This is the most exciting hike I've ever had the pleasure to do in the Gorge. I would not recommend it for kids, anybody out of shape, people who fear heights, dogs, or for a rainy day trip. This hike is about as far as one can push the term "hiking" before getting into something more intense. Indeed, there are times when the path is about 4 feet wide with considerable exposure on both sides, as well as numerous locations that require hands to get up and down. A few spots almost certainly qualify as class 3.
The rewards for the effort required to gain over 3500 feet without much of a trail are:
* Killer views into upper Eagle Creek canyon
* Jaw dropping views almost straight down at the Columbia River
* A heck of a workout
* A chance for non-climbers to try their hand at some light climbing
* A thrill a minute
* The chance to visit a part of the Gorge that doesn't get much traffic
* Wonderful wildflowers in season
***Again: I can't stress this enough. This hike requires comfort with heights, an ability to focus, stamina, route-finding skills, and a fair ammount of physical strength to stay on solid ground***
I-84 Eastbound: Take Exit #41 and turn right. Very quickly one will see a parking area for Eagle Creek (don't go to the parking area at the end of this road that accesses the main Eagle Creek trail). Park at the lower parking area near where the campground host setup is.
I-84 Westbound. Take Exit #40, turn around, get on I-84 Eastbound, and follow the directions above.
Finding the trailhead is one of the trickiest parts of the hike. Walk east up the paved campground road to signed Gorge Trail 400. Follow the this trail roughly southeast as it climbs to the top of a cliff above the highway below. There is a fence between the trail and the cliff through this area. A bit more hiking, and the trail starts to head noticeably downhill. Just before the downhill, take the fork to the right. Follow the path around the edge of the campground, past an old amphitheater. Between campsites 5 and 6 there is a metal sign for Buck Point Trail.
Hike up this trail about 0.4 mile through forested switchbacks to a clearing and some powerlines. After the powerlines the trail heads back into the trees for a few minutes before emerging at a mossy rockfall area below some nice cliffs. The path now switches back up the rockfall fairly steeply. From this point forward the bulk of the hike is on or near the apex of the ridge separating the Eagle Creek and Ruckel Creek drainages. Poison oak
becomes a pretty constant concern for the remainder of the trip, as well. At times when use trail is not on the crest of the ridge, it often is about 9 inches wide, with more or less a cliff below you and a cliff immediately above you, leaving not a lot of space to operate.
There is a decent use trail that is more or less obvious for the entirety of this trip. If the way becomes less than obvious, find the narrowest part of the ridge and keep heading up, up, up. The climb is essentially relentless, and it gains about 3500 feet before reaching Benson Plateau. Despite the climb and the constant threat of poison oak and taking a slip and dive off of the ridge, this hike/scramble is really pleasant. The views are unreal, and the forest that the way passes through is very nice.
Notable features along the path are The Catwalk, which is an exposed traverse that is only a few feet wide, and the numerous oportunities to get one's hands dirty while moving up and down a few nearly vertical rockpiles. In season, the wildflowers are outstanding, and include such standards as Indian paintbrush and bleeding hearts, as well as more rare flowers like fairy slipper orchids.
After about 4 total miles of hiking/scrambling up and up some more, (with one or two heart-breaking downhill sections), the ridge becomes broader but steeper and tackles the final climb through dense, mature forest up to Benson Plateau. The Plateau marks the border of the Columbia Wilderness.
Ruckel Creek cuts through Benson Plateau, and is a good place to get some additional water before heading down. One can return down Ruckel Ridge, or make a loop by descending Ruckel Creek Trail. If one chooses the latter option, I recommend trekking poles to save the knees on that particularly brutal trip down.
Essential Gear and Skills
Good shoes, plenty of food to keep your mind sharp, and water are essential. This is a ridge hike and doesn't have any access to water until Benson Plateau. While the majority of this hike are probably considered class 2, there are some sections that could likely be called class three, and unless one has great balance, will require (or at least be significantly aided by) the use of hands on rocks, roots, and tree trunks. Brink trekking poles if you plan to descend Ruckel Creek Trail. I would leave them at home for Ruckel Ridge, though. Seems to me like something that would just get in the way.
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