Location: Near Skamania, Washington, about 35 miles east of Vancouver
a remarkable high detached rock Stands in a bottom on the Stard Side near the lower point of this Island on the Stard. Side about 800 feet high and 400 paces around, we call the Beaten Rock. – William Clark, October 31, 1805
One of the most memorable sites I ever beheld on the Lewis & Clark trail was watching the sunset over Beacon Rock as we sailed through the Columbia River Gorge. In a region of stunning beauty, Beacon Rock–actually the plug of a long-dormant volcano–is a spectacle in itself. The second-largest free-standing monolith in the world (just behind the Rock of Gibraltar), the rock is now a state park that offers amazing hiking and views over a heavily-switchback trail first constructed in 1915.
For Clark, the rock’s singular beauty must have taken a back seat to practical considerations, for it was one of the great landmarks of the “great shute,” later called the Cascades of the Columbia. Though Clark couldn’t have known it, the Cascades were the last of the major obstructions on the Columbia barring river passage to the Pacific Ocean. All he knew was that five days after their death-defying shooting of the rapids at the Dalles, he was confronted with another equally hazardous run, a place where:
the water of this great river [are] Compressed within the Space of 150 paces in which there is great numbers of both large and Small rocks, water passing with great velocity forming & boiling in a most horriable manner…
Always an astute observer of geography and terrain, Clark also took the time to theorize that the large obstructions in the Shute “must be the Cause of the rivers daming up to Such a distance above, where it Shows Such evidant marks of the Common current of the river being much lower than at the present day.” Later geologists would prove Clark right. The Cascade Mountain range turns out to be comprised of soft volcanic material, overlain with harder basalt lava (such as Beacon Rock itself). As the Columbia River cut a path through the mountains, the lava was undermined and eventually collapsed into the river about 1250 A.D. The evidence of the collapse, including drowned forests in the river, was still visible to early explorers.
The following day, the non-swimmers among the Corps portaged the Expedition’s supplies around the Great Shute, while Clark and the other watermen undertook another hazardous and thrilling ride through the rapids, bringing the canoes safely through to the other side. Shortly thereafter, Clark made his first observation of the tide rising on the Columbia, the Expedition’s first indication that their long-dreamed-of arrival at the Pacific Ocean was not far away.
By 1850, a portage road had been built around the Cascades on the Washington side, and travelers could pass Beacon Rock in style via a mule-drawn train (later replaced by a locomotive). In 1896, the Cascade Locks and Canal opened, allowing river traffic to bypass the Cascades. The Cascades were inundated in 1938 by the construction of Bonneville Dam, and the stupendous and treacherous rapids were relegated forever to memory.
Beacon Rock itself was lucky to escape the same fate. In 1904, a group of developers decided to blow Beacon Rock to bits in order to use the stone for jetty material, and there is evidence that explosives may actually have been placed. Henry J. Biddle, a geologist who was related to Nicholas Biddle (the original editor of the Lewis & Clark Journals), bought the rock along with several other Columbia Gorge landmarks in order to preserve them for future generations. It was Biddle who oversaw the construction of the hiking trail still in use today. In 1932, Biddle’s children gave Beacon Rock to the state of Washington, and it stands today as Beacon Rock State Park.
For further reading and more great pictures: The Columbia River: A Photographic Journey