10 Common Poison Oak Myths

Spring in the Columbia River Gorge brings lush greens and a rainbow of wildflowers, but in this heavenly mix you will also find Toxicodendron diversilobum: Western poison oak.

If humans were as immune to the toxic oils of this plant as deer seem to be (they snack on the stuff!), we would simply admire it for the handsome foliage, and maybe even grow it in our gardens. After all, poison oak is an undeniably handsome plant… from a distance.

But instead, humans are prone to contact dermatitis when we encounter poison oak up-close, breaking out in itchy, blistering rashes that can take weeks to subside. Folklore on the cause and remedies for poison oak rash abound, and much of the information in this age of the internet is decidedly misleading.

Handsome devil: poison oak is as toxic as it is elegant.

Here are 10 common myths about poison oak — debunked — with information every hiker should know about this pesky plant:

Myth 1 – Many people are simply immune. I have hiked the poison oak-lined trails of the Columbia Gorge since the age of five, and thus have a 45-year streak of never reacting to it, despite some epic encounters. Am I immune? Maybe, but it turns out only about one-in-ten seem to have no reaction poison oak. Most of us who think we are immune have simply been careful enough — and lucky. If you have a perfect track record, assume it’s your reward for due caution, not immunity.

Myth 2 – Only the sap is toxic. Some believe it takes breaking a stem or crushing the leaves to release the toxic component of poison oak, a chemical called “urushiol” (pronounced “yoo-ROO-she-all”), and that simply brushing against it cannot transmit the toxin to your skin. In fact, urushiol is present throughout the plant, including the surface oils on the leaves and green stems of poision oak. This is especially true in spring, when new foliage literally glistens with toxic oils.

Poison oak usually looks like this in the Gorge: a spreading groundcover, 1-3 feet deep, and favoring open woods and forest margins.

Myth 3 – You’ll know you’ve got it by the next morning. While it takes only about 30 minutes for urushiol to penetrate your skin, the itchy, blistering skin reaction does not appear immediately. For most people, the symptoms are delayed at least 12 hours after exposure, and it usually takes up to 3 days for symptoms to appear — confounding hikers who think they’ve escaped a close encounter without consequence. For a first time sufferer, it generally takes even longer for the rash to appear – as much as 7 to 10 days!

Myth 4 – It takes a lot of exposure to cause a reaction. Poison oak is surprisingly toxic, and only a small amount of exposure can trigger a reaction. A single drop of urushiol on your skin contains more than enough toxin to cause a reaction, and a small amount is easily spread across your skin by perspiration or physical contact while you hike.

Myth 5 – Scratching will spread your rash. Scratching or rubbing a poison oak rash won’t make it spread to other parts of your body, assuming you’ve already washed thoroughly with soap and water. You can spread the rash if urushiol oil is still on your skin, of course. Scratching can lead to secondary skin infections, however, making your itchy misery a bit worse.

Poison oak is versatile, growing as a ground cover, shrub, or as a towering vine, as in this nightmarish scene along the McCord Creek trail.

Myth 6 – Breaking blisters will spread the rash. Breaking blisters won’t spread poison oak to other parts of your body, or other people. But open blisters can become infected and you may cause permanent scarring in the process. In very extreme cases, excessive fluid may need to be withdrawn by a doctor, though in most cases it’s best to simply let blisters heal on their own.

Myth 7 – Dead or leafless plants aren’t toxic. The bare winter stems of poison oak may look harmless, but still contain toxins. Urushiol oil has lasting power, and can stay active on any surface, including dead plants, for up to 5 years. Burning dead or dormant poison oak branches is an especially dangerous practice, as urushiol oils released in smoke can produce disastrous results, if inhaled.

Myth 8 – Dogs can’t get poison oak. Dogs are mostly protected from poison oak by their fur, though some can develop symptoms on their nose or underbelly. But all dogs can accumulate the oils on their fur, and transmit it to unwitting owners. This is especially true for off-leash dogs that might find a lush patch of poison oak just off the trail, but unseen by the dog’s owner.

The safest practice is to simply keep dogs on a leash when in poison oak country, so you know where they’ve been. Even better, give them a shampoo after the trip, as a precaution — or consider leaving Fido behind when you know you’re going to be in prolific poison oak country.

Poison oak growing in shrub form along the Rowena Plateau trail, showing the handsome bronze color of emerging leaves in spring — when the plant is especially toxic.

Myth 9 – You can develop immunity from exposure. False. With some 90% of humans allergic to urushiol, it’s only a matter of time before most of us will develop a reaction, and it turns out the more reactions you experience from exposure to urushiol, the more likely you are to react to with further exposure. But the reverse is also true: avoiding exposure (and outbreaks) reduces your susceptibility to a reaction. In other words, the myth has it backward: your best immunity comes from simply avoiding contact to begin with.

Sadly, the “develop your immunity” myth is among the more dangerous notions circulating on the internet, with countless testimonials on the “homeopathic” benefits of actually eating poison oak leaves in order to develop immunity. This is an incredibly foolhardy, dangerous idea that can lead to serious, life-threatening situations. Don’t even think about it!

Myth 10 – It’s just a rash. For most of us, this is true. But given the delayed (and varied) symptoms, poison oak reaction should always be taken seriously. As with any immune response to toxins, the symptoms can sometimes spiral out of control and become deadly. If you have a serious reaction, you need to see a doctor right away. Here are the American Academy of Dermatology guidelines for knowing if you’re having serious reaction:

• You should see a doctor if swelling persists, specially swelling that makes an eye swell shut or your face to swell.

• You should see a doctor if the rash covers a large part of your body, you have large blisters, or cannot sleep.

• If you have trouble breathing or swallowing, immediately go to an emergency room.

So, you’ve developed a rash from poison oak exposure, and it isn’t serious? Then you can treat it yourself. You can try one of these online resources for tips on managing your itchy journey ahead:

American Academy of Dermatology

Mayo Clinic

There are dozens of resources on the giving medical advice on treating poison oak rash, many with undocumented, anecdotal suggestions, so the best bet is to stick with these, or similarly respected clinical sources.

This impressive poison oak patch in the Viento area shows all three forms of the plant: groundcover, shrub and as a vine, climbing up the tree trunks.

Managing your Poison Oak exposure

The following hiking tips are adapted from recommendations by the American Academy of Dermatology and Mayo Clinic:

During your hike in poison oak country:

• If you are very sensitive, or heading into a lot of poison oak, consider one of the topical skin products containing bentoquatam, a non-prescription compound shown to protect the skin from absorbing urushiol.

• Wear long pants, long sleeves, boots, and gloves. Even when you apply a skin barrier that contains bentoquatam, you still need to cover your skin with clothing.

• Use hiking poles. They have the effect of keeping your hands up and in front of you, where you’re less likely to brush against poison oak.

• Keep your hands and arms away from your face.

• Rinse your skin right away with lukewarm water if you think you’ve been exposed. You may be able to rinse off the oil before the urushiol penetrates your skin.

Another view of an impressive patch of poison oak in the Viento area, growing in open Douglas fir forest.

After your hike in poison oak country:

• Take a shower — not a bath — with plenty of soap and lather.

• Wash all of the clothes you were wearing when you came into contact with poison oak with conventional laundry soap, set for two rinse cycles (if possible).

• Wash or wipe anything that may have urushiol oil on its surface with soap, including hiking poles, leashes, and your pet.

• Some hikers swear by Tecnu, an over-the-counter topical treatment for removing urushiol oils. Clinical tests show it to be somewhat more effective than plain soap, though neither a substitute for avoiding contact to begin with.

Learning to Recognize Poison Oak

Poison oak is easy to recognize: the old adage “leaves of three, let it be” applies, as poison oak generally has three leaflets per stem. With a bit of practice, you can learn to instantly recognize it as you hike, including the leafless stems in winter.

Here’s a close-up of the classic leaf shape (below), somewhat resembling an oak leaf, but with less pronounced lobes. In autumn, poison oak leaves take on striking hues of red and coral before dropping, leaving bare stems in winter. Note the tiny blossoms in the background — in summer, these will become clusters of greenish-white or tan berries.

Poison oak leaf detail: “Leaves of three, let it be..!”

Poison oak has several friends that it often grows with, and these plants can sometimes be confused with the real thing. They’re worth learning to identify, too, partly to know if you’ve been exposed to the real thing — but also because when you see these companion plants, you’re likely to be in poison oak habitat, and can keep an eye out for the genuine article.

One obvious example of a look-alike is the Oregon white oak (below), a classic companion of poison oak, and easily confused where brushy thickets of white oak grow in the eastern Columbia Gorge. Oak leaves are single, however, and usually larger with much deeper lobes than poison oak.

Oregon white oak can be confused with poison oak in the oak savannah country of the eastern Columbia River Gorge (courtesy PCC)

Another companion plant that is somewhat less common, but matches the “leaves of three” identifier is wild blackberry, or bramble (below). These plants are easily identified by their thorny, rambling stems that creep through the forest, small thorns on the underside of the leaves, and edible (and tasty) blackberries that form in summer.

Wild blackberry, or bramble, has “leaflets of three”, but is thorny, not smooth.

Still another companion plant that can be confused with poison oak is ocean spray, which prefers the same open woodland and forest margin habitat that poison oak enjoys. However, its leaves are single, and generally smaller than poison oak.

Ocean spray grows in dense clumps of arching stems, often reaching 8-10 feet in height. The name comes from “sprays” of hundreds of tiny, white blossoms in large clusters that cover plants in summer.

The leaves of ocean spray might initially look like poison oak, but are single and grow from a tall, arching thicket and have dramatic clusters of tiny white blossoms that give the plant its name.

Finally, snowberry is a companion plant of poison oak that normally has small, oval leaves, but in early spring grows larger, lobed leaves that can resemble poison oak at first glance. Snowberry can be identified by its thin, twiggy stems and white, inedible berries that give the plant its name. Most of its leaves are oval, and finely toothed, not lobed.

Early spring leaves on new growth are often exaggerated on snowberry, and can sometimes look like poison oak. The white berries on this plant distinguish it from the poison oak, and give the plant its name. In this view, the more typical oval leaves can bee seen in the background.

Where is Poison Oak Country?

Where can you expect to encounter poison oak? The answer is anywhere you might hike in the Gorge below an elevation of about 2,000 feet. It grows along most low-elevation trails throughout the Gorge, from Angels Rest on the west end to Dalles Mountain Ranch on the east.

Though the most prolific displays are east of Cascade Locks, you will find also lush bowers of poison oak draped over the rustic stone walls at Wahkeena Falls and Multnomah Falls, and along many sections of the popular Eagle Creek Trail (for Clackamas River hikers, it also grows in the lower canyon, under similar conditions).

Poison oak in early spring: new growth emerges in beautiful shades of copper, crimson and gold… though best appreciated from a distance!

The best bet is to assume its presence whenever hiking in the Gorge, and follow the simple precautions described in this article. It doesn’t have to ruin your hike: learning to recognize poison oak in its various forms is peace of mind, as you’ll be able to watch for it and manage your exposure with the knowledge that you know what you’re watching for.

Finally, if you’ve got small kids, there is no better way to teach them about plants than to start with identifying (and not touching!) poison oak. Print these photos of the plant (shown earlier in this article) for them to fold up and carry in a plastic sandwich bag on your next family hike:

(click here for a general view of poison oak)

(click here for a detailed view of the leaves)

It’s a great opportunity to teach young hikers to understand and respect nature, not fear it — and that goes for us grown-up hikers, too!

“Warren Falls, we’re ready for your close-up…”

On May 12, Oregon Public Broadcasting’s popular Oregon Field Guide program travelled to the site of Warren Falls to film a story on the unique history of Warren Creek: the odd 1939 highway department project that silenced the falls, and the potential for restoring the falls to its former grandeur.

Michael Bendixen and Vince Patton on the chilly January trip to Warren Falls

This was the second trip to Warren Falls for Oregon Field Guide producer Vince Patton and videographer Michael Bendixen. Both had joined me for a first look at the area on a particularly icy January day last winter when the Gorge was at its worst — freezing rain and sleet over a crusty layer of snow.

Our May 12 trip would prove to be the welcome opposite: unseasonably warm, summerlike conditions, with trails lined with ferns and wildflowers instead of snow. Along for the trip were PortlandHikers.org friends Adam Sawyer and Jamie Chabot, and Kristen Stallman and Andy Johnson, representing the ODOT team that is steering the Historic Columbia River Highway restoration project.

(from left) Adam, me, Andy, Jamie, Kristen, Vince and Michael at the trailhead

We met at the Starvation Creek trailhead at 9 AM, and loaded up our packs with OPB gear before making the short hike to Warren Falls. Along the way, the OPB team shot a few trail scenes, but were interested in getting to Warren Falls and Hole-in-the-Wall Falls while the morning light lasted.

Vince and Michael working at the mighty basalt wall formed by Warren Falls

We soon reached the massive amphitheater created by Warren Falls, where the OPB crew filmed the haunting scene of the silenced waterfall, marked only by the trail of moss that marks where the waterfall once flowed. The group spent some time here discussing the strange project that diverted Warren Creek in 1939, and the mechanics of the diversion tunnel and accompany flume that has long since disappeared.

Warren Creek had overflowed Warren Falls several times over the course of our wet winter, and there were obvious signs that a large amount of water had coursed down the old streambed. But on this day, the stream was dry, with the eerie quiet that now exists here.

Michael filming at Hole-in-the-Wall Falls

We backtracked to Hole-in-the-Wall Falls for another session of shooting. Here, the rest of the group visited while Michael and Vince captured several angles of the odd, accidental waterfall.

Adam, Andy, Jamie & Kristen at Hole-in-the-Wall Falls

For a good look at the bypass tunnel that creates Hole-in-the-Wall Falls, we moved to the knoll above the footbridge. From this spot, it’s easy to imagine the wood flume that once attached to the tunnel exit and carried Warren Creek over the old highway and railroad, all the way to the Columbia River. Only when the old flume disappeared was today’s man-made falls created.

Pointing out the man-made features of the upper portion of Hole-in-the-Wall Falls

A wood flume originally connected to the tunnel opening, carrying Warren Creek over the old highway and to the Columbia

Next, we hiked up the Starvation Ridge Trail, heading for the brink of Warren Falls, and the huge steel weir at the head of the diversion tunnel.

The original plan was to scramble down Warren Creek from the Starvation Ridge Trail ford for the quarter mile of bushwhacking required to reach the brink of the falls. But Kristen had been to the diversion structure a few days earlier with an ODOT engineering crew, and they had found a faint boot path that dropped more directly from the Starvation Ridge Trail.

We voted on the two options at the Starvation Creek ford: wet feet and a rock hop along the stream or pushing through a hillside of poison oak along the boot path? The poison oak option won the day!

Weighing the alternative routes at the upper Warren Creek crossing

We backtracked to the jump-off point for the boot path, descended through a manageable patch of poison oak, and soon found ourselves curving around a steep, grassy bluff hanging directly above the 120-foot cliffs of Warren Falls.

From here, a dramatic view of the massive Warren Creek diversion structure suddenly came into view, and the OPB crew set up to shoot the scene.

Rounding the approach to the brink of Warren Falls

Michael shoots the diversion structure from the cliff top above Warren Falls

The diversion structure is much larger up-close than the historic drawings or a glimpse from below the falls would suggest. The tilted weir is made from sixty 20-foot steel beams laid across a 28-foot wide trench carved into the cliff. Beneath the mesh of steel rails, the trench leads directly to the bypass tunnel.

A close-up view reveals at least half the weir to be filled with loose rubble, to the extent that it is lush with a strange hanging garden of wildflowers, A thicket of willow has even become established in the upper right corner of the weir, suspended 15 feet above the diversion tunnel, below. The forces of nature are taking back Warren Creek Falls, slowly but surely.

Vince takes in the huge steel weir that covers the diversion tunnel opening, rushing directly below him

The up-close view also shows most of the beams to be twisted and buckled with the ravages of time, thanks to rocks and debris getting lodged between the beams, and the effects of freeze-thaw cycles in the harsh Gorge winters.

Still, the overall structure represents an amazing ingenuity of design and construction detail to have lasted 73 years, but is still functioning as intended. While nature is clearly winning this battle, the persistence of the diversion project is silent tribute to the designers and builders who created these structures in 1939.

Jamie exploring the steel weir from below — the top of Warren Falls is few feet beyond

Jamie peers through the weir into the opening of the diversion tunnel, directly below

Vince found an opening in the upper corner of the weir, and set up a compact camera mounted on a short arm to film the scene below

The OBP team used a compact video camera mounted on an arm to shoot under the weir. Vince found an opening at the upper west corner of the weir that gave access to the view from below the steel beams.

From this angle, Vince was shooting just below the upper edge of the weir, where a 15-foot rubble and masonry dam was constructed across the creek to elevate the angle of the weir structure toward Warren Falls. For 73 years, this design has allowed for loose debris to roll off the weir and over the natural falls, while filtering the waters of Warren Creek through the weir into the bypass tunnel that now forms Hole-in-the-Wall Falls.

Vince filming the tunnel below the weir with the compact camera

Next, we moved to the top of the weir, crossing to the upper east corner of the structure. The view from the top of the weir looking over the brink of Warren Falls is impressive, as is the view toward the Columbia River. From here, Dog Mountain fills the horizon across the river.

But the fact that the river can clearly be seen from the brink makes a good case that Warren Falls was one of the “four cascades caused by small streams falling from the mountainsides” in Captain William Clark’s journal entry of October 29, 1805. The other three were presumably the nearby falls on Starvation Creek, Cabin Creek and Lancaster Falls on Wonder Creek.

Looking down Warren Falls from the top of the weir

Dog Mountain dominates the view from the top of the Warren Creek diversion dam

The view from the top of the weir shows more wear and tear on the structure: the mortared lip of the rubble dam is badly weathered, fully exposing the ends of many of the 60 steel beams that connect to it, with only a rusty bolt anchoring them to the masonry wall.

Here, the decay of the diversion system seems to be moving close to structural failure — another argument for an orderly removal of the weir, and restoration of Warren Falls before it becomes impossible to safely do so.

Close-up of the top of the weir shows the wear-and-tear of 70 years

Vince and Michael planning the shoot from the top of the Warren Falls diversion dam

Jamie helps Michael set up at the top of the diversion structure

The group settled in for a lengthy shoot at the top of the falls, where Michael and Vince worked to capture the setting, and the rest of the group enjoyed the sylvan scene along Warren Creek.

Michael shooting from midstream, at the brink…

Michael posing for a certain Oregon Field Guide fan!

It’s a long drop: Michael shooting from the top of the diversion

The OPB crew wrapped up the day’s shooting with a few interviews and reflections of the group on the diversion project, and the future of Warren Falls. We soon packed up the video gear, and started up the canyon slope for the trail.

Adam shooting the OPB crew… shooting Warren Falls…

On the trip back to the trailhead, we ran into several groups of curious hikers, all familiar with Oregon Field Guide and excited to meet the crew.

One young woman asked what we were filming, and I explained the story to her — and asked her to go to Restore Warren Falls! on Facebook. Later, she approached me at the trailhead, and asked “Why are you focusing on this when there are so many global issues facing the world?”

Jamie muggles the geocache at Warren Falls. We signed it “Oregon Field Guide”

At the time I was somewhat startled, and replied that the project to restore the Historic Columbia River Highway provided a unique opportunity for funding the restoration of Warren Falls — a good argument, and one she seemed to accept. But I wish I’d simply said “We have to start somewhere, and right now, this is as good a place as any!”

“I wondered why somebody didn’t do something. Then I realized, I am somebody.”

~Author Unknown

(Special thanks to the Vince, Michael, Jamie, Adam, Andy and especially Kristen for another great day imagining the past and future Warren Falls)


Previous articles on restoring Warren Falls:

Restoring Warren Falls
Warren Falls Lives! (temporarily, at least)
Warren Falls Mystery… Solved!
Warren Falls Solutions
Warren Falls Lives… Again?

Restore Warren Falls! on Facebook

Exploring Mitchell Point

Looking west into the Gorge from Mitchell Point.

If you find yourself overwhelmed by the crowds at Angels Rest, Mitchell Point in the east end of the Gorge is terrific alternative that offers equally stunning views, without the circus atmosphere.

Though the hike is just 2.6 miles round-trip, the elevation gain is around 1,000 vertical feet, thanks to an often steep path. But the unfolding scenery will distract you from the huffing and puffing required to reach the summit. Be sure to pick a sunny day for this hike, and if you make the trip from late April through early June, you’ll also be rewarded with a variety of wildflowers along the way.

An East Gorge Icon

Mitchell Point is unmistakable to travelers rushing by on I-84, rising dramatically from the forested Gorge slopes, just west of Hood River.

The main summit is a dizzying rocky spine towering 1,000 feet above the Columbia River and I-84. Below the main summit is Mitchell Spur, a tilted, ramp-shaped peak with a sheer cliff that rises nearly 400 feet above the highway. The Native American names for these prominent outcrops were Storm King (Mitchell Point) and Little Storm King (Mitchell Spur). The current name reportedly comes from an early trapper who lived in the area.

Mitchell Point from the west.

Like most of the rocky outcrops that frame the Columbia Gorge, Mitchell Point is composed of flood basalts — layers of dense lava spread over the region in the very distant geologic past. In this part of the Gorge, earth movements have tilted these ancient flows to the south at 30-degree angle. This tilt is most evident in Mitchell Spur, where exposed cliffs reveal the many layers of basalt that shape the terrain.

But it took the ice age Missoula Floods to shape Mitchell Point as we now know it. These monumental floods repeatedly swept through the Gorge 13,000 years ago at depths of up to 600 feet deep and speeds up to 80 mph.

The ancient floods stripped away loose material from the walls of the Columbia Gorge, exposing the familiar rocky crags we now know as Crown Point, Rooster Rock, Beacon Rock and Mitchell Point. The tilt of the underlying basalt at Mitchell Point has allowed the steep north face of the rock to maintain its near-vertical pitch, millennia after the floods subsided.

Mitchell Point from the Washington Side in the 1920s, showing the river-level railroad grade, old highway viaduct and famous Mitchell Point Tunnel.

[click here for a larger view]

When the railroads were built through the Gorge in the late 1800s, they hugged the cliffs in places like Mitchell Point, where rocky bluffs jutted into the river. This meant that Samuel Lancaster, the visionary engineer of the historic Columbia River Highway, was left with little space for his iconic road when construction began in 1914.

In these spots, Lancaster applied daring creativity by engineering his road onto the steep walls of the gorge, high above the river. At Mitchell Point, his remarkable design traced the side of Mitchell Spur, carved into the basalt face 100 feet above the railroad in 1915. Near the east end, he famously designed a 385-foot tunnel with windows carved into solid rock.

The five windows of Mitchell Point Tunnel from the east approach.

There were a total of five arched windows carved into the Mitchell Point Tunnel, each forming a roadside alcove. Each alcove was fitted with the standard arched masonry rail found throughout the gorge, constructed of basalt with a concrete cap.

These stone walls had the practical function of keeping early visitors (and their automobiles) from slipping through the open windows, and onto the railroad tracks far below, but also added an aesthetic finishing detail that is typical of Samuel Lancaster’s designs.

Equally amazing was the approach to the Mitchell Point Tunnel — a viaduct (pictured below) anchored to the vertical walls of Mitchell Spur led directly into the west portal of the tunnel. For early visitors in touring cars, it was truly a thrilling ride, and a dramatic gateway to the famous tunnel.

The tunnel was destroyed in 1966 when modern-day I-84 was built, though much of the ledge that once held the old highway can still be seen today. New plans call for re-creating at least a portion of the tunnel as part of completing the Historic Columbia River Highway trail.

West end of Mitchell Point Tunnel in 1916.

As you explore the Mitchell Point area, be sure to stop by the Anna and Vinzenz Lausmann memorial near the trailhead. There, you can thank the Lausmann family for their generous donation of the surrounding land to the State of Oregon for “park purposes [to] further the recreational and scenic aspects of the Columbia River Gorge” on December 28, 1954.

The area to the west of the trailhead falls within Wygant State Park, and was also a gift to the public, donated by Simeon and Olivia Reed in 1933. Seneca Fouts donated the land to the east in 1944, encompassing the top of Mitchell Point, and the area now carries his name as Seneca Fouts State Natural Area. The Lausmann donation completed the puzzle in 1954, preserving the entirety of Mitchell Point forever.

Hiking Mitchell Point

The trail to Mitchell Point is unmarked and a bit obscure, at first. Simply head toward the state park signboard at the south end of the parking area and follow a paved trail a short distance before veering left and uphill onto an obvious unpaved path.

[click here for a larger view]

The rustic route meanders through open forest for a few hundred yards, then begins climbing an occasionally steep series of switchbacks. Look closely, and you’ll note the trail briefly follows the original 1870s wagon road through the Gorge, a primitive road that traversed between Mitchell Point and Mitchell Spur.

The trailhead, with Mitchell Point rising above.

After climbing a few switchbacks through young forest, you’ll notice a trail heading off to the north at the final switchback, at about 0.4 miles. If you have the time and are looking for a little adventure, this path heads off to Mitchell Spur. The first section is an obvious trail to the saddle between Mitchell Spur and Mitchell Point, and from there it’s a cross country through a steep meadow to the obvious summit.

Looking up at Mitchell Point from the lower trail.

The main route continues past the spur trail and soon enters a broad talus field, traversing steeply across the loose rock. You’ll have your first views of the Columbia River from here — a tantalizing preview of the views ahead, and just enough to make up for the steep climb.

The trail briefly enters forest, then heads back across the talus slope to a switchback before traversing back and re-entering dense forest. You’ll have a good view of the summit ridge through the trees, and can admire the hundreds of tiny calypso orchids that bloom along this shady section of trail in late April and early May.

The rocky spine of Mitchell Point from the upper trail.

Soon the trail passes through a final stand of large douglas fir before emerging in an open powerline corridor. Though not the most aesthetic setting for a trail, the corridor does offer a profusion of wildflowers in spring, including impressive clumps of a striking blue flower called great hounds tongue.

Great hounds tongue blooms in late April and early May near the crest of Mitchell Point.

The trail makes another quick switchback in the powerline corridor, then reaches an open saddle directly below Mitchell Point, at 1.1 miles.

From here, the summit is framed in gnarled Oregon white oak. Even the transmission towers are interesting, as they offer a glimpse into the 1930s construction heyday when so much of Oregon’s infrastructure was built through New Deal programs that eased the Great Depression.

Built to last: Depression-era transmission towers were installed when Bonneville Dam was constructed in the 1930s.

From the saddle, the final 0.2 mile stretch to the summit of Mitchell Point heads off to the north. The trail is steep and slick in spots, but you won’t mind, because the unfolding scenery is breathtaking. The west face of Mitchell Point drops off in a harrowing series of cliffs, while the east face is a steep hanging meadow. The summit path follows the narrow ridgeline between these slopes.

The trail ends just short of the true summit, but don’t attempt to go further — the exposure is extreme, and the view isn’t any better. Instead, pick one of any number of perches along the summit ridge to relax and enjoy the view.

The final pitch to the summit of Mitchell Point.

The vista to the west extends to Stevenson Washington, and the Table Mountain-Greenleaf Peak complex, beyond. To the east, the view reaches toward the grassy highlands of Burdoin Mountain, above White Salmon, Washington. The summit of Mount Defiance rises high above the forests to the southwest.

Far below, you can watch tiny trucks and cars inching along on I-84, and an occasional freight train passing along both shores of the Columbia, looking like model train sets. Barges loaded with Eastern Oregon grain also look like toys from this lofty perspective.

Tiny trucks, trains and barges move through the Gorge in this view from the summit of Mitchell Point.

Depending on the season and weather, you might get buzzed by dive-bombing cliff swallows while taking in the summit view. Though vertigo-inducing, it’s fascinating to peer over the edge of the sheer summit and watch these aerial acrobats streak through air to their nests in the cliffs below.

For all its scenery, Mitchell Point is a steep climb with plenty of exposure in the final stretch, so best to leave small kids at home, and keep dogs on a leash. As with any eastern Gorge hike, learn to identify (and avoid) poison oak, and check for ticks after your hike.

How to Get There

To visit Mitchell Point, print the large version of the trail map (above) as a pocket reference, then head east from Portland on I-84 to Exit 58, which takes you to Lausmann State Park and the Mitchell Point trailhead.

The finest accommodations can be found at Lausmann State Park.

No pass is required at this trailhead. Carry water, as no reliable sources are available. A toilet is provided at the trailhead.

To return to Portland, you’ll have to head further east on I-84 to the next interchange, at Hood River to reach westbound I-84).


Chris Elbert points out the following on the Oregon State Parks website: “April 19, 2012 Note: The park will be closed May 1-Oct. 15 for parking lot and overlook improvements.”

Though this message was posted on the Seneca Fouts State Natural Area page and not on the Vincenz Lausmann State Park page, it’s safe to assume the reference is to the same parking area. If you should find the gate closed and don’t want to wait until October, there is plenty of space for parking off the entrance road, and near I-84, and it’s a short walk from there to the trailhead.

Thanks for the heads-up, Chris!