Here's What Makes This Gorgeous Northwestern Trail So Dangerous

Although it is only a day hike, the Ruckel Ridge Loop is one of the most treacherous of the hikes in Oregon's Columbia Gorge. In fact, while it has always been tricky, it's no longer accessible to hikers — after suffering damage from the Eagle Creek Fire in 2017, the trail was deemed too hazardous for use and officially closed a few years later to anyone without a forest service permit or special exemption. But even when it was open to the public, the Ruckel Ridge Loop was always a famously difficult hike, considered too dangerous for children, pets, or people without much hiking experience; even experienced hikers were advised not to attempt this hike alone.

What made it so challenging? Even when it was open, the trail was not officially maintained, which meant that it was overgrown, slippery, and could have unknown hazards anywhere along the way. While it used to provide hikers who were able to successfully navigate it with incredible views of the gorge below, anyone who goes there now is risking a hefty fine — not to mention life and limb.

The trail was always steep and unmaintained

For hikers who could successfully navigate it, the Ruckel Ridge Loop used to provide impressive views of the gorge and access to spring wildflower meadows, but not without extreme difficulty. The entire loop is 9 miles, and as described by Oregon Hikers Field Guide, quickly becomes very steep. Hikers often had to crawl in some sections, using hopefully stable trees and rocks along the trail to make their way up — almost more like rock climbing than true hiking.

Next, the trail presents a section known as "The Catwalk." It earned this nickname because it is an incredibly thin section at the top of the ridge, sometimes no more than a foot wide (though luckily, there also used to be an alternative path below for those who didn't want to risk a deadly fall from the ridge). After this, an even steeper climb awaits up to the snowy Benson Plateau. The very end of this climb may be the most dangerous point of the hike — not to mention the equally exhausting journey back down on Ruckel Creek Trail and through Ruckel Creek itself.

It has been closed since the Eagle Creek Fire

In September of 2017, a devastating 3000-acre fire, caused by a visitor's reckless use of fireworks (via KGW), spread in Columbia River Gorge. Over 150 hikers were on Eagle Creek Trail — which runs parallel to the Ruckel Creek Trail — and were trapped there overnight by the fire until they could be evacuated in the morning. As described by Oregon Live, the fire continued to burn for days, doing damage to many trails, including the Ruckel Ridge Loop. After the fire was out, many of the trails through the gorge required restoration and rebuilding, with damage still visible in the area today.

While it had always been dangerous, the fire made the landscape prone to landslides. In 2021, Ruckel Creek and five other nearby trails in the Mark O. Hatfield Wilderness were officially declared off limits until April 29, 2024, at which time their status might be reassessed — so don't plan on a visit just yet. In addition to the danger, it's worth noting that hikers illegally using closed trails may be fined and arrested, and there are safer trails nearby that provide equally stunning views of the Columbia River Gorge.

Other hikes in the same area offer similar views with less danger

While the challenging Ruckel Ridge Loop is temporarily closed, there are safer hikes through the Columbia River Gorge that also provide incredible views of the Oregon landscape. For those longing for a serious challenge similar to the one Ruckel Ridge provided, another Mark O. Hatfield Wilderness trail may be the best alternative: Starvation Ridge Trail. Oregon Hikers Field Guide calls Starvation Ridge "relentless" with "knee-breaking climbs," but the trail also provides incredible cliff-top views, forest hiking, and wildflower meadows. While it too was in the path of the Eagle Creek Fire, it is currently open.

Those looking for a steep hike — but not necessarily one like Ruckel Ridge — might want to try Angel's Rest, an 8-mile hike with a staggering view of the gorge below. For hikers just looking to experience the lush beauty of the Columbia River Gorge, Larch Mountain and Wahkeena Trail might be the best choice. These trails also have some steep parts, but the trails go through shady old-growth forest and by beautiful waterfalls. The refreshing spray even splashes onto the trails, making them some of the most popular trails to explore in the summer.