Training for the Pacific Crest Trail: Four Tough Tune-Ups

Dog Mountain is a popular early-season trek for veteran hikers looking to get into shape.
Dog Mountain is a popular early-season trek for veteran hikers looking to get into shape. Amy Selleck
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This is the time of year when many Pacific Crest Trail hikers start the 2,650-mile trek, which extends from the U.S. border with Mexico in the south to the Canadian border in the north. Most hikers heading south leave in April and May, while those heading north will leave in June and July.

But hikers need to be in shape before setting out. Fortunately, a variety of trails in the Columbia River Gorge offer impressive elevation gains that test hikers and help get them ready for the Pacific Crest Trail (or any number of long-distance treks). Hamilton Mountain, Dog Mountain, and Mount Defiance all present unique challenges, but they all have at least one thing in common: elevation gain. Lots of it.

Whether you're getting in some last-minute training for the Pacific Crest Trail, inspired by the kickoff for the PCT season this year, or just looking for a challenging workout outside of the gym, these four routes in the scenic Columbia River Gorge promise to deliver.

Hamilton Mountain

Hikers enjoy incredible views of the Columbia River Gorge along the Hamilton Mountain trail.
Hikers enjoy incredible views of the Columbia River Gorge along the Hamilton Mountain trail. XWRN

Hamilton Mountain challenges even the heartiest of hikers—it gains about 2,000 feet in fewer than five miles—but rewards them with impressive views of the Columbia River Gorge and scenic waterfalls. Along the way, hikers will enjoy numerous views of Beacon Rock (across the street from the Hamilton Mountain trailhead) and the Columbia River; close-up views of Hardy Falls and the Pool of the Winds; and, on sunny days, a summit view of the Bonneville Dam.

The nearly 10-mile loop gains about 700 feet in the final mile. That added challenge so late in the hike makes it a good tune-up for tougher routes.

Dog Mountain

Dog Mountain is a popular early-season trek for veteran hikers looking to get into shape.
Dog Mountain is a popular early-season trek for veteran hikers looking to get into shape. Amy Selleck

Dog Mountain is one of the most popular spring hiking destinations in the Columbia River Gorge for a number of reasons: Its views of the Gorge are among the best in the region, its wildflower displays blanket the hillsides and meadows in vibrant color each spring, and its 2,800-foot climb makes for a great tune-up for hikers with an eye on longer, more strenuous treks.

The Augsperger Mountain Trail is the longer of trails that reach the Dog Mountain summit, with a slightly more gradual climb than the Dog Mountain Trail. The first mile gains about 600 feet, but that’s just a warm-up: The next 1.8 miles gains about 1,500 feet before reaching the summit.

Mount Defiance

The summit of Mount Defiance is generally considered to be the tallest point in the Columbia River Gorge.
The summit of Mount Defiance is generally considered to be the tallest point in the Columbia River Gorge. Shaylor

There’s no way to sugarcoat the Mount Defiance hike: The strenuous trek gains a whopping 4,800 feet over the course of six miles (that’s as much as the first two hikes mentioned in this article combined ), and its summit is generally known as the highest point in the Columbia River Gorge.

You'll gain roughly 3,500 feet by the first five miles, and while the ascent doesn’t get much easier, the views start to open up a bit the higher you go, with impressive looks at the surrounding gorge. The summit offers a wide-open look at Mount Hood and its surrounding forests, but finishing this hike is generally its own reward.

Table Mountain

The summit of Table Mountain offers some of the most impressive views in the entire Columbia River Gorge.
The summit of Table Mountain offers some of the most impressive views in the entire Columbia River Gorge. Thomas Quinones

Hiking Table Mountain is a worthy enough goal on its own, but its arduous climb—more than 3,000 feet over 8.5 miles—makes the trek an ideal tuneup for the Pacific Crest Trail (which actually intersects with the trails on Table Mountain).

There aren't many breaks along the way, thanks in part to one especially exhausting stretch when the hike gains 700 feet in a half mile. Numerous switchbacks and a difficult rock scramble add to the intensity, but the summit is worth it: The top of Table Mountain offers 360-degree views of the Columbia River Gorge, including numerous Cascade peaks and the Eagle Creek Gorge.

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