Reflections on a First Trip: Backpacking the Columbia River Gorge

(Original post date: July 13, 2015)

  • Date: May 23-25, 2015
  • Location: Columbia River Gorge
  • Start: Eagle Creek Campground
  • Distance: 37.4 miles
  • Duration: 3 days
  • Type: Loop
  • Map: Green Trails Map 428S: Columbia River Gorge-West
  • References: Backpacking Oregon by Douglas Lorain

Though not as grand, wondrous, or exotic as many of the places we hope to explore one day, the Columbia River Gorge seems to be our home away from home. It was only right that our first backpacking trip together take place in the gorge. It was a trip of many firsts: backpacking (neither of us had ever done more than camp before this), hanging our food (though it probably wasn’t necessary), carrying a load of more than 12 lbs (each of our packs, with food and 4 liters of water, weighed between 30 and 35 lbs), wearing the same clothes for 3 days, and, of course, disposing of human waste via cathole.

The route we decided on comes from Douglas Lorain’s Backpacking Oregon: From Rugged Coastline to Mountain Meadow. We deviated from the route slightly on the second day after missing a junction, but I personally think this only added to our trip.

Columbia River Gorge Backpacking Trip
Green Trails Map 428S: Columbia River Gorge-West


Day 1: Eagle Creek Campground to Ridge Camp (14.6 miles; 7 hours 20 minutes, breaks not included)

Simply put, day one was ROUGH. Not only were our packs at their heaviest, but the first day also encompassed the greatest mileage and elevation gain. Fortunately, we started hiking around 6 am and were able to make it to Ridge Camp before 4 pm. We even had time along the way for a side trip to Indian Point, a rock spire that can only be reached by way of a narrow and exposed ridge. (We actually attempted this walk back in January, but it was so dangerously windy and painfully cold that we ended up turning around before reaching the ridge.) Ridge Camp itself is a beautifully isolated, single campsite in the woods; the perfect spot to unwind after all that elevation gain. Since it is quite a trek to reach the campsite, we didn’t see a single person the rest of the day.

Breakfast selfie
Walking along the exposed ridge of Indian Point

Scrambling up the spire
View of CRG from Indian Point
Cozy in our little quarter dome tent
Ridge Camp


Day 2: Ridge Camp to Indian Springs Campground (11.3 miles; 5 hours 8 minutes, breaks not included)

Although we didn’t start as early as we did the day before, day two was fairly quiet until we reached popular Wahtum Lake. Despite the lack of sun and the lake being shrouded in mist, there were many people camping around the lake and enjoying the surrounding trails. Wahtum Lake was our planned stop for the day, but since we arrived earlier than expected, we decided to keep going towards Eagle Creek. However, we accidentally missed the side trail that met up with the Eagle Creek Trail. I didn’t realize my navigational error until we were a mile (maybe more) past this trail, so we decided to take the PCT to Indian Springs. Although it would’ve been nice to camp along Eagle Creek, the Indian Springs Campground offered much more solitude since there was only one other group staying there (and they were several sites away from us).

A misty Wahtum Lake
Indian Springs Campground


Day 3: Indian Springs Campground to Eagle Creek Trailhead (11.5 miles; 4 hours 59 minutes, breaks not included)

Eagle Creek is one of my favorite trails in the gorge. It was nice to finish our trip in such a magical section. We got an early start and rewarded ourselves with breakfast once we reached the junction with the Eagle Creek Trail (about 2 miles in). By the time we reached the more popular section of Eagle Creek (i.e. day hikers galore), the sun, which had been obscured the previous two days, was now high in the sky, illuminating the entire canyon. I’ve never hiked Eagle Creek on a sunny day, so, despite the enormous Disneyland-esque crowds, I enjoyed seeing my favorite sections in a different light (literally).

View along Indian Springs Trail

Junction with Eagle Creek Trail
Walking along Eagle Creek
Tunnel Falls
One of my favorite sections of Eagle Creek Trail
Punchbowl Falls
First backpacking trip complete 🙂


Final thoughts:

This trip was the perfect introduction to backpacking for us. The majority of our hike took place on trails we’d hiked on previous occasions (with the exception of Wahtum Lake and Indian Springs), so it was fairly easy to navigate. Although we found it to be physically demanding, it could easily be broken up into 4 or 5 days to become a less strenuous trip. In addition, most of the climbing takes place on the first day and gets easier afterward. The most scenic parts of the trip were probably Wahtum Lake and Eagle Creek (which is why they are so popular and, generally, crowded), but this doesn’t in any way diminish my opinion of the rest of our hike. On the contrary, much of it provided a clear window into what makes the Pacific Northwest such a beautiful place to live. I can’t wait to explore other areas (old and new) of the Columbia River Gorge through backpacking! I encourage other avid CRG hikers to do the same. You will fall in love with the area all over again!

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