Beacon Rock is a basaltic monolith that shoots an attention-begging 848 feet out of the Columbia River in the heart of Washington’s Cascade Range.
Known as Che-che-op-tin meaning “Navel of the world” to the native Chinook, it was given it’s current name by Lewis and Clark in 1805 on their way to the Pacific. The explorers noted that the rock marked the uppermost extent of the tidal influence on the Columbia river.
The towering landmark is a basalt column that formed the core of an ancient volcano. The series of massive ice-age floods known as “The Missoula Floods” tore through the Columbia River Gorge, wearing away the softer surrounding materials, and leaving today’s Beacon Rock behind.
The rock stood simply as a unique landmark for many years. In 1904, an admirer named Charles Ladd purchased the monolith; his ownership countered attempts by the Army Corps of Engineers to blast it apart and use the pieces to craft a jetty in the adjoining Columbia River. In 1915, he sold the natural wonder for $1 and included a clause in the deed that it be preserved.
It was purchaser Henry Biddle and a friend who crafted a remarkable system of trails, ramps and stairs on the rock’s steeply inclining surface. The exceptionally complex trail system was under construction from 1915 until 1918. What took two men only three years to build still stands today.
Upon Biddle’s death, his heirs acquired the rock and attempted to offer it to the state of Washington for preservation, as there was still talk of demolishing it for the Columbia River jetties. Washington governor Roland Hartley refused the gift on the grounds that the Biddle heirs simply wanted to avoid paying taxes on the property. Had the Biddle heirs stopped paying taxes on the rock, it would have gone up for public auction. It was only upon the news that the Oregon’s superintendent of parks, Samuel H. Boardman, was planning to purchase the rock for the Oregon State Parks system that the state of Washington rallied to acquire Beacon Rock and the adjacent land for a park.
Under Governor Clarence D. Martin, Washington acquired the marvel as a state park in 1935 when Biddle’s heirs offered it to the state.
Today, visitors of Beacon Rock State Park use the unique trail system to easily traverse the rock’s steep ledges to its peak overlooking the Columbia River Gorge. The rock is also open for climbing year-round.
Know Before You Go
on State Route 14 about 35 miles (56 km) east of Vancouver, Washington.