Be a Climber, on a Rock, With a Rope

When in the Columbia River Gorge, there are reasons and options for taking the hard way up.

Horsethief Butte. (Angie Brown)

Anyone can get a breathtaking view of the Gorge the easy way: Drive up to Crown Point, park and, voilà, view. You don’t even have to get out of your car.

Or you can work for your panorama, using rope, harness, helmet, and strange, uncomfortable shoes you cram your feet into.

For decades, recreational climbers have been scaling the high points along the Columbia River Gorge and taking in the views. There are climbs with wildly different vantage points and climbs demanding myriad levels of gear, training, and fitness. The three described here are only a small sampling of what’s on offer.

One has rocks to climb and ancient art to see nearby. The second Gorge climbing destination takes you up one of the most prominent rock features alongside the Columbia, with the added bonus that you can startle unsuspecting tourists at the top. The third is marked only by a small pullout on the highway, but a short walk leads to a hidden enclave that can feel like Middle-earth.

Of course, as any fool knows, outdoor climbing can be dangerous. It’s a lot different from gym climbing and requires additional skills. (Many of the routes, in fact, require trad gear, unlike the sport climbs at your local gym.) Portland Rock Gym ( offers short classes to learn how to climb outside as well as guided group and private trips. The local outdoor organization Mazamas ( also offers periodic one-day skill-builders plus in-depth climbing classes. Or try one of several local guide services. Brimstone Boulders ( in Hood River has several certified guides, and all gear is included.

Horsethief Butte

8620 Lewis & Clark Highway

Lyle, Wash.

Rock Climbing - Oregon Summer Horsethief Butte (Washington Tourism Alliance)

This family-friendly destination offers sweeping panoramas up and down the river. It’s part of Columbia Hills Historical State Park, which was considered a sacred spot for local tribes long before Washington was a state. Here, you can set up top ropes for short climbs, or practice placing trad gear in the basalt columns. Kids can have fun scrambling, too, but watch out for poison oak. You might glimpse a faded pictograph. For a real treat, you can see many more pictographs and petroglyphs five minutes away, at Horsethief Lake. For a free guided tour of that park, including the truly mesmerizing rock art called Tsagaglalal, you’ll need reservations. Book with Friends of the Gorge Area Parks (

Beacon Rock

34841 State Route 14

Skamania, Wash.

Rock Climbing - Oregon Summer Beacon Rock (Angie Brown)

If you’ve been in the Gorge, you’ve almost certainly seen Beacon Rock. Maybe you’ve even “climbed” it—that is, walked to the 850-foot summit by tramping up a series of 52 switchback ramps bolted to its side. But you can climb this monolith with a rope on several different multipitch routes. Depending on the route, you’ll grab some great views of the Columbia as you belay your partner up. The climbing is fantastic; so is reaching the summit. We guarantee at least one tourist at the top will exclaim, “Where the hell did you come from?” Descend by strutting down the ramps with your harness full of gear. Just remember to be cool and respect the park’s falcon-nesting closures.


State Route 14, 10-15 minutes past Washougal, Wash., 0.3 miles past Belle Center Road, just west of Milepost 23.75.

If you’re speeding along SR-14 not far from the Cape Horn trailhead and you see a bunch of cars parked rather incongruously along the south side of the road, you’ve found Ozone. Grab your pack and begin the short walk into another world entirely: leafy, cool, and secluded (well, except for when it’s teeming with sport and trad climbers). Some sections of the 800-foot-long cliff have their own Tolkienesque names: Mordor, Shire, Middle Earth. The climbers who developed this area did an awful lot of cleanup work to create their vision, and their efforts paid off. You can’t see the Gorge from all of the routes, but on those that reach the top of the cliff, pause, sit back in your harness, and take in all that this strange world has to offer when you leave the roads behind.

This story is part of Oregon Summer Magazine, Willamette Week’s annual guide to the summer months, this year focused along the Columbia River. It is free and can be found all over Portland beginning Monday, July 1st, 2024. Find a copy at one of the locations noted on this map before they all get picked up! Read more from Oregon Summer magazine online here.

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