I’m really loving summer in the Pacific Northwest. Still in my first summer here, this past weekend (July 29th to be precise) I just went on my third hike.
This time, I brought my friend (and coworker), JB. I had been eyeing Silver Star Mountain in Washington for my next hike, but then out of the blue, he asked me if I wanted to hike Saddle Mountain. I hadn’t seen it when researching hikes and climbs, but lo and behold, it was fairly close to Portland, and happened to be similar in length and difficulty to my last couple hikes.
It didn’t take much convincing. It looked like a good hike, with some great views.
So, Sunday morning, JB picked me up from my home in downtown Portland, and we headed west on 26, through Beaverton and Hillsboro, past the western edges of the Portland metro, and out into the countryside. Unfortunately for us, plenty of other Portlanders were heading west as well, likely making their way to the coast to escape the heat. We slogged through 25 mph traffic (with 45 to 60 mph speed limits) until we finally made our turn just 15 miles or so from the coast – about two hours after we started.
Seven miles north along the narrow and winding Saddle Mountain State Park Road finally brought us to the parking lot at the trailhead. The lot was fairly crowded, but we managed to find a space at around 12:30 in the early afternoon. No permits or fees were required to park, either. There were a bunch of semi-drunk college bros making lots of noise in and around the lot, but they were fairly easy to ignore.
We set off pretty quickly. The path picks up from the trailhead, moving pretty straight through the woods – starting at an elevation of around 1700 feet above sea level. On either side of the trail are a handful of pre-made campsites. It starts off sloping fairly gently upward, gradually curving from a southeasterly direction to the first sharp switchbacks as it turns north toward the first of the two summits.
The forest is dense, with plenty of heavy foliage in the early going. The trail itself was fairly wide, albeit with some narrow spots.
JB and I made pretty good time at the beginning. The high temperature that day was expected to hit the high 90s back in Portland, but at that point, in the shady forest, it wasn’t too bad.
In the first half hour, the trail was never excessively steep, though we did gain altitude fairly quickly.
After a time, we were high enough on the flank of the south end of the mountain that we could get an impressive view of the valley as we hit clearings.
With each switchback, the view only got better. The trail was surrounded by lush plant growth, albeit with occasional dead spots.
JB and I continued our trek up the the path. The trail was mostly dirt, but plenty of rock was strewn about to help encourage twisted ankles.
We kept up a fairly brisk pace without rushing.
There was a decent amount of traffic going up and down, but never enough to feel crowded.
Shortly after the one mile marker, the trail started getting steeper.
It also became more exposed, spending less time winding through the woods, and more time running alongside the cliff face.
We also observed something the Oregon Hikers page warned us about – that there was extensive chain link fencing embedded into the trail itself – specifically in the steeper and more exposed sections.
This fencing was amazing in terms of providing traction in those steep areas. We would later observe that it was even better on the way back down. Areas that would have caused me to slip and slide on other hikes were easily traversed – often far faster than I otherwise would have managed. In fact, there were points where it almost felt like cheating.
However, the fencing was harsh for bare feet – which is why that Oregon Hikers page recommended that people avoid bringing their dogs up the mountain.
As JB and I made our way up the trail, we noted that the fencing seemed like it would be harsh on some dog’s paws.
And yet, plenty of people had dogs with them on this hike. Some dogs appeared to handle the fencing better than others – though it did come up as an issue later on.
As we came around the west end of the southern peak, we dipped into the woods a couple more times.
At one point, we came across a narrow wooden bridge stretching over a 30 foot or so gap.
As you can see in the photo, the bridge had partially warped over to one side. The wood itself was quite slick, and my hiking boots were absolutely zero help gripping the surface.
Naturally, both JB and I started sliding to the dipped edge of the bridge.
What arrested our descent was not some sort of thoughtful repair, but instead, a wooden plank nailed on one side. Our footwear caught the board, and allowed us to stagger across. It was not the most elegant solution to the problem, but we managed to handle it.
We neared the summit of the lower peak (kinda), but ultimately edged around it, still a few hundred feet short of the top. We slipped back into the woods for one final jaunt, then came out into the open – and there was our goal – the north summit. And dammit, we had to drop back down a couple hundred feet, then back up… well, many hundreds of feet more. We were in the saddle part of Saddle Mountain.
And there were some gorgeous views while we traversed the saddle.
We started back up. And the pictures really don’t do justice to the scale. The final push was reeeeally steep. It wore us out as we slogged up the path.
It was exposed and hot, with the sun blaring down on us.
We ended up taking a few breaks on the final summit push. I had been pausing to take photos periodically, but at this point, every pause was just to catch my breath.
Of course, it may not have been all that strenuous to someone in better condition than myself. Like that little puffball Pomeranian that trotted up to the summit just behind us (yes, it had people walking it).
That final hump of the saddle probably took us only 15 or so minutes, but it felt significantly longer.
However, our patience and tenacity was rewarded with some stunning views from the top. To the west, we could just barely see a sliver of ocean, though it was partially blocked by haze. Summer fire season at work. To the north was another hazy view of the Columbia River, and Astoria.
Directly south of the summit (and about 50 feet down) was a short ridge with another trail. JB and I briefly discussed taking a detour and checking it out on our way back down, but neither of us were feeling that energetic at that point.
Just west of the observation area (enclosed by a metal railing) was another rocky chunk that a few intrepid hikers climbed around on. I declined to step too far out onto it, as it was quite exposed, with some pretty serious drops on three sides. But it looked pretty.
Here I am, very sweaty, and fairly tired. I didn’t look great, but I felt pretty satisfied.
Also, note that I brought a bit of my hometown with me on my shirt.
KC isn’t exactly a climbing mecca, which is one reason I’m glad I moved.
But all the same, sometimes one needs to rep the hometown.
Anyway, after an appropriate time resting and gawking at the view, JB and I skirted around the college kids hanging out on the summit, and started making our way back down.
As I referenced before, the fencing embedded into the steeper parts of the trail was a huge help on the way back down. JB and I made it fairly quickly down to the bottom of the saddle once more.
Heading back up the south section was brutal, but once we got going steadily downhill, we were able to take our time and pick our way down, chatting and joking as we went.
We made it back to the big exposed area on the south end of the south summit, and trudged down the trail.
At one point, we came across two hikers and their dog, a massive German Shepherd mix laying on her side, breathing hard, with her feet wrapped in handkerchiefs and rags. We asked the hikers what happened. Apparently it was a combination of heat exhaustion and damage to her paws from the fencing on the trail. We offered to try to help carry her down the trail, but they informed us they had already called fire and rescue, who had claimed a 30 minute ETA. We pondered trying to use a spare t-shirt as a hammock to try to carry the dog, but it seemed likely to tear, as well as be difficult to handle. It sucked walking away, but they told us they preferred we keep moving. So we did.
I should note when we finally came across the fire department volunteers hiking up past us, it had already been longer than half an hour. We also were skeptical that their big one wheel off-road stretcher dealie would have been easy to wrestle across that slippery bridge… but it was out of our hands at that point.
A little after 3 pm, we staggered back to the parking lot. It had been a fun hike, with some amazing (albeit hazy) views. It was also a little more intense than we expected.
Compared with my recent hikes, I would say Saddle Mountain is quite a bit faster and easier than Mount Defiance, but maybe on par with Dog Mountain. It’s a little shorter than Dog Mountain, but has a tougher final push.
In a couple weeks, I’ll be (hopefully) heading out to Silver Star Mountain, and if all goes well, at the end of the month will be my attempt on the South Sister. I will almost certainly be posting my reports of those hikes here.