Timing is everything. While this gem along the Columbia River Gorge offers stunning views in any season, for a few weeks in spring these views are gilded with millions of wildflowers in bloom. I timed it perfectly!
I admit, my research of this hike was a bit daunting. Permits due to crowding, thigh-crushing steepness, and trip reports talking of poison oak, ticks, scorpions (we have scorpions in this state?!), and rattlesnakes all had me a bit wary. However with a little bit of preparedness and luck, none of these should be issues. First off was the permit system. Understandably so, Dog Mountain is a very popular hike in this area, especially on weekends. Because of this, this year they have installed a permit system for the hike (for Saturdays and Sundays, March 31st-July 1st). Weekend Warriors have two options–try to purchase a $1.50 permit from here, where only 165 a day are available, or use the $2 cash-only shuttle from the Skamania County Fairgrounds to the trailhead, which includes a permit for all riders. The shuttles run every half hour (first departing at 7:30am, last departure at 1:30pm, last pickup from the trailhead back at 4:30pm). There are pros and cons to both, but my cousin and I decided the shuttle would be less of a headache.
If you are hiking on a weekday, then you have much freer reign over your hike. However, regardless of when you hike, some more preparation is warranted. I wore long pants due to the tick and poison oak concerns, had tick tweezers in my pack, and brought tons of bug spray. I admit, once it started heating up more I might have regretted wearing long pants, but the choice is yours. Especially if hiking with a dog, check for ticks very carefully after the hike. We never saw any rattlesnakes but plenty of people in recent hikes have, so take extra caution to stay on the trail at all times.
Once at the trailhead, be prepared to go up immediately. You gain nearly 3,000 feet of elevation in the three miles to the summit, with a majority of that climb in the first and third mile. Even if a large group starts together, the herd will thin out quickly during the first switchbacks. This first mile is very shaded, which helps immensely if the sun is out. There is a junction on the trail maybe a half-mile or so up offering you a ‘difficult’ or ‘more difficult’ option. Not being masochists, we chose ‘difficult’. Soon after, the trail will mercifully level out a bit, giving your shaking legs a reprieve. You also will soon get your first stunning viewpoint (at maybe 1.5-1.75 miles in), a good place to stop for a snack and some pictures (another reason to skip the ‘more difficult’ option, which does not offer this view).
I marveled at the view–the Columbia River carving through the mountains, the sun fighting to come through, and the wildflowers. Thousands of yellow flowers, with a few purple ones fighting through just blanketed the hills around us. If it weren’t for the time crunch of the shuttle I could have stayed there for a good twenty minutes, taking it all in. However, back on the trail we had to go.
You get another stint in the flatter, shaded trees, but don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security. The toughest part is yet to come. You will re-join the ‘more difficult’ trail at a wooden sign, indicating you are a mile from the top. The wooden sign points up a hill that I’m fairly certain would qualify as a mountain in many states. If you brought trekking poles, this hill, both up and down, will be where you want them the most. I think my cousin and I stopped three times for air to make it to the switchback at the ‘top.’ In summary, this hill, in scientific terms, sucks. You also will lose your shade, adding a sweaty cherry on top.
Soon after you re-enter the sun’s rays, you will be at another stunning viewpoint. This viewpoint used to be a fire lookout, further proof of the stunning panorama it offers you. Especially if on a time-crunch, these viewpoints are great if you need to turn around early for any reason. I’d have been perfectly thrilled with the hike if it ended here, but there was maybe a half-mile to go. This half-mile is totally exposed, very rocky, and so carpeted with wildflowers I was damn near tempted to spin around arms flung about, Maria Von Trapp-style. For everyone’s sake I did not, but maybe because I had to focus on each step that I was on firm ground.
A few more switchbacks, and suddenly you are at the top. How did that happen? No bother, we both heaved our packs off, sat down most ungracefully, and cracked open a still-chilled beer we had lugged upwards to take in the GORGE-ous view of Wind Mountain and the river (sorry, I had to). It’s hard not to imagine how Lewis and Clark’s party reacted at seeing the sights of this jaw-dropping nature. WTA had said that the top was more of a party mode than other hikes where slitude and quiet is expected, and they were right. Many hikers were eying our beer with envy, and soon a rambunctious group of birthday revelers nearby popped open a champagne bottle. With empty cans and the threat of missing a shuttle looming, we tore ourselves away, dreading the loose rocks on the steep trail downward.
Luckily, for those less-sure of their footing, a second option is available. Soon into the journey down is a badly weathered sign with a small trail going down and north. This is the connector with the Augspurger Mountain trail. If you take that route down, that same 2800+ feet of elevation is spread over <4 miles instead of three. Additionally, this route is far more secluded, more shaded, and has less loose rocks. It was a no-brainer for us.
The choice ultimately is yours, but unless you have quads (and knees) of steel I’d highly recommend the Augspurger route down. As this is a loop, you won’t rejoin the Dog Mountain trail until the parking lot, so if you’re in a group, clear communication is best to avoid separating too much. There is more poison oak here, but with my long pants I was not concerned.
In the end, this hike might have been the hardest I’ve done, in terms of steepness. Missing a shuttle by 90 seconds and having to stand 30 minutes to wait for the next didn’t help. But with the wildflower wonderland around me, this hike might also be the best payoff for the sore muscles I’ve ever done too. I cannot recommend this hike in the spring enough–just be prepared for some lactic acid afterwards.
Distance: 6.2 miles round-trip if you take ‘difficult’ route up and down; 7.0 if making the Augspurger loop
Elevation: 2800 feet, some areas very steep
Parking: NW Forest Pass/America the Beautiful Pass if parking in the trailhead lot; none needed if using the weekend shuttle
Bathrooms: Pit toilet at trailhead
Best Beer Bet: Any of the Breweries in the Gorge