- Date: February 20, 2016
- Location: Columbia River Gorge
- Start: Horsetail Falls Trailhead
- Distance: 10.2 miles
- Duration: 6 hours 37 minutes (breaks not included)
- Elevation gain: 2940 feet
- Type: Loop
- Map: Green Trails Map 428S: Columbia River Gorge-West
- References: Hiking the Columbia River Gorge by Russ Schneider; Oregon Hikers
If you’re looking for a challenging hike (steep climbs, rock scrambling, exposure, creek crossings, poison oak) that still offers incredible views, beautiful scenery, interesting geological formations, and, surprisingly, solitude, then the Rock of Ages Trail hike is for you!
Despite recent rain, this past Saturday turned out to be a lovely day for a romp outside. We began at the Horsetail Falls Trailhead, where we were greeted with our first gorgeous waterfall (Horsetail Falls) of the day. We continued on towards Ponytail Falls (called Upper Horsetail Falls on the signs). The steep side trail that is the Rock of Ages Trail appears on the left just as Ponytail Falls comes into view. It’s easy to miss if you’re distracted by the falls in the distance.
This portion of the hike is the steepest of the entire 10-mile loop. From the trailhead, you gain nearly 3000 feet before reaching the junction with Horsetail Creek Trail #425 (about 3 miles in). Fortunately, the Rock of Ages Arch (the “go-to”/”must-see” spot on this trail) is less than a mile in! After scrambling over rocks and deadfall, slipping and sliding in the mud, we were rewarded with the arch (and what should’ve been an amazing view of the gorge, including the Rock of Ages and Saint Peter’s Dome, if it hadn’t been for the morning fog). If you’re only up for doing a short hike, you could turn back here and carefully descend the way you came. But if you’re interested in the extra mileage and a more gradual descent, keep reading.
After pausing briefly to enjoy the arch, we continued along the steep ridgeline before breaking out of the trees onto the exposed, rocky spine of the Devil’s Backbone. By then, most of the clouds had cleared, the sky was blue, the sun was shining down, and the gorge could be seen in all its glory. We re-entered the forest, navigating the increasing amount of deadfall, until we finally reached the junction with Horsetail Creek Trail after nearly 3 hours of hiking. Take a right here, then it’s all (gradually) downhill.
Within the next 2 miles, you’ll cross three forks of Horsetail Creek. The heavy rainfall of the past few weeks meant the water levels were high. The first two crossings were fairly simple. The third would’ve been, but the log we used was slippery with remaining snow and situated a few feet above the creek. Following the Horsetail Creek crossings, the trail switchbacks down to Oneonta Creek. Although it’s possible to ford here, I wouldn’t recommend it, especially when water levels are high. We decided to stay on the trail, paralleling the creek until we reached the bridge at the top of Triple Falls.
Cross the bridge here and take in the beautiful view of Oneonta Creek. At this point, you’ll probably start running into more crowds. Triple Falls is an easily accessible (and, therefore, popular) hike. Continue on the trail, passing Triple Falls and one of the Oneonta Falls (upper or middle; I’ve seen people call it both) until you reach the junction with Horsetail Falls Trail #438. Take the right onto #438 to get back to the trailhead. Along the way, you’ll get one last reward: a refreshing walk behind Ponytail Falls.