Historic landmark offers gently upward hike, sweeping Columbia vistas
Story by Michael O. Perry
Photos by Perry Piper and Marty Freeman • 1915 Postcard form Michael Perry's private collection
Next time you have a free day and the weather is clear, pack a picnic, drive up the Columbia Gorge and take the hike up Beacon Rock in Skamania County. It’s 35 miles east of Vancouver on SR14. The area is rich with natural beauty, geology, culture and history. For many, Beacon Rock itself symbolizes it all.
Beacon Rock is commonly thought to be a lava plug of a long-dormant volcano from the Pliocene Age (2.5 to 5 million years ago), but the olivine basalt “plug” is actually just 50,000 to 60,000 years old and is one of several “necks” protruding from a great lava dike extending north for about two miles. Beacon Rock was exposed 12,000 to15,000 years ago when the great Missoula Floods eroded away the softer material surrounding the harder basalt lava. Those same floods created the Columbia Gorge and filled the Willamette Valley with silt.
Fast forward: Several millenia later
After departing St. Louis, Missouri, on May 14, 1804, the Lewis and Clark Expedition’s journey to the Pacific Ocean was nearing an end on October 31, 1805. William Clark wrote in his journal: “a remarkable high detached rock Stands on the Stard Side near the lower part of this island... about 800 feet high and 400 paces around, we call the Beaten Rock.” In April 1806, on their return trip, the Corps of Discovery referred to the gigantic lava outcropping as “Beacon Rock.” They camped at its base on their way to and from the coast.
Why the name change?
Perhaps the men had felt “beaten” on the trip west after they traversed the stupendous rapids at Cascade Locks (later submerged when Bonneville Dam was built in 1938), whereas they were eager to return home the following spring and considered the rock to be a “beacon,” visible from 20-miles downriver as they approached it from the west.
Beacon Rock was renamed several times over the following 35 years as fur trappers, explorers, and settlers visited the area. It was called Inoshoack Castle, Pillar Rock, The Castle, McLeod’s Castle, and Castle Rock between 1811 and 1857. After that, the name Castle Rock would stick for the next 60 years. In 1850, a portage road had been built around the Cascade Rapids and travelers passed next to Beacon Rock. In 1901, three adventurous men were the first to climb the 848-foot tall rock.
Beacon Rock was almost lost to developers when, in 1904, plans called for blowing it up to obtain material to build the jetties at the mouth of the Columbia River. Evidence remains of three tunnels dug at the base of the south side to plant explosive charges. Charles Ladd didn’t want to see the rock destroyed, however, so he bought the landmark before demolition got started. In 1915, Ladd sold the rock to Henry J. Biddle for $1, with the stipulation that it be preserved. Biddle’s sole reason for buying the rock was to build a trail to the top. Interestingly, Henry Biddle was related to Nicholas Biddle, the editor of the first edition of the Lewis & Clark journals published in 1814.
One of the first things Biddle did was petition the United States Board of Geographic Names to restore the name as Beacon Rock; they did so in 1916. The trail, constructed from 1915 to 1918, is 4,500 feet long and four feet wide and is paved, with a hand railing all the way to the top. The original 22 wooden bridges have been replaced with steel. The maximum grade is just 15%, so it is easy for most people to make the ascent.
After the trail was completed in 1918, Henry Biddle maintained it for public use without charge. He died in 1928 and in 1932 his children donated the rock to the state of Washington under the condition it be kept open to the public as a state park. Initially, state officials declined the offer, but quickly changed their minds when the state of Oregon showed interest.
The view from the top is well worth the trip. Unless you hold a Washington State Annual Discover Pass, users pay $10 to park at the base of the rock. Henry Biddle might have had a problem with paying 10 times what he paid for the rock just to park there today, but most visitors think it’s worth it. I’m sure you will, too.
Have you hiked in the Columbia Gorge? Visited Skamania Lodge? Share you tips for traveling there by adding a comment in the space below.
Click here to read about Attractions near Beacon Rock
Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum