A few years ago, I pulled up to Smith Rock in central Oregon and saw a cluster of abnormally shiny silver trailers in the parking lot, looking for all the world like spacecraft newly landed on the moon. It turns out, Reese Witherspoon was filming her adaptation of Portland author Cheryl Strayed's Wild somewhere in the park. This seemed odd. Wild is about Strayed's adventures on the Pacific Crest Trail, and Smith Rock is not on that trail.
So I feel a personal, if not logical, stake in pointing readers toward the actual Pacific Crest Trail, which cuts through Portland's backyard on its rugged and remote journey from Mexico to Canada. Narrowing down the day and multiday hiking trips within a few hours' drive of Portland is a difficult task, so we reached out to Dana Hendricks from the Pacific Crest Trail Association, and to Jared Kennedy from Outdoor Project for a few suggestions.
If you're headed out in the next few months, be a "trail angel," and carry fresh fruit or surprise goodies for any thru-hikers you might meet. Not everyone will be stopping at the Bridge of the Gods; some will complete the trail.
Wherever you end up, be sure to be good citizens of the trail and leave no trace of your presence.
Three miles, out and back
From Portland: Go east on WA-14, the road that runs opposite I-84, and turn onto Rock Creek Drive at the Skamania Lodge. Take the first left onto Foster Creek Road, which becomes Ryan Allen Road, and then turn left onto Red Bluff Road. Turn right at a fork onto Marantha Road, and onto the 7.4 miles of unpaved gravel that leads to the trailhead.
As you drive here, you might be forgiven for wondering what could be worth all this trouble, and it is this: The long and confusing drive means you'll most likely be alone, and then you won't have to share Rock Creek with anyone but thru-hikers. From the parking area, head west. Hitch up your pants to cross Snag Creek. A mostly level trail brings you to Rock Creek, whose little ripples broaden into clear, blue pools just below a little footbridge.
Several rotting signs along the trail indicate the ages of different stands of trees. The short, skinny stands of 40-year-old trees lend some perspective to the enormous downed logs, which must have been over 500 years old when they fell.
Related: Six Oregon Hikes to Celebrate Spring
11 miles, out and back
From Portland: Take WA-14 east and turn left on East Cascade Drive to Bonneville Hot Springs Resort. Many hikers use the large west lot, but be respectful of resort customers.
Table Mountain is one of the most popular hikes in the Columbia River Gorge, known for its spring wildflowers, stunning rock faces, and endless views. We know several professional mountain guides who train for the season by walking up this mountain every morning, in the same amount of time it takes me to drink two cups of coffee and read everything on Digg. From this, we can deduce that Table Mountain is strenuous, and that mountaineering can be just as boring as a desk job.
Using the parking lot behind the Bonneville Hot Springs Resort shortens the traditional route by about four miles. On summer weekends, you can usually find this alternate trailhead, known as the Dick Thomas trailhead, by following the long lines of cars trundling in and out from WA-14.
The PCT runs parallel to the Dick Thomas Trail for a mile or so, and intersects just before a super-steep climb. If you find yourself struggling, imagine trying to climb this trail with 40 pounds of gear on your back. The trail leads you through other entertaining attractions, like a long, ankle-breaking talus—or large, loose rocks—field, and a section next to a sheer 800-foot drop. There are several junctions, but the summit trail is clearly marked.
The struggle is worth it, as the summit features some of the best views in the Gorge. To get an idea of the PCT's scale, it's worth noting that the few minutes it takes to drive from Snag Creek to Table Mountain is over two days' journey by foot.
Five miles total, 4.4 miles for Dry Creek Falls, out and back
From Portland: Take WA-14 or I-84 east. Both ends of the Bridge of the Gods have parking lots; the Oregon side has parking fees.
If you've seen Wild, you'll recognize the Bridge of the Gods as the site where Witherspoon ends her hike, reflecting on all she's accomplished. It is an uncomfortable spot to reflect. There is no shoulder. Cars whip past you within an arm's reach on one side, and a precipitous drop to the Columbia River is on the other. The only PCT crossing that might have been more uncomfortable would be if the trail made you skip and dodge across I-84.
Nevertheless, it is significant for a number of reasons. It's the lowest point on the official PCT. It's where hikers cross the state line from Washington into Oregon. And there's no better place to appreciate the size and power of the Columbia than by seeing it through a grate beneath your feet.
The trailhead for Dry Creek is off the Bridge of the Gods on the Oregon side, across the street from the parking lot. After two miles, the PCT crosses Dry Creek (which never runs dry, by the way) over a wooden footbridge. Follow Dry Creek up a slight ascent to a little cove, full of moss and ferns and the most beautiful waterfall in the Gorge. A bit of leftover damming apparatus serves as the perfect perch from which to dangle your feet over the water while you eat a snack.
Related: An Oral History of the Wild Boot
10 miles, out and back
From Portland: Take OR-26 east toward Government Camp. Turn left onto Timberline Highway to Timberline Lodge. The trailhead is behind the lodge, up a service road.
Timberline Lodge has a number of strikes against it. No matter what time of year you go, it will be crowded. And a trailhead with fine dining, hotel rooms and a glamorous Hollywood history—Timberline served as one of the exterior locations for The Shining—is no one's idea of roughing it.
Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning because weary PCT hikers look forward to a cold beer and a good meal at Timberline with trembling anticipation. Also, the views from the Timberline Trail, which overlaps the PCT for about 10 miles, rival almost anything else the PCT has to offer.
5. Timothy Lake
13-mile loop trail; the PCT section is 3.5 miles
From Portland: Take OR-26 east and south past Government Camp. Turn right on NF-42 and follow signs to Timothy Lake.
This serene mountain lake is one of the most popular attractions in Mount Hood National Forest. But even on the most crowded weekends, you need to walk only 15 minutes into the woods to get away from the herds of sunbathers, swimmers and kayakers.
You can access the Timothy Lake Trail from any one of the lake's five campgrounds; the Timothy Lake Trail intersects with the PCT on the lake's southeastern corner. The Oak Fork campground is the closest, but the ghoulish camp hosts patrol as if they were Javert and the knitting lady from Les Misérables, hunting for anyone accidentally parked in a trailer spot, thirsting for someone to guillotine. It might be worth a longer hike to avoid them.
Traveling north from Oak Fork, you may choose to turn around at the junction where the trails diverge: The PCT travels north, and the Timothy Lake Trail splits to continue around the lake. We encourage you to circle the lake—punctuated, obviously, with snacks and frequent dips in the water—as the entire 13-mile trail is well-maintained, mostly level and highly rewarding.
11.5 miles, out and back, shorter if you turn around at Park Ridge
From Portland: Take OR-224 southeast from Estacada and turn right on NF-46 to a junction with NF-4220. Take NF-4220 east and up an unpaved road to the PCT trailhead.
What else is there to say, except that Jefferson Park is one of the most beautiful sections of the PCT, and one of the most beautiful parks in Oregon? It's where my husband intended to propose, before he accidentally mailed the ring to our house. Broken up into sections, the park can be hiked in one day (with a follow-up soak at Breitenbush Hot Springs), or as a popular weekend backpacking trip.
Follow the PCT south from the trailhead, slowly gaining elevation through the alpine meadows until you ascend to the breathtaking views of Mount Jefferson from Park Ridge. If you're planning to stay the night within spitting distance of one of the park's gorgeous lakes, the U.S. Forest Service now requires advance reservations for the designated campsites. While there is no campsite fee, there is a $6 reservation fee.