If someone told me a year ago that I’d voluntarily go hiking in January, I’d have laughed. I grew up on the East Coast, where Girl Scout Camp in the Shenandoah Valley meant mosquito bites, cold mornings, latrines, and every obnoxious camp song there is. I spent seven years in Brooklyn and can’t recall anyone there telling me they enjoyed camping, or anything outdoors. I moved to Portland, Oregon, in August 2012, where my first attempts to find housing were foiled by building managers going on kayaking trips, and I saw the town empty every weekend as my new friends headed to the coast, the desert, and Mount Hood. I was still too busy exploring my new, very welcoming city, marveling at the idea that I could swim in the Willamette. When summer 2013 started, I’d already been talking to my friends about getting outdoors. My housemate Tonya, also a recent transplant, had just been introduced to day hiking in the Columbia River Gorge, and that sounded like a great place to start. Over the summer and fall, we started to work our way through the Portland Hiker’s Field Guide. In 2014, she and I resolved to Get Better at Going Outside. We chose a short hike for January, very close to Portland.
Cape Horn is just past Vancouver (the Vancouver in Washington state), on the other side of Washougal, right up Highway 14. We usually take Interstate 84, but our trailhead was closer in than the next bridge. The road isn’t straight and tidy. It winds, it flexes, you lean into the edges, it leans up the hills. Some of the hills are mountains.
We park where there are other cars, other people. These people take the same trail. The lot was full in January. It was unseasonably warm, and unseasonably sunny. I’d thrown my larger jacket in the car, just in case. We parked and opened the doors to wind blowing across the river, cold and whip-y. We piled on all the contingency clothes we’d brought—extra layers and hats and gloves. The thermostat sat in the low forties, but that wind. Hiking in January!
There’s only one trailhead in the lot, so, up we went. As our field guide says, it’s not a very well-marked trail. You’re guessing that the slightly wider side of the junction is correct, breathing relief when there’s a posted sign, or a couple of hikers taking pictures somewhere, with their dog.
Tonya and I like to take our first food stop early. “The guide says we’re following a road for the second quarter of the hike.” “Let’s stop before then.” “Was that a gulch we just passed? It says there should be a gulch.” All the doubts about did we come the right way and is it too cold for this at least recede when we decide it’s time to find a spot to sit and have a snack.
Trail snacks are a very important part of the production. I prefer not to stop to buy everything on the way out of town, but we always do. This is something I’d like to change—I’d like to be more consistently prepared, practiced enough to not have to ask the same questions every time, to know exactly where all the gear is when I need it, to know from the feel of the air which scarf and hat to choose.
Until I do, I don’t mind spending those two hours in the morning getting our shit together. We build those hours into the time budget, which, in January, is vital to not getting stuck on a very large hill when dusk sets in around 4:30 p.m. And since I want to do longer hikes in more remote places, I’m going to have to learn to trim that prep time or do it all the night before. I think this stuff is as important as knowing my limits physically and pushing them—it’s strengthening my logistical skills. It’s very important to feel appropriately prepared and informed before I go outside.
It was windy enough that we didn’t spend much time at every scenic overlook. I want to take this trail again in the summer, when I won’t be so scared of being blown off a cliff. The risk felt better to me than to Tonya—at the highest point, she would not turn her back to the river for a photo. The golden retriever with a couple of dudes was not having any of that, either. The views left us exposed.
On the descent, the trail ran closer to the edges of the rock. Gusts roared, we paused. The wind pressure became suffocating, flew right into our mouths so we couldn’t breathe or speak. Even between the gusts, the steady wind was heavy enough to almost lean against. One switchback was its own ledge of sheer cliff, space for one foot at a time, then a drop. We went around it holding tight to the tree that grew over the side.
The last stretch of the hike follows save paved road that services a couple of remote farms—if you don’t get any wildlife on the trail, at least there are cows at the end. The sun was already low and the air grew colder. Back in the forest, the day’s last light was fading. Tonya and I agreed this was just the right amount of January hike.
6.8 mi / 1,600 ft
Monday, January 20 12:15-4:15 p.m.
40℉ and very windy
Details & trail guide
Mae Saslaw roams the Pacific Northwest when she’s not working in Portland. She’s got nature pictures on Instagram, too!