As you stand in the parking lot of Multnomah Falls before you walk under the highway to the lodge and path to the misty viewpoints, if you’ve ever taken the time to turn your head slightly left, you might have seen a rocky pinnacle halfway up the side of the Gorge walls. It looks like a landlocked version of Haystack Rock that has been transported from the Oregon Coast to this spot, which is within one of the other remarkable places in Oregon, the Columbia River Gorge. Don’t worry if you’ve missed it, most do when so close to the roaring waters leaping down Oregon’s highest waterfall. But if you are a climber, then perhaps you have wondered about what it is up there.
Little Cougar Rock sits prominently above like a vulture watching the tourons flock below. Above it, but not seen, is Big Cougar Rock and although close up, it too is a large rocky monolith, it is obscured mostly by trees. Both are worthy destinations but only Little Cougar is a technical climb and the subject of this page.
Hardly anyone travels to this region of the Gorge. The only “path” is an old unmaintained trail up a rock slide called the Elevator Shaft (also known in some sources as the Fire Escape). It is a steep, unstable, mossy rockslide much like the start of the Shellrock Mountain hike. Then there follows a path that disappears with such frequency up on the plateau, you may as well be bushwhacking. Following that is an actual bushwhack down the side of Big Cougar Rock and then up wet mossy rocks through vine maples to the base of the rock. If you’ve made it that far, you get to do about a pitch and a half of fifth class climbing on a loose talus ridge to pull yourself up to the top of the pinnacle. But wait, there’s more. The descent takes you to a 110 foot rappel off another wet, mossy basalt cliff. All the while you get to try to avoid the heavy poison oak that guards this sentinel. Have I sold you yet? Yes, it’s more adventure climbing in Oregon.
The views include a couple Washington volcanoes, the Gorge, the parking lot 1700 feet below where you parked and basalt cliffs around you. Even if you don’t finish the climb, you can scramble to the top of Big Cougar Rock above you and take in the sight of Little Cougar. Plus you can enjoy truly one of the rarely visited places in the Gorge.
There is an interesting story about the origin of the name of this pinnacle. Per the Crown Point Country Historical Society's 2006 summer newsletter, the story goes as follows. An early settler in the area in the 1890's named George Pau was trying to climb to the viewpoint of the Columbia River Gorge. He found a tree lodged against the rock which afforded him handholds to do so. As he neared the summit, he spotted three cougar kittens in a den in the rocks. The kittens' mother came out of the trees at him trapping him at the top. The cougar slashed at him and finally lunged for him. Pau used the cougar's momentum to fling it off the cliff. Bleeding from several wounds, he was able to climb down and make his way back to help. The next day, he and some fellow loggers went back, rescued the kittens which were taken to the Portland zoo. After this, it was named Cougar Rock. (Thanks to Don Nelsen for providing this information and a copy of the newsletter.)
This is simple. From Portland, take I-84 east to exit 31 for Multnomah Falls and park in the lot that resides in the median between lanes (it’s a left exit). Walk under the underpass to the lodge area. Your route begins here among the tourists.
(If coming from the west, it is the same exit number and also a left turn as the parking lot sits between the I-84 lanes.)