Just a short drive away lies an escape into the heart of the Columbia River Gorge, where steep climbs and plunging hills reveal a tapestry of ecosystems spanning over eight miles. Since the late 1800s, pioneers have settled Cape Horn, transforming the land with dynamite blasts, engineering feats, landslides, and the dedicated efforts of trail advocates. What started as a fragmented landscape, divided into parcels of ownership, was sown together to create the Cape Horn Trail.

After decades of advocacy and conservation efforts, the Columbia Land Trust transferred the last piece of the puzzle, the Cape Horn Trailhead, to the National Forest Service in March 2024. This final stage was long in the making, marking a significant milestone in the preservation of the natural treasure.

View of the Columbia River Gorge from the trail as you ascend Cape Horn. Photo credit: Danica Carlson Keener

A Dream Takes Root: The Birth of Cape Horn Trail

In the mid-1990s, visionaries like Dan Huntington and the Friends of the Gorge dared to dream of making Cape Horn’s majestic waterfalls, sweeping valleys, and breathtaking river vistas accessible to all. Huntington, a local real estate agent familiar with the area, joined forces with the Friends of the Gorge, seasoned conservationists passionate about preserving natural spaces. Together, they envisioned carving a pathway to create the trail beloved today.

Armed with little more than hand-drawn maps and boundless determination, Huntington charted the course for Cape Horn Trail while trying to coerce the National Forest Service into taking the land. “They didn’t like that,” Huntington admits. But that didn’t stop him from building trails through shoulder-height flowers, the longest stretch of Oregon white oaks on the Gorge’s westside, and sun-drenched to bone-chilling ecozones. When officials found out what he was doing, “They actually prosecuted me for it,” he explains. Huntington served no time, but had to pay $850 in fines for his unpermitted efforts.

Forging New Paths with Columbia Land Trust

With hopes of the National Forest stepping in dashed and unauthorized trail construction coming to a standstill, advocates had to get innovative. Drawing on their real estate and conservation expertise, the Friends of the Gorge and Dan Huntington leveraged their extensive networks to secure maintenance rights for most of the trail.

But despite all their efforts, the crucial 12 acres at the trailhead remained elusive. Fortunately, another conservation group was at the ready, the Columbia Land Trust. Despite legal and financial hurdles, the trust remained resolute in its mission to gain the necessary land. “It was a little tricky, but that’s what we’re in the business of doing,” recalls Cherie Kearney, Columbia Land Trust’s Forestry Conservation Director.

‘It was a little tricky, but that’s what we’re in the business of doing,’recalls Cherie Kearney, Columbia Land Trust’s forestry conservation director, pictured here with her granddaughter on the Cape Horn Trail. Photo courtesy: Columbia Land Trust

Engineering Accessibility at Cape Horn Trailhead

Just as the trail began to take shape, from scarcely formed go paths to carved switchbacks, plans for highway improvements threatened trail access in 2004. The news appalled Dan Huntington, “I felt the area did not need any more through traffic at high speeds.” He reached out to Kathy Durbin, a reporter for The Columbian at the time. And when the Department of Transportation got word, instead of opposing Huntington, they offered him a spot on the highway’s committee.

If walking across the highway was too dangerous, and a trail crossing a highway was too ludicrous, could hikers go under the road? The idea seemed almost too grand, tunneling through massive rock formations while highway improvements were underway, all so some hikers could hike. They’d barely turned the treacherous paths from hikers hurtling to the top of the trail at breakneck inclines into safely traversable terrain. How would two massive tunnels get approved?

And yet it happened. The funding was secured, and in 2011, the incredible engineering feat to allow everyday people to get a glimpse of the breathtaking views of the Columbia River Gorge was completed.

The unyielding wildlife of Cape Horn Trail. Photo credit: Danica Carlson Keener

Cape Horn Trail is a Tale of Inspiration

While Cape Horn dates back before the days of settlers, Dan Huntington may never have been inspired to help build the trail if it weren’t for a hike he took back in the winter of 1996. As he showed Russ Jolley the awe-inspiring expanse of the gorge, the published author shared some wisdom with Huntington, “If you’re going to try to promote a place in the Gorge, you really should give it a name.” Looking out at the rushing water, falcons flying overhead, and nearby Pioneer Road, Huntington coined the overlook Pioneer Point. Soon, everyone called it that, as if the name were as old as the Oregon Trail.

The story of Cape Horn is one of resilience, perseverance, and ingenuity. From humble beginnings to national park status, it is a testament to the power of community and the enduring spirit of conservation. With the final parcel of land transferred to the National Forest Service, Cape Horn Trail reminds us of the collective efforts of those who dared to dream and the remarkable journey that brought their vision to life. When you refuse to let obstacles deter you and strive to share beauty with all, you have the power to transform a fragmented community into a nationally recognized destination.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email