What’s to Love: Horsethief Lake State Park and Horsethief Butte provide a nice one-two-punch for a full-day family outing. Located about 90 miles east (via WA 14 or OR 84), you might try these two destinations for an adventurous combination of camping, technical rock climbing, rock scrambling, bouldering, hiking, boating, and fishing.
This was my first visit to the Horsethief Lake/Butte area, and I was not disappointed. Moving to Portland from Durango, Colorado, I am a desert lover. The entire area around Horsethief Lake feels like the desert southwest region. I would definitely save your visit for cooler times of the year. In the summer, I’m sure this place just bakes during the day.
The main attraction of the area is the fortress-like rock formation called “Horsethief Butte.” It’s possible to hike around the perimeter of the Butte (about 1 mile). The hike is described a bit here. If you have kids, you’ll probably want to skip the perimeter trail and head directly toward the Butte. You’ll notice a large gully (3rd/4th class) that is a fun scramble on huge boulders.
Once you’ve surmounted the first section, head straight into the belly of the beast noticing all the great climbs along the way. If you’re technical rock climbers, you’ll notice MANY places to setup top rope anchors. There are no established bolted anchors – you’ll need to use your own traditional gear. Excellent bouldering and rock scrambling is off to the left in the first side canyon.
For the most part, the rock is pretty solid, but you’ll want to bring helmets if you’re using ropes. If you’re bouldering, you’ll definitely want to bring crash pads due to the wide selection of high-ball problems. Kids will have a blast playing in the rock gullies and scrambling over the boulder fields. This is one of the best places I’ve ever seen for beginning/intermediate rock climbing.
Horsethief Lake State Park has a small, shady, and tidy campground with a decent amount of green space considering the dry weather. It offers few amenities, but I found it to be very clean with firepits, grills, and firewood for sale. The lake has a boat launch area, and I noticed many families out exploring the calm water. Check-out the website below for more information about the lake and campground. Here is a short video clip of my visit.
Caveats: People have died here. I don’t want to deter your visit, but I do want to give you fair warning. They didn’t die of a rattlesnake bite. They died rock climbing. If you plan on climbing with your kids, I recommend getting some private instruction from Jim Ablao of Chockstone Guides at Smith Rock State Park. If you plan on topping out on easy scrambles, be careful around the edges of the rock faces and cliffs. Don’t ever let your kids scramble or climb by themselves! Wearing a helmet can save your life.
It’s a $10 fee per car and there are not that many spots in the parking area. I’ve read that it can get pretty busy with with groups using the Butte for their climbing classes. Apparently, this area is popular for teaching large groups rock climbing skills.
There are several areas with native rock art (petroglyphs). These areas are clearly marked with signs, but unfortunately, it was obvious to me that people were not following the rules. Keep away from this ancient artwork and keep a close eye on your kids. Naturally, they’ll want to go up to it and touch it or look at it closer.
Website: Horsethief Lake State Park
Distance from Portland: About 90 miles from downtown Portland. Here is a Google Map.
Recommended Ages: Not the best place for babies or toddlers, especially in hot weather – it’s just too exposed. This would be a great spot for teens who like rock scrambling. I think the youngest age I’d recommend is 5 years.
Parental Stress Factor: A picnic over at the lake with some fishing would obviously be low stress. If you venture out onto the Butte, your stress level will certainly elevate, which is a perfectly reasonable response! This is a fun area for kids – I know families who have taken their kids and had a blast. However, it’s also potentially dangerous, if you’re not paying close attention to your kids at all times. If you let them just “go play on the rocks,” you might turn to see them 30 feet off the ground and in trouble.
Physical Difficulty: The hike around the Butte is short and relatively flat. The hike up the Butte is short and steep, but it’s not overly strenuous. Bouldering and rock scrambling are both physically challenging.
Family Fun Factor: If your family likes to explore and have fun around rocks and boulders, this is the perfect outing! There are no detailed guidebooks, hiking, or climbing-route descriptions. It feels like the wild west – just get out there and start walking around and exploring. If you’re going to camp at the lake, make sure to bring some games for the kids, especially lawn games.
Pet Friendly: I don’t think this is a very good destination for most dogs. Smaller dogs will have trouble scrambling up the large boulders. As stated earlier, there is exposure – both sunlight and cliff ledges. Dogs must be on a leash. While certainly people take their dog to the Butte and Lake, I wouldn’t consider it the friendliest place for a dog.
Weather Considerations: If you’re taking the family during the summer, I would hit the Butte area first thing in the early morning. That way, you can avoid the heat and head over to the campground at the lake for a picnic lunch. Obviously, the best time to visit is the fall or winter on a dry day.
Insider Info: There is NO WATER at Horsethief Butte!!! There is a bathroom at the trailhead, and I encourage you to use it before heading out to the Butte. Once you’ve used your water reserves, head over to the campground at the lake to resupply. They’ll let you park your car for 15 minutes without having to buy a day pass ($10).
Watch out for rattlesnakes! You’ll see the sign at the trailhead, and I thought for sure I would hear that very distinct rattle on my trip. Fortunately, I didn’t hear or see any snakes. Obviously, this terrain is perfect for snakes, and they love to hang out in the nooks and crannies of the boulder piles. Be careful about where you step and where you put your hands. Don’t let kids run through the brush.
Family Tips: The lake offers some nice shade and a grassy area with picnic tables and grills for a BBQ. Although we’re pretty agressive with our Bob jogging stroller, I don’t recommend bringing it to the Butte, unless you’re going to hike the perimeter trail. A backpack is a much better option for small children, especially if your main objective is to go on top of the Butte.
Bring a first aid kit just in case someone takes a tumble on the rocks. While it’s unlikely, be prepared with a plan in case someone has a run-in with a rattlesnake or takes a serious fall on the rocks.
To make the drive a bit less monotonous, make it a loop by driving out 84 and crossing over at The Dalles bridge, Hood River Bridge, or Bridge of the Gods. Then, you can drive back on highway 14, which is a very pleasant (but slower) drive.
Other Posts of Interest...
Rocky Butte - Joseph Wood Hill Park on May 6th, 2012
Government Cove Peninsula on August 27th, 2012
Leavenworth, WA - Summer Edition on July 2nd, 2013