Herman Creek / Nick Eaton
Herman Creek & Nick Eaton
Updated: May 30
Trip Date: 03/22/19, 04/22/19 & 05/03/19
Trail Head: Herman Creek Trailhead
Area: Columbia Gorge
Mileage: 6.2-ish, 7.8, 13.6
Elevation Gain: 2550 feet, 2700 feet, 4820 feet
Our Rating: 5-Medic! (05/03 Trip)
We made our first trip to the Herman Creek area at the end of March. We’d had a low-level snow at the end of February. We planned on running into some snow, some being the key.
The hike starts at Cascade Locks just past the Herman Creek Horse Camp which is abandoned due to hazardless conditions caused by root rot. The trail winds up from there through the forest to an old powerline road.
This was our first hike in the Gorge since the 2017 fire. It was painful seeing the bright red and yellow sign at the trailhead that warned of potential problems one could face entering a burned area.
After the powerline road, we climbed gently up to the junction with the Herman Creek Bridge Trail. Whenever we go for a walk, Misha is always taking the “longcut” to extend his walk as far as possible. All three times that we have been to this area, when we come to the trail junction he pulls as hard as he can trying to get me to take that trail. The Herman Bridge Trail leads a mile down to the PCT, the longest of the longcuts that Misha has ever found.
A couple miles into the hike, we began to see a few snow patches. Very cute. Misha loves to roll on snow (dirt, bear grass, moss, basically anything that feels cool), but as we progressed and worked our way around the river side of the ridge, the snow began to cover the ground more consistently. As we climbed high enough for a great view of Mount Adams, we had begun to punch through the snow up to our knees.
The snow was strewn with twigs and leaves, but it stretched relentlessly ahead of us. The black trunks of burned trees stood out starkly against the glittering surface. We thought if we could just get back on the west side of the ridge where the sun seemed to have more access, perhaps we could escape it. When I fell in up to my hips a couple times, it seemed like a good recipe for a broken leg. So, we turned back.
We had come to a junction where the trail continued, and a faint path led steeply up and over the ridge before us. The trail signs had been burned up, but one could still see where the signs had been. Regretfully, I had failed to take a picture of the burned signs. This was part of the reason why I started planning our return trip.
Exactly one month later, we tried it again, and this time we saw one lone patch of snow which was barely big enough for Misha to stand on, let along accommodate any rolling. The wildflowers, including beautiful chocolate lilies, were just beginning to pop out.
As we started up the now familiar trail, we spotted a plastic Tupperware hidden in an exposed tree root in the bank above the trail. I thought it must be a geo cache, and we pulled it out. The Tupperware had melted up into itself on one side, leaving the contents exposed to the elements and everything inside was soaking wet, but we could still read the note taped to the inside of the lid. “Not a geocache. Official Letterbox. Sign in and hide out of sight.” As we looked at the melted plastic, we realized that we were holding a survivor of the Eagle Creek Fire. We tucked it back up into its secret nest for the next guy to find.
When we reached the path leading down to Indian Point, neither of us felt like making the 200-foot descent to the rocky pinnacle. Kind of silly to do the hike and skip the climax, but instead we took the Ridge Cut Off Trail to start back.
Above us, we spotted a rocky outcropping. The forest floor was bare at first glance, so I looked around to make sure that no one was coming and suggested we climb up. I try hard to be careful, to Leave No Trace, and never cut the trail, but something drew me upward. As I navigated the forest floor, I saw that teeny tiny mushrooms were pushing bravely up through the barren needled ground and that no matter how careful I was, I could not avoid them all. I went faster as if my speed would somehow help to mitigate the destruction that my enormous monster feet were doing to the delicate fungi. As we crested the rocks, I gasped.
Spread out before us, in a stunning array, was a perfect, secret meadow of purple Douglas' olsynium, known by many names like Grasswidow and Purple Eyed Grass, framed by long, black tree trunks. No picture could do it justice, no description could capture it.
We sat nearby on a mossy knoll and ate lunch in the quietude of the meadow that had grown vibrantly out of the ashes of the senseless fire.
We descended through blackened forests. It is interesting how the fire moves leaving sections virtually untouched, burning random trees in other areas and devastating sections just around the corner. The fire might burn one side of a tree while leaving the other unscathed or it might take a huge bite out of it before it moves on.
At home, the lost photo of the sign haunted me. I kept thinking how unique this picture was to my collection and I hoped that I would not encounter too many freshly burned forests in the future. A couple weeks after our second excursion, we went back. We wanted to do the whole Nick Eaton Trail, counterclockwise, so that we would do the toughest elevation gain as a climb instead of a descent. Better up than down.
When we turned onto the Nick Eaton Trail, we counted 26 or 27 switchbacks, some short, but most long and steep, rising quickly high above the Columbia. During our climb, we passed by a pine tree with a gnarled trunk, blood oozing from one burned root. The sight of it hurt like none of the rest of the blackened forest had done.
When at last we finished the switchbacks, we completed a short traverse, before we came to the blunt face of the ridge where the trail no longer switchbacks at all but climbs almost straight up the last mile or so.
We took a deep breath and started up gaining at least a thousand feet in less than a mile. As we headed upward the trail grew indistinct in places, so that Kirk and I stumbled around trying to locate it. Misha saw our confusion and went to work, putting that beautiful Beagle nose-brain to the ground and becoming very focused and serious. Repeatedly, he kept leading us to the trail. We would argue and pick our way over downed trees and through brush, but in the end, he was always right. Misha is amazing. A portable cairn.
The top of half of the ridge had experienced almost total devastation. Little to no plants have returned and heaps of blackened bark almost conceal the base of the trees that will soon be bleached skeletons atop the hill. We took our lunch break in that tree graveyard, sitting in the silence and talking in hushed tones as we might have done in any other cemetery.
We continued across the saddle of the ridge following Misha, who followed his nose, rejoicing at the occasional cairn of confirmation that we found along the way. At last, we found the trail junction with the Gorton Creek Trail that would be our return route.
We felt that we were “out of the woods now”, although we were actually back in unburned forest. We descended across a few talus slopes where we at last found some small snow fields still clinging to the east slope. We drank in the crisp clean air and sprawling vistas of Mount Adams to the northeast of us.
We began to drop back into the burn on a faint track. Then, without warning, the trail vanished. We took a few uncertain steps forward waiting for Misha to pick up what we couldn’t see just as he had done on the ridge above. He sniffed around and then looked up at us expectantly. I pivoted in a small circle, but the trail was no longer there, not in front of us, not behind us. Brush and downed trees surrounded us. Behind us the ridge loomed and in front of us, we could see the Columbia stretching like a silvery piece of tinsel far below. We considered trying to climb back up, but we felt it was too far to try and return the way we had come, even if we did stumble across the now missing trail.
“There is supposed to be a creek ahead of us and the trail crosses the creek. I remember seeing a path that led all the way to the water from the other side the last time we came here,” I said.
“Okay, so we will go down diagonally until we located the stream and the trail,” Kirk said.
We went down. We were fortunate that the undergrowth was just starting to return, and the forest floor was passable even though it was clogged with forest debris. We found a rock flow, but no water. I pulled out my phone and opened my Maps app. Of course, we were standing in a giant block of light green and the only other landmark was the stream which we could not locate.
“It’s probably underground,” we agreed.
We went down in this way for almost an hour. A few times, we thought that we would not find our way out that day. We had our day packs, but prepared for a night out or not, we might be staying over. I prayed to God that we wouldn’t break something as we slid our way down and that we would not get lost. We headed down, but if we didn’t find the trail, we would eventually we would run into those cliffs for which the Gorge is famous, and those cliffs would halt us.
I began to feel some fear. And then suddenly, we heard the trickle of water. We pushed our way through thickening undergrowth until we spotted the stream as it flowed out of the rocks, the stream that was little more than a babbling brook over which we could step.
Across the stream, the hard-beaten path resumed as if nothing had happened. Just beyond where the trail picked up, was my burned sign and our reason for coming. I wanted to sit down and cry with relief or leap for joy.
When we got to the trail junction, we found the thing that had fueled my obsession and I finally got my picture of the Deadwood Cutoff Trail sign.
We were on familiar ground now! Thank God!
We made our way back to the car without incident.
“A house you can rebuild; a bridge you can restring; a washed-out road you can fill in.
But there is nothing you can do about a tree but mourn.”
― Louise Dickinson Rich, We Took to the Woods