We found the mother of all Columbia River Gorge hikes. That’s right, as far as gorge hikes go, this is a big one.
Wanderlusthiker asked if someone would climb Mount Defiance and report back on whether it’s infamous difficulty was all it has been hyped up to be. If you’re not familiar with this hike, better pull up a camp chair and get acquainted.
The summit of Mt. Defiance is considered the highest point in the Columbia River Gorge, and one of the most challenging day hikes in the area. So it has that going for it.
The Mt. Defiance-Starvation Loop hike is a 12 mile round-trip leg-buster that some utilize as training for real mountain climbing. The Mazamas do it.
You start from Starvation Creek Park at 130 feet above sea level and ascend 4,840 feet to the summit, then you come back down. This gain is comparable to that of Timberline Lodge to the summit of Mt. Hood.
Is there anything more to this hike than its grueling overtones? There is but you have to pause and stop long enough to catch your breath to take notice. There are a few small water falls along the early section of the counter-clockwise section of the route. Most of the trail is shaded by large thick trees. The occasional gap allows views out in to the gorge and the surrounding landscape. However, there are shorter, less strenuous hikes that offer up much more spectacular vantage points.
Getting to the trailhead is easy, completing the entire 12 mile, loop hike is a challenge.
I won’t belabor the elevation gain and mileage of this route because once you’re on the trail you’re either prepared for it or you aren’t. Expect long, consistently steep terrain with questionable footing in some sections. And don’t expect this trail to go easy on you with guard rails and convenient rest areas like some hikes.
Common questions might be – Is it better to approach the trail in a clockwise or counter clockwise direction? Can I avoid challenging sections by going up and down the same section of the trail instead of completing the entire loop?
The puzzling and seemingly contradictory answer to all of those questions is simply – yes. The difficulty level is neither increased or decreased by selecting one direction or one single route over the other. That being said, on the clockwise section of the loop, Warren Lake and a nearby campground offer a great overnight base of operations for overnight trips and is only 1/3 of a mile from the trail junction up to the Mt. Defiance summit.
I strongly recommend a pair of sturdy trekking poles for hikes involving significant gains in elevation. Your legs and knees will thank you. Other than that, I brought along a small day pack to carry a lunch, snacks, and water.
This should be treated as a full day hike. A hardy lunch and lots of snacks will make your stomach a happy camper for this hike. 2 liters of water was simply not enough for this hike. On a hot day the body will sweat profusely as it pushes up out of the gorge. I recommend at least 3 liters of water or more in order to stay adequately hydrated in the spring and summer months.
There are no reputable refill sources along the trail, but the park has a water fountain near the bathrooms. The unverified water sources that do exist along the trail are the handful of waterfalls roughly a half mile from the trailhead and Warren Lake. I typically opt not to use water from sources that appear stagnant or do not have an obvious outlet.
Yeah, that there? That is the highest point on Mount Defiance. You’re looking at it. It’s private property, which means I couldn’t summit it without risk of getting tased. Oh, you thought there would be awesome views from the top? Keep reading.
After several grueling hours of climbing through extraordinary Pacific Northwest greenery laced in to the steep walls of the gorge, you emerge in a clearing where you’re greeted by these radio tower-looking jokesters. Yeah, that’s right, you get to climb from the bottom of the gorge to an elevation of 5,584 feet over the course of 6 miles and sit next to several massive towers of gray steel. Oh, and it hums too.
Nothing says epic mountain time like views of mountains from the tops of other mountains. This view is not bad, but it’s not great either. You’ll just have to wait and see the absolutely breathtaking snapshots of Mt. Hood from Lookout Mountain to see how much shame can be brought down on this picture.
Pathetic. I might as well be fiddling around with a camera phone and snapping macro shots of boot cleaners.
The biggest issue is that the elevation isn’t high enough to be above timber line, which means most of the spectacular views that you could get are hidden behind trees. But no worries, with a little scouting there are a few vantage points that you can sit and stare at for days.
Let’s get down to business. If you’re looking for a challenge that folks say is great training for Mt. Hood then by all means put on some pants and roll on up to Starvation Creek trailhead. It has bathrooms, a drinking fountain, and a park nearby. There’s plenty of signage indicating where to go throughout the entirety of the hike. Just stay on the trail and you’ll be fine.
The sign placement along these trails is adequate but wasn’t good enough for some folks. Fortunately, somebody thought to bring a crayon and scrawled some additional facts on this sign.
I said this was the “hangriest” hike in the gorge. What does that even mean? It’s a combination of hunger and anger, high roller. Now pay attention!
The hunger comes from the tremendous caloric burn that this hike demands from the human body. I needed 250+ calories per hour just to avoid hunger pangs. Even still, I came home and devoured a box of chicken pad Thai, a leftover pint of ice cream, several handfuls of honey dijon kettle chips, and 7 glasses of water.
The rage comes from the steep grade over the course of several miles. It’s one thing to be on a mountain like Hood or St. Helens staring down at the rest of the world like Thor, but when you’re view is blocked by trees and thick green leafy bits all you can do is plow forward while trying not to drown in your own sweat pools. In late early summer there isn’t any snow or ice but the heat can be downright exhausting. Mix that in with some humidity and the experience can be suffocating.
Regardless, you’ll push on because you have to; Mount Defiance has all the time in the world but it ain’t got time for quitters.
It may sound like I’m hating on the Mount Defiance – Starvation Loop hike but I’m only giving it a hard time because it gives hikers a hard time. Aside from climbing snow-capped peaks, this is the most difficult day hike I’ve ever completed. Folks I talked to and articles online all agree that this is a challenging hike. And they aren’t wrong; that’s part of the attraction.
Being in nature isn’t always about magical scenery and pretty waterfalls. Sometimes it’s about pushing yourself to do something just to see if you can do it. Mount Defiance is meant to be enjoyed on another level; the sweaty level. That’s the takeaway. That’s why you should put this hike on your bucket list.