Why it’s great: With exposed ridgelines, castlelike rock formations, rushing creeks, and pockets of deep Gorge wilderness, this 11-mile loop packs the drama and challenge of a backcountry epic into a day hike. From the Horsetail Falls Trailhead, find a “Trail Not Maintained” sign (visible .4 miles in, just before Ponytail Falls) and pick your way up the path. (Expect to cling to roots and rocks.) After about .3 miles of scrambling, a short side trail leads to views of the majestic Rock of Ages Arch. Farther up, atop Devil’s Backbone, a wavelike lump of rock reveals infinite views of the Columbia, Mount St. Helens, and forested hills. Continue up the wooded ridgeline for a calf-crunching 2-mile ascent to Horsetail Creek Trail (and level ground), then turn right. After a pair of creek crossings, go right on the Bell Creek Trail, which descends to melodic Oneonta Creek and an excellent waterside campsite. At the junction with Oneonta Trail, head right and link back to Horsetail Falls Trail and the welcoming mist of Ponytail Falls.
Don’t forget: A water filter. Several creek crossings, including forks of Horsetail Creek and Oneonta Creek, provide ample opportunities to rehydrate without packing extra bottles.
Post-hike watering hole: Shirley’s Tippy Canoe Woodsy charm rules inside this throwback-style roadhouse just off the Historic Columbia River Highway. Taps are plentiful, as are shiny slab tables and rock-stump seats. But the place is probably best enjoyed out back, where a large patio, complete with fire pits, overlooks the Sandy River. Live music on Friday and Saturday evenings means you might stick around till well after dark. 28242 E. Columbia River Hwy, Troutdale; 503-492-2220
Trailhead directions: Take I-84 east to exit 35 and follow the Historic Columbia River Highway for 1.5 miles to the Horsetail Falls Trailhead. No fees.