in the network of trails of Yacolt Burn State Forest, Gifford Pinchot National Forest, a 16
miles section of the Pacific Crest Trail before descending to White Salmon, WA, for a resupply and a zero-day. The PCT portion was my favorite part of the trip; that trail’s magical awesomeness of miles clicking by effortlessly brought back memories of my 2010 thru-hike. Hiking out of Panther Creek Campground, I ran into Northwest Dirt Churners’ own Jameson and Matthew Clover, who shared some coffee with me; this was a super pleasant surprise. My mileage each day was 26, 30, and 30, with a final effort of 40 miles before the zero-day in White Salmon, WA.
A rest day, or “zero day” among thru-hikers, could not have come at a more opportune moment. I had not done back-to-back mileage like those first four days in a few years, so my dogs were barking. On day five, I needed some rest, good food, hydration, and just a little of a local favorite, Everybody’s Brewing beer for mental health was just what the doctor ordered. On the morning of day six, I was ready to continue. From here on out, the route was less defined, as the CTA had not yet solidified where the trail goes or marked it. Sometimes I would have to take backroads or road walk on asphalt, depending on the situation and using my best judgment. From Bingen, WA, I climbed up to Coyote Wall, descending that trail system into Lyle, WA, and hooking up with the Klickitat Trail. The Klickitat Trail is a converted railroad track that traces the Klickitat River, going north along the bottom of a canyon to the town of Klickitat. It was easy hiking; however, the challenge for that day ended up being finding a place to camp, as most lands along the trail were private property. After about 31 miles of walking, past 9 p.m., I was running out of daylight. When a car with a pair of colorful locals pulled over and offered me a ride to the Icehouse Campground (aka Mineral Springs Campground), I gladly accepted. Walking at night, rounding blind corners on a stretch of the trail that ran on the highway, did not feel safe. And the two miles I yellow blazed (in thru-hiker lingo, which means accepting a ride) did not seem extremely important.
From Icehouse Campground, the next day my route took a hard right, heading east through Swale Canyon. That Canyon had familiar easy hiking of the flat Klickitat Trail, but the nature around me switched to the high desert! I could tell I was leaving western Washington and entering the state’s central part. The area became hot and dry, with shorter brush taking the place of the most tall, dark green trees that made the Cascade Range iconic. The new environment reminded me of the desert sections on the PCT or the desert floor on the AZT. The water sources became more dubious since I was near cow pastures. I made sure to filter water using my Sawyer Squeeze, cameling up (drinking a lot at each water source) every time. By the end of the seventh day, I was down to Maryhill, WA, where I got another ride from a good samaritan across the bridge into Biggs Junction, OR, crossing the Columbia one more time. Once again, yellow blazing seemed necessary since that bridge had no pedestrian path. C’est la vie…
From Biggs Junction, the Chinook Trail started resembling some sort of a hybrid of a Camino de Santiago and the Deli Corridor on the Appalachian Trail – I was able to stay in motels or camp at municipal parks, buy food at cafes and restaurants along the way, and have access to grocery stores and get cell phone service. Considering how hot and sunny it was, I covered up as much skin as possible and took electrolytes regularly. My UShood sun shirt and LiquidIV electrolyte powder came in extremely handy.
After crossing into Oregon, my daily mileage shortened – The Dalles was about 23 miles from Biggs Junction, and getting to Hood River from Biggs Junction required a measly 21 miles, with 23 miles remaining to Cascade Locks from there. That strategy made sense since there were few camp opportunities, and staying in motels in town divided the remainder of the trail into manageable daily distances. The one camping exception came in Cascade Locks, a PCT trail town, where I camped at the municipal Marine Park, a courtesy for thru-hikers extended by the town. I did decide to walk as much of the Columbia River Gorge Trail #400 or the paved pedestrian pathways close to the river. The reason for that was that I have hiked or ran most of the higher elevation trails in the Gorge, but never explored the lower routes. My road walking adventures continued on the eleventh day when I set out from Cascade Locks, OR. After walking the northernmost paved piece of the Eagle Creek alternate route that parallels I-84, I earnestly attempted to hike trail #400, an actual trail. It ended up being an overgrown mess, where blackberry and salmonberry stems scratched my legs, slowing me down to a turtle-like pace. As soon as I could, I jumped down to the paved trail. After Multnomah Falls, out of an abundance of caution, wanting to respect nature and state park administration rules, I decided to bypass going up to Angel’s Rest, Chinook Trail’s official terminus. There were still many fire closures in effect, and I figured that the last thing Mother Nature needs is another person schlepping it up there. Instead, I set out to road walk it back to Portland.
Climbing up to Crown Point on the highway is not easy! It was a strenuous climb, that included keeping an eye out for cars, and sweating major bullets in the heat. By the end of the day, I have walked 32 miles into Troutdale. The last, twelfth day was a manageable 15 miles, mainly on the Marine Drive back to my house in Portland. Whew. The Chinook Trail is worth checking out – while it is not as long or famous as the PCT or the AT, it offers a uniquely Pacific Northwest experience. The route goes through interesting and picturesque locations and varied environments, offering a decent opportunity to resupply in towns that are evenly spaced along the way. In addition, a curious thru-hiker will get an opportunity to learn about the natural and human history of each segment of the trail by reading plentiful trailside and municipal placards and signs along the way. And, for those of us pressed for time, committing to a two-week, 300-mile trip is much more
manageable than a multi-month trek of a couple of thousand miles. I hope that the Chinook Trail Association, empowered by public interest and funding, finds a way to develop this trail further shortly.
I knew I was in for a unique experience on the Chinook Trail from the get-go. On the seventh day, I came to a dead stop in the middle of a gravel road outside Goldendale, WA. I watched as two bulls butted heads in front of me, having broken through the fencing of their pen in a fit of testosterone-fueled rage. This encounter was a sobering moment but did not come as a surprise. Why would you not expect something off-the-wall on this young, developing, yet diverse, and sophisticated trail? Mentally ready to be as versatile as possible, I hopped inside the pen, where
the remainder of the fencing provided some barrier between the battling bovine and me. I snuck gingerly along the road behind the fence until well past the bulls. Returning to the road, I continued following the Chinook Trail route. You may as well go with the flow.
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