Take a Hike: Saddle Mountain

Saddle Mountain Banner

Saddle Mountain is a classic Oregon day hike and one that you’ll find in just about every Oregon hiking guide that’s been published. Most of those guides focus on the mountain’s geology, so what, you might ask, am I going to say about it that hasn’t already been said? Well, I’m hoping to build a little more context for this geologic beauty so that you can better appreciate exactly what you’re experiencing as you climb the 1,600 feet to the summit.

To begin to understand this coast range mountain, we must go back to the days of its birth, which means looking back about 14.5 million years to the time of the last major flood basalt eruptions. What did the coast range look like at this time? Well, for one, it didn’t look like much of a mountain range at all as this was before the modern (geologically speaking) accelerated period of uplift that gave us the coast range in its current location. Instead, we’d be wading in a large brackish estuary bay, feeling the pull of the tides as well as the flow of water emanating from the mouth of the ancestral Columbia River nearby. Hills would be visible to the east, as other terrains had already risen above the sea, and the river could be seen meandering around these hills, eventually spilling into the Pacific.

Far to the east, not terribly far from the Idaho border, great fissures opened in the surface of the Earth and from them poured unimaginable volumes of basaltic lava. It would have looked something like this, only much, much larger. That massive lava flow took the path of least resistance through the ancestral Columbia River valley, eventually spilling out into our estuary some 250 or more miles away from its point of origin. Here the molten rock froze quickly, vaporizing the water it touched and intruding into the soft wet sediments at the bottom of the bay. This fractured (what geologists call brecciated) hunk of frozen lava is what eventually became Saddle Mountain as the modern coast range rose from the sea. Waves and river currents washed the softer sediments from its flanks as the land ascended, leaving this hikable beauty to stand nearly 3,300 feet above the Pacific.

Getting to Saddle Mountain is easy; Simply take highway 26 west from Portland to Saddle Mountain Road just past mile marker 11. Saddle Mountain Road ends at the trailhead parking lot. Be forewarned: this is a strenuous hike and there are places with some rough footing. Wear good boots, bring lots of water and some food, and find some other hike to do on treacherous weather days. The slope can be slippery and muddy, and hikers have fallen to their death from the summit, so be smart & be prepared.

Forest TypesThe path slopes upward starting immediately at the trailhead. In this first short portion of the hike you’ll wander through forests that alternate from doug fir (top right) to alder (bottom right), then back again. In spring and early summer, be sure to look to the ground here so that you don’t miss the many wildflowers that bloom on the forest floor. In particular, look for columbine, wild iris, bleeding hearts, and tiger lily.

Before you’ve gone a quarter of a mile, you’ll reach a side path to the Humbug Mountain overlook. Don’t pass by this side trek! It offers the best available overview of Saddle Mountain (see the header image for this post) and an incredible perspective of Humbug Mountain, another coastal prominence that shares its origin story with Saddle Mountain. Look into the valley between these two high points and imagine how the wind and water cleared away the softer sediments and most severely brecciated parts of the mountains as they rose from the sea.

Humbug Mountain

Humbug Mountain from the spur trail viewpoint.

Return to the main trail once your eyes have had their fill and continue your forested climb. The vegetation can be thick at your feet during this next portion of the hike and I recommend not touching the plants unless you know what they are. Poison oak can be spotted, and devil’s club with it’s prickly stalks are prominent; neither of which you’ll particularly like to brush against.

Invasive Dike

The trailside invasive dike.

Just past the first mile marker you’ll come upon a picnic bench at the turn of a switchback. Behind this bench and situated along a a steep slope is a narrow rock outcropping called an invasive dike. As the lava flow was freezing, cracking and penetrating into wet sand and mudstone, the fissures created in the process allowed additional oncoming lava to squeeze into these now insulated cracks. This lava cooled gradually, compared to the the bulk of the mountain, allowing the classic hexagonal basalt block shape to form in narrow slices. You’ll see several other invasive dikes along this hike, but this one is close enough to pet, so it deserves special attention.

Balanced RockThe trail map shown above has two purple markers mid-trail. The first shows the touchable invasive dike; the second is a beautiful overlook which features a precariously positioned block of basalt atop a rock pillar. This is a great spot to catch your breath as you prepare for the final half mile of the trail. From this point on, the vistas just get more beautiful and, on clear days, you’ll be able to spot regional features from the mouth of the Columbia to Mounts St. Helens, Rainier, Adams, and Hood.

Invasive Dike Near Summit

The dike is at bottom left in this image. Hard to see in thumbnail view.

You’ll soon reach a false summit, at which point you’ll dip into the saddle of the mountain and begin the final ascent to the true summit. Look for more invasive dikes as you climb the hill. They jut out from the mountainside like the blades of an enormous circular saw. Click the image to the left for a full view to see an example of one dike protruding from a meadow. Humbug Mountain is in the background.

Now your heart rate is elevated and so are you, as you spy the full vista from the summit. This is a very pretty sight even on cloudy days, but is especially marvelous when skies are clear. The native Clatsop people called this mountain Swallalahoost, home of the creator of lightning and thunder. The legend goes that a former Clatsop chief, once defeated by his enemies, transformed into a giant eagle and came to reside here. It’s easy to see why such a powerful being would choose this prominence as their home.

Summit in early Spring

The view from teh summit on a cloudy day. Please avoid this trail in trecherous weather. It is very dangerous in the wind and rain.

From the summit, return the way you came to get back to your vehicle. If you’re as hungry as I always am once you reach the car, Cannon Beach is only 12 miles west, and the Camp 18 restaurant only a few miles east along Hwy 24.


9 thoughts on “Take a Hike: Saddle Mountain

  1. Nice looking blog post! Thanks for the great pictures. If I’m ever in Oregon, I’ll see if I can’t take this post with me! Right now I’m adding your blog to my Google Reader list. : )

  2. As an avid hiker, this is truly my favorite hike. Your post captures all of the beauty that is Saddle Mountain!! Heading there tomorrow as my official summer starter!!

  3. Well, today I made it about 3/4’s of the way to the summit and suffered a terrible sense of vertigo when entering the first truly open expanse. Such a narrow and treacherous trail at that point with loose rock and soil mercifully held together with the wire mesh.

    I was doing just fine until that point as the trail was usually lined with trees or plants so I felt like I had at least some kind of peripheral border, and then WHAM-O!, a sheer drop-off to the left with an enormous and overwhelming panorama that made me so dizzy that I dropped on my bottom and clawed the soil behind me – it felt like my head was going to fling my entire body off the side. lol.

    I am attempting my second summit on August 7th. but this time I am going to have some hiking sticks and focus on the ground instead of the enormous vista while walking. The physicallity is not the issue for me but wow, that is one precarious trail.

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