Larch Mountain and its craggy neighbor summit, Sherrard Point (4,056 ft.) are visible from all over Portland. I always happen to look up at the eastern skyline randomly — coming down Everett towards downtown, from the amphitheater in the Rose Garden in Washington Park, cruising along a street in NE, anywhere really — and pick out the massive, gently curving lump of a mountain profile with a little point off to the upper left side. That’s the one; it’s always there watching over Portland, like a friendly neighbor. Larch Mountain and Sherrard Point are the closest, prominent mountains in town. It is possible to drive to the top in summer months but for anyone hiking it, starting from down below at the Columbia River, it’s a good, solid climb of ~4,000 ft. which is nothing to scoff at.
The shortest hike from the river is via the hugely popular Multnomah Falls. It’s 6.8 miles straight up to the top of Sherrard Point, a nice sustained ascent the entire way. Other popular (longer) options include the awesome and challenging out and back starting at Angel’s Rest Trailhead and via Oneonta Gorge and the Franklin Ridge trail (many other options abound). I wanted to take it easy and the other two — David “the Hoosier” Herron and Matt “Handlebar” Helms — were down for a mellow day so we decided to go via Multnomah Falls, the short route at 14 miles round trip. We would hike some and run some, take it easy and enjoy the stunning fall day, the mountains and each other’s company.
I picked up Matt in NE and we drove out to the Gorge along I-84 at 8AM on Sunday morning. It was crisp, chilly, and clear. We figured the views would be good from up high although with the fires around, we couldn’t know for sure. We’d heard there was something burning over by Eagle Creek but figured it was taken care of. We all met in the parking lot, still relatively empty for the early hour, gathered our few things, and set off. Of course, the initial climb up past the enormous waterfall is a somewhat sterile series of 11 paved switchbacks up the steep north-facing wall of the Columbia Gorge. But it was fine by us and we just hiked along at a good pace, warming up to the day’s efforts. Once over the first steep bit, the pavement ends and the (very) rocky trail begins. We alternately hiked and ran the serpentine trail that slithered along the edges of long drops into roiling waters below. We focused intensely on our footwork, getting into the zone, as missteps at many places would mean serious injury or death. I’d been on the trail so many times before and yet every single visit amazes me. That’s the whole thing right there; often the treasures, the gifts we’ve received that are closest and most familiar to us are the ones we overlook. The Gorge is just so beautiful, dramatic, and rugged. The Larch Mountain trail is so fun, ascending the prominent peak at an ideal grade, following the babbling Multnomah Creek for much of its length. When considering adventuring options, it’s easy to dismiss Larch. Too ordinary, too close, done it too many times, too crowded, too many people at the top, too many people at the bottom, too many other more exciting options. But then sometimes you go back and do it anyway, despite the senseless protesting of your overly analytical mind, and you realize how amazing it is and how lucky we are to have it so close, to see it from our very own doorsteps.
We crossed the creek back and forth on log bridges and soon crossed the open area where the trees thinned out and scree fields and fragmented rock reigned. We hopped along on the uneven ground, balancing on the angular rocks tilted this way and that. The fall colors drew our eyes to the leaves around us and propelled us on and ever upward, lending us the energy of their fiery foliage. Back into the trees we steady pressed on, passing some other hikers out on adventures of their own. Everyone’s smiles told of the glorious weather, the glint in their eyes mirrored the electric blue of the sky and their words rang crisp in the impeccable mountain air. Our legs moved without ceasing and soon we were feeling the burn as we raced up the final stairs to the summit. There is a little fenced area (because of the sheer drop offs) with benches on top and we shared the perch with tourists who had driven up and some other hikers who had managed the trek. Handlebar, the Hoosier, and I took pictures and joked around and then climbed over the fence and played around on the rocky (but mellow) ridge that descended from the peak to the south-southeast. We scrambled around in the sun on the solid, lichened rock, down climbed until it got too steep and then retraced our 3rd class climb up to the top and back over the fence. A few tourists looked on in dismay.
We reluctantly left the storybook summit — with views of all the big volcanoes and the enormous landscape extending in every direction — and began the long free fall descent back to the car: 6.8 miles and 4,000 ft. of almost constant downhill to the river. We took off and were instantly transformed into little children: giddy, nimble, carefree, in the moment, completely absorbed in the joy of the activity. Our inner children- – and inner animals — were set free to romp and play about and we did so heartily, leaping over rocks and busting 180s over gnarly roots that crisscrossed the trail. Our arms flailed up in the sky at times and helped balance our torsos as we moved here and there, darting from side to side, trying to stay upright on the jagged footing. The closer we got to the end, the more people filled the trail. We tried to slide by and pass as politely as we could, offering our greetings as we went, cruising down easily with measured steps on the pavement that we hadn’t missed pounding. As always, I took pleasure in seeing so many people out enjoying nature — the falls, the trees, the wind and birds — in whatever capacity they’re able to.
By noon we were back at the car, half a day spent in paradise. We sat on the grass in the sun and stretched for a minute and relaxed but soon had to move on to other Sunday obligations. We said goodbye to the Hoosier, agreed we’d make plans soon, scheme more brilliant adventures before the rain and snow came. We set off and within twenty minutes or so, we were back in town. I dropped Matt off and just like that, it was over … like we’d just stepped into the next room for brunch in the wild for a moment. It felt so close and familiar, like an old friend we’d forgotten to keep in touch with for too long. We had been reacquainted though and were back on good terms, remembering all the reasons we fell in love with Larch Mountain in the first place. That simple lesson rang in my head the rest of the day, reminding me to stop and take stock of what’s in front of me. I realized how true it is, how some of the best things in life are right under our noses, awaiting our attentions, if only we stop to see them.
As we drove away, I got excited thinking of doing Larch again in the winter, when it’s snowy cloak shrouds the hushed forests and gives the dirt trails a plush new carpet of white. The things that are close to us we can return to and really get to know, time and time again, if we devote our explorations to experiencing their many faces and moods — in winter, spring, summer, and fall, in happiness and sadness. If there was one thing we knew from our crisp, sunny Sunday adventure, it was that fall is here and the seasons are changing. It won’t be too long until Larch dons its winter coat and I’ll be out there soon enough admire its new look …
… and hopefully Handlebar and the Hoosier will be out there too.
Willie McBride is a native of Chicago, IL but has been living in and exploring the American West since 2000. He attended the Colorado College, majoring in English with a focus on Creative Writing, solidifying his love of writing and his need for mountains. An avid hiker, climber, and trail/ultramarathon runner he now resides in NW Portland, close by the trails of Forest Park. He started a personal/group training and coaching business called Animal Athletics (AnimalAthleticsPDX.com) with fellow ultra runner Yassine Diboun in spring of 2012 and the two provide top-notch services to aspiring outdoor athletes of all abilities.