Several years ago I published an article in The Oregonian about hiking to the Benson Plateau. The area remains a favorite of mine. In mid-July I returned.
The Plateau is an oddly flat feature for the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge. You’ll find streams to pitch a tent near, old hunting camps, cirques (rounded hollows formed by glacial ice) in the eastern rim, open meadows and meandering trails through the forest.
The plateau lies at roughly 4,000 feet above the small town of Cascade Locks, bounded to the west by the deep Eagle Creek slot canyon and to the east by the Herman Creek gorge. Shaped like a croissant, the plateau extends two miles to the south and one mile to the west. For geology buffs the land represents some of the original Cascades summit surface that didn’t endure the kind of severe erosion creating the rest of the Gorge.
Mention the Benson Plateau to longtime hikers and their leg muscles will begin to quiver and knees to ache. That’s because some of the roughest and steepest trails in the Gorge climb to the plateau: The Rudolf Spur Way, Ruckel Ridge, Ruckel Creek and Eagle-Benson trails are all on the short list of great conditioning hikes for serious mountain climbers. I took the easier, though unfortunately not shorter, way to reach the Plateau, the comfortably graded Pacific Crest Trail. The PCT is the showcase trail for the Forest Service stretching from Mexico to Canada.
After crossing Herman Creek and arriving on the PCT, I began crossing a large talus slope before re-entering the woods. As always, several pikas (sometimes called rock rabbits) were spotted. I always enjoy hearing their highpitched cries that sound like “meep” when hiking near rock slides.
Then the trail began testing my conditioning by working its way up a series of long, sweeping switchbacks. These culminate in a dramatic vista of the Columbia River Gorge at 3,000 feet, five miles into the hike. Cascade Locks, a long reach of the Columbia River, the sheer cliffs of Table Mountain and Mt. Adams were spread out in front of me. After several more switchbacks I was finally on Benson Plateau. Noble firs (silver firs, too) become the dominant tree species and beargrass lined the trail.
For the next two miles the PCT stayed on the eastern edge of the Plateau. For a lunch break, I took a short trail to the eastern edge of the ridge which provided vistas of the Herman Creek drainage and the bare summit of Tomlike Mountain to the north.
It was a hot and tiring eight miles back to the Trailhead with more than 4,000-feet of elevation loss. But, few places near Portland provide this much solitude and true wilderness experience.