How We Survived a Slight Derailment on Tower Rock

From basecamp, Tower Rock, formed by wind, water, and ice, dominates the eastern horizon at 2000' above the Cispus River Valley floor.

Tower Rock

For the last few years, we’ve been visiting the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and exploring the area surrounding Mt. St. Helens. There’s no shortage of breathtaking vistas, from hidden waterfalls to deep green valleys looking like they were the inspiration for “Lord of the Rings.” However, a basalt tower named Tower Rock is one of the least heard-about wonders that rates up there with Yosemite’s splendor. Ok, so the name’s not that imaginative.

A nice spot on Yellowjacket Creek to have a picnic. You can see the effects of the wind storms that move through the valley.

But everything else about this formation is impressive, whether you’re viewing it from afar, at its base, craning your neck to look up, or standing on the upper edge looking into the void below.

Tower Rock formed about 17 million years ago when a mass of molten lava cooled and crystallized near the surface. Natural erosion and the Cispus River started revealing what we know as Tower Rock. Roughly 2.5 million years ago, a glacier then moved down the valley, chiseling the vertical face we see today. The summit is 2000′ above the valley floor, and the vertical face is a sheer 1000′ face.


Our mission is a labor of love, but it does come with overhead. If you’d like to support our efforts we’d certainly appreciate it. Currently, we’re actively participating in the following field research:

  • COASST Beached Bird Surveys
  • Wild and Scenic River Project

Thank you.


From basecamp, Tower Rock, formed by wind, water, and ice, dominates the eastern horizon at 2000' above the Cispus River Valley floor.


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Missing the Trail

Our adventure began when, sitting in camp looking up at the summit, we noticed a shining reflection appear as the sun moved towards the western horizon. Despite using my spotting scope, I couldn’t determine what object was casting the reflection.

I had found that a trail led from a logging road out to the summit and should not be too difficult to hike. We originally had planned to try the hike the next day, but curiosity got the better of us, and we decided to drive up and see if we could at least find the trailhead for the hike. Well, we did just that. While sitting in the truck, we could see through the trees that a spectacular sunset was forming to the west, and the trail looked particularly easy to follow. It didn’t take long to talk ourselves into grabbing whatever we had on hand and setting out toward the summit. With only one headlamp on hand, I remember stating that I wasn’t sure this was the best idea.

Reaching the summit, we were met with a spectacular view from the vantage above the Cispus River Valley and the sunset. One photograph turned into dozens, and despite knowing we were committing ourselves to hike back some very dense and potentially dark woods, we couldn’t pull ourselves away.


Tower Rock at Night

Once the sun dropped below the horizon, it got very dark, and keeping on the trail with only one headlamp was sketchy at best. Our only saving grace was I had recorded our hike on my Garmin Fenix 6. I’m confident we would have had to spend an uncomfortable night in the woods waiting for sunrise. And even then, we lost the trail at one point, bushwhacking for 10 minutes to find it again. All the while trying to hold down the panic.

We made our way back to the truck and returned to camp humbled and hopefully a little wiser.

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