Beacon Rock: Conquer a Chunk of Northwest History

Originally published in Yakima Magazine
By Molly Allen

Just two and half hours from the heart of Yakima you will find one of the most iconic landmarks of the Columbia Gorge: Beacon Rock.

It stands 848 feet tall on the Washington side of the Columbia River, just outside of Stevenson and offers spectacular views of the Gorge, but many people don’t realize they can easily summit this glorious chunk of rock.

After you reach the Beacon Rock State Park parking lot just off State Route 14, you begin your hike with a short walk up the dirt trail and through the trees. Then the incline begins.

The uniqueness of the Beacon Rock trail is its switchbacks, which wind you up the face of this incredibly tall rock. A series of 52 switchbacks, featuring a mix of cement paving, concrete platform bridges and wooden bridges form the trail as you make your way up the rock, with panoramic views of the Columbia River and Gorge the whole way. The hike is manageable for all skill levels, with handrails all along the path, and it caps out at 1.8 miles round-trip.

But this behemoth isn’t just a rock meant for hiking. This trail is a piece of Pacific Northwest history — a piece of history that celebrated its centennial last year.

Beacon Rock was first named by Capt. William Clark on Lewis and Clark’s expedition west toward the Pacific Ocean in 1805. Further back than that, the rock was originally formed during the series of Ice Age floods known as the Missoula Floods. Towering walls of water ripped across Washington and Oregon, playing a role in what the Columbia Gorge looks like today.

Beacon Rock, entirely composed of basalt, was once a volcano. The rushing floods carved away layer after layer of softer exterior rock, leaving only the lava core.

In the early 1900s, there was every intention to destroy the rock by using it as a quarry for jetty material. At the time, the rock was owned by a backer of the Northern Pacific Railroad, Jay Cooke, but it was sold in 1904 to Charles Ladd.

According to Beacon Rock park rangers, the process of digging tunnels to place explosives had begun, but the project was eventually halted in an effort to preserve the rock. As you walk around the base on a secondary trail you can still find the small caves along the south side showing the work that had been done to dig toward the middle of the rock for blasting.

Ladd later sold the rock to Henry J. Biddle in 1915 on the condition that he would preserve it.

After Biddle purchased the rock, he began making it accessible to others. In his book about the site, “Beacon Rock on the Columbia: Legends of Traditions of a Famous Landmark,” Biddle wrote, “My purpose in acquiring this property was simply and wholly that I might build a trail to its summit. This has been in my mind for many years and the idea of building a novel trail in perhaps the most difficult location in which a trail had ever been built appealed to me most strongly.”

The rock had been summited by two climbers in 1901, but until Biddle built his trail, it had never been hiked on foot.

Construction began in October 1915, with completion in April 1918. According to Biddle’s book, creating the trail took two years — not counting winters, of course.

“While this length of time might seem unreasonable it must be remembered that much of the construction of the trail was like driving a tunnel; only one man had room to work at the head,” he wrote. Biddle had thankfully enlisted the help of Charles Johnson, who had played a key engineering role in the construction of the Columbia River Highway.

“It was impossible to survey much of the trail in advance; that which could be done was to drive a narrow trail ahead, selecting the most suitable points as they were reached. After eight months of not knowing at any time that an impassable point might not be encountered, gentler slopes were reached,” Biddle noted.

Upon completion, the trail was 4,500 feet long, with a maximum grade of 15 percent. As you reach the top, a flight of stairs climbs up the very last section, because of how narrow the tip of the rock is.

When Biddle died in 1928, his heirs made every effort to preserve the landmark. They eventually gifted Beacon Rock and the surrounding acreage to the state of Washington, with the stipulation that its beauty would be kept intact and it could not be used for quarrying or industrial processes.

Now, the rock stands as the highlight of Beacon Rock State Park with its surrounding 4,000 acres, including camping and picnic areas, hiking trails, streams and waterfalls.

It is truly an icon.