The somewhat plain name of this hike does not inspire visions of 360 degree sweeping views, wildflower bonanzas, and in-your-face postcard views of Mt. Hood, but that’s exactly what this surprise hike provided. Found when I pulled up the Portland Hiker’s page of Columbia Gorge hikes and clicked the middle of the page at random, the Hardy Ridge Loop is now a major hit in the Darkley Residence and due for further exploration.
Robin and I are both big fans of the Oregon-side of the Gorge trail network and are eternally grateful for the 45-minute away fix of year-round hiking options. They have their drawbacks, though, many of which are based on the double-edged sword of accessibility and popularity. Parking lots fill up early and crowds can be pretty dense within the first 2-3 miles of the trailheads. Hardy Ridge, however, was a whole new experience. When we rolled in to the parking area around 10:00, there were only three other cars; so far, so good! A gravel road and an equestrian trail started on the north side of the lot, and we had a bit of a comical misfire when I chose the marked trail, which ended up being a tiny stump of a trail depositing us 15′ up the gravel road. Oops.
The first 1.5 miles follow and old gravel road that oscillated in quality between a smooth grade, rocky craters, and overgrown grassy dirt tracks. At the first junction, we took a hard left and immediately started heading uphill at a far more aggressive pace, aptly described by NW Hikers as “climbing like a homesick angel.” That sucker was steep! Many times the trail climbed directly in front of my face and it was too sharp of an incline to do anything but sprint up on the balls of my feet. The muscle burn was mitigated by sudden views as the trail would whip out of the woods and around a bald corner and the whole valley dropped out below, and after a quick three miles up we hit the top trail junction.
At this point, you can either keep going straight down the other side to loop back to the lot, or you can play around on the ridge a bit. We hung a left and headed uphill, where we found a sunny perch on some rocks and enjoyed lunch while enjoying the view of Table Mountain, Bonneville Dam, Mt. Hood, and a full east/west stretch of the Columbia River. We spent the next hour hiking the length of the ridge — nearly a mile — and taking an obscene amount of photos, which brings us to the matter of the lilies.
I repeat, the lilies.
We had encountered white glacier lilies before on our hike to Goat Rocks last summer, snowy white clusters of delicate flowers that had sprung up as soon as the glaciers had melted while the rest of the undergrowth was still matted down and figuring out what was happening. The lilies on top of Hardy Ridge, however, were bright yellow and absolutely prolific in the thousands. We must have timed them just right because none had wilted at all, they were all in full bloom and looked absolutely perfect and fresh, making the top of the ridge glow in a golden haze. When I was little, I used to go out and walk around the woods with my mother counting the signs of spring, and today I filled the scorecard in the space of an hour or so (bleeding hearts, yellow violets, wild currant, spring beauties, indian paintbrush). If there was any question left that spring had arrived, the thousands of lilies answered that loud and clear.
It should be mentioned that views along Hardy Ridge utterly smoked those found at other popular viewpoints like Angel’s Rest, but in the hour we spent up there, we had it all to ourselves. If you’re looking for one of the most comprehensive views of the Gorge but don’t want to share, this is your hike. I’ve mentioned Robin’s mania for Mt. Hood before, but the unimpeded views of the mountain on this trail had him in a fit of passion the whole time at the top. He stopped every 10 feet for another photo of his sweet mountain which he swore was the perfect angle and the “last one, I swear!” only to repeat the charade almost as soon as the words were out of his mouth. He was speaking to the mountain like it was a supermodel.
The trail back down East Hardy Ridge was a much gentler path switchbacking through cedar forests until it met back up with the gravel road we’d spurred off of initially. Instead of repeating our steps entirely, we opted to take the slightly longer Lower Hardy Loop which we instantly deemed a good call. By this time, the clouds had burned off and we had pure blue skies and bright sunshine that illuminated the grass and wildflowers to a day-glow green as the trail wound through stands of alders.
It was only 5:00 when we got back to the car, and to our disbelief we were the last car in the parking lot. “Wow, sorry about all the crowds today,” I deadpanned to Robin. We laughed and made plans to come back with a larger loop involving Hamilton Mountain, which connects via a short 3.5 mile trail. I highly recommend getting up there now while the lilies are going, but judging from the amount of lupine and bear grass we saw starting to come up, Hardy Ridge should have excellent rotating wildflower shows for the rest of the spring.
Total Miles: 12ish
General Location: From Portland, take the Bridge of the Gods over into Washington and hang a left on SR 14. Follow for around 7 miles, then turn right on Kueffler Road and follow the signs to the Equestrian Trailhead. Specifics can be found on Portland Hikers. Note that the loop can be done clockwise or counter-clockwise; we recommend the steeper route (clockwise) on the way up to save the knees on the gentler descent.
Bonus Fieldtrip: Be sure to stop at the East Wind Drive-In–a favorite of PCT through-hikers–when going back through Cascade Locks. I was inconsolable for the last few miles of the hike because I was fixating on getting an ice cream on the way home and would not stop until I had a vanilla-chocolate swirl in hand. Be aware that a small is freaking enormous, and a large has to be nearly a foot of ice cream.