4 Great Fall Hikes near Portland

In early autumn, trails in Oregon and Washington offer glimpses of misty waterfalls, migrating birds, changing colors, not-so-snowy mountain peaks, and more.

By Brian Barker, Gabriel Granillo, and Benjamin Tepler

Along the Crown Zellerbach Trail

Summer hikes are all about swimming holes and soaking up the sun (or seeking shade when the sun gets to be a little too much). But as we ease into sweater weather, it’s a great time to catch sight of migrating birds, munch on some finally-ripe huckleberries, or let a waterfall cool you off one last time before it the actual cold sets in and some of these trails get buried in snow. Here are a few of our favorite places for fall hikes.

Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge

Jefferson, Oregon, 1 hour from Portland
Established in 1965 as winter habitat for migratory Canada geese, Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge sprawls across a 2,800-acre floodplain dipping between the Willamette and Santiam Rivers south of Salem. This humid mix of wetlands, forests, ponds, and fields is a beacon for winged visitors like the threatened streaked horned lark. Witness this menagerie from a shaded boardwalk and a network of grassy, marsh-bordering dikes. The latter close annually on September 30 for wintering fowl, making this month your last chance this year to fully explore the refuge. Access the highest concentration of walking trails from the well-signed Rail Trail Loop Area off of Wintel Road. Here, the mile-long wood-plank trail cleaves into a landscape seemingly grafted from an East Texas cypress swamp. Beyond the rails, a canopy of Oregon ash rises above a dark bog rippling with red-legged frogs and western pond turtles. At the three-quarter-mile mark, a bird blind peeks over Wood Duck Pond, offering hikers furtive glances at snowy egrets, Virginia rails, and other late-summer visitors.

Depart the Rail Trail onto options like the three-quarter-mile Dunlin Pond Loop, which traces a sunny path through reedy ponds and expansive marshes to link with the South Pond and Killdeer Marsh trail extensions. Expect Townsend’s warblers, red-winged blackbirds, and song sparrows flitting amid the cattails and cottonwoods. At toe level, witness another show, as dozens of large (nonvenomous!) garter snakes congregate in the late-summer sun. —Brian Barker

Indian Heaven Trail No. 33

Trout Lake, Washington, 2 hours and 10 minutes from Portland
Each autumn, golden-needled larch trees and huckleberry bushes glow like oven burners along Southwest Washington’s Indian Heaven Wilderness. From Cultus Creek Campground north of Trout Lake, Indian Heaven Trail no. 33 provides quick access to the bounty. A short but steep 1.4-mile climb exits thick forest to reveal Mount Adams reigning over an evergreen kingdom lit by torch-bright larches. Just around a nearby bend, quiet Cultus Lake looks upon craggy Lemei Rock—at 5,925 feet, the highest point in Indian Heaven. Nimble-legged hikers can continue on a 2.2-mile, huckleberry-lined trek toward the crumbly flank and a vista of Rainier and St. Helens, as well as Lake Wapiki. (There’s no official huckleberry harvest allowed within the boundaries of the wilderness area, but it is OK to snack on them. If you’re picking huckleberries elsewhere in the Giiford Pinchot, be sure to get a free permit.) For rapture on demand, detour from Cultus on a signed short spur to Deep Lake, which sits in a secluded, fir-encircled basin crowned by snow-robed Mount Adams. Northwest Forest Pass required to park at Cultus Creek; free on National Public Lands Day (September 24, 2022) and Veterans Day (November 11) —BB

High Prairie Loop 493, Lookout Mountain

Off of Highway 35 between Parkdale and Government Camp, Oregon, 2 hours from Portland
What’s the best way to see Mount Hood? Some argue for its reflection in Trillium Lake, or right up under its chin at Timberline Lodge. But we maintain that the best view is found atop the second tallest peak in the Mt Hood National Forest: Lookout Mountain, a 6,536-foot ridge just east of the main event.

The easiest and most direct way to Lookout Mountain is via High Prairie Loop 493, a wide, gently graded trail that runs just shy of three miles. (It sees light use most days, but can get crowded on summer weekends.) From the High Prairie trailhead (just off Forest Service Road 4410, about five miles south of FS 44, or Dufur Mill Road), start your hike in a counterclockwise direction. You’ll walk under mossy hemlocks and through floral meadows that can be vibrant with purple aster, bistort, and Jacob’s ladder. Three quarters of a mile up, you’ll catch your first Hood views, rising a mere seven miles away. Continue past pitted landslides of red, volcanic cinder and dramatic rock formations before cutting east to the summit. On a clear day, views are limitless from the foundation of a retired Forest Service lookout tower: Central Oregon desert, Mount Jefferson, and the curve of Hood River winding from the snowy peak. Return the opposite direction along an old Forest Service road originally used to service the lookout tower. Northwest Forest Pass required to park at trailhead; free on National Public Lands Day (September 24, 2022) and Veterans Day (November 11) —Benjamin Tepler

Crown Zellerbach Trail

Between Scappoose and Vernonia, Oregon, 30–45 minutes from Portland
Stretching from Scappoose to forested areas of Columbia County, the CZ is a friendly year-round trail with a history that harkens back to the early 20th century, when it was a railroad line that provided timber for loggers in camps between the Multnomah Channel and the Nehalem River in Vernonia. Now open to hikers, bicyclists, and horseback riders, the trail snakes through several small communities and parallels the Scappoose-Vernonia Highway, allowing visitors to choose the length of their own adventure with numerous entry-point trailheads along the way. 

The Crown Z officially begins at the Chapman Landing Trailhead, but start out on the Floeter Trailhead, about 15 or so miles down the Scappoose-Vernonia Highway, and from there venture out to Scaponia Park, which has an apparent history prime for spooky season. Legend has it that the park is haunted by an old horse thief and his dog, and on certain nights campers can spot a shadowy figure wandering about the site. Once you reach the end of the trail, which takes you near the Nehalem River and Vernonia Lake, you can circle back to your car and amble down the highway, stopping at various viewpoints and trailheads here and there for quick side quests and photo ops. Hikers with time and a little endurance are treated to fun surprises along the way, like Bonnie Falls, the Nehalem Divide Railroad Tunnel, and, on clear days, distant views of Mounts Hood, St. Helens, Adams, and Rainier.

At most trailheads, highway noise is a factor, but when portions of the trail brings you up (elevation gain is a modest 1,200 feet at a casual pace) and into the forest, the sound softens into cooing birds and rustling trees. If that’s your jam, start at Nehalem and head down to Ruley for a four-mile excursion, ending at a recently renovated outdoor museum. $5 county park parking fee at some trailheads —Gabriel Granillo

Show Comments