Waterfalls of the Columbia River Gorge

By Foot,

Late spring/early summer is a great time for waterfalls. The Columbia River Gorge is a great place for waterfalls. So why not go all out with a weekend full of waterfalls?

This is my logic when I realize that the upcoming June weekend is my last free weekend until late August. Instead of relaxing as any sane person would do, I plan a last-minute camping trip to worship waterfalls. As such, this trip report is less a story and more a guide on how to see the most waterfalls in the fewest miles.

To start things off, Rob and I drive down the winding Historic Columbia River Highway, stopping at the Vista House and a viewpoint of Latourell Falls.

An even more industrious person can stop at other roadside falls like Shepperd’s Dell Falls and Bridal Veil Falls, but we want to hit a longer trail.

We luck into a parking spot at Wahkeena trailhead after discovering the road is backed up all the way to Multnomah. To start our 5 mile moderate loop trail, we head up the path to Wahkeena Falls.

Latourell Falls Whakeena Falls

The trail continues climbing from here, but switchbacks keep things from getting strenuous and views of the gorge keep things from getting boring. We pass by the aptly named and enchanting Fairy Falls. I hum the Zelda Fairy Fountain theme for the next mile.

Fairy Falls

There’s a long dry spell as the hike finishes its uphill meander. This is made longer when I follow a sign referencing an intersection with the Wahkeena Trail instead of continuing on the actual Wahkeena Trail. Whoops. We backtrack, find the right path, and turn left onto Larch Mountain Trail, walking along Multnomah Creek on its dramatic tumble down the mountain.

We follow a little cliffside path to this awesome reading nook overlooking Ecola Falls. The sweet bubble of a trail cider, the roar of the waterfall, and the wit of Terry Pratchett meld into a lovely moment in time.

Ecola Falls

Our long stretch of solitude is broken around Weisendanger Falls. It’s fun to scramble over logs, including one shaped like a friendly forest dragon, and walk up to the base of the falls.

Wesiendanger Falls

The series of three short drops comprising Dutchman Falls (unpictured) are but the largest of many unnamed smaller cascades.

By the time the dirt trail turns into pavement, people are everywhere. We take a detour to the packed viewing platform and peer over to where an unassuming trickle of water begins its 620 foot plunge. It gives nothing away about what the falls actually looks like.

Multnomah Falls (1)

We fly down the switchbacks (numbered with signs!), grateful that we saved ourselves the drudgery of heading up them.

When Multnomah Falls finally comes into view, it takes our breath away. This is why all the tourists are here.

I can’t help but think of Multnomah as the Disneyland of waterfalls. The paved trails swarm with children and strollers. There is direct parking lot access and even a gift shop and restaurant. But despite the stressful crowds, standing on the classic bridge and watching the wind sweep the falling water into sparkling golden veils feels like magic.

Multnomah Falls (2) Multnomah Falls (4)

We move the car three miles down the road to Horsetail Falls trailhead. It’s much quieter here with the falls visible from the parking lot.

Horsetail Falls

We head up the easy trail to Ponytail Falls, which pours out into a little bowl-like valley. This is one of my favorites of the day, since we are able to see it most from every angle, including behind and below.

Ponytail Falls (1) Ponytail Falls (3)

The trail continues past Upper Oneonta Falls, next to a bridge with posted warnings about instability. We cross one at a time as advised.

Upper Oneonta Falls

It’s growing late, so we skip the several mile extension to Triple Falls and instead wind our way back down to the road.  The entrance to Oneonta Gorge is just before the tunnel to complete the loop back to the parking lot.

The descent down the stairs and into the slot canyon is like a journey into another world. Light and sound softens between the vivid green walls.

The most technical part of this “hike” is the massive log jam crossing, which involves clambering over slick logs. There are a few unprepared people in jeans taking a very long time heading out, but this should be manageable for most. I’ve heard this gets insanely crowded on weekends, but this late in the evening there’s little company.

The rest of the half mile trip is a simple wade up the rocky creek. The numbing water is typically only shin deep, though in one brief section is rises to my belly button. At the end, we Lower Oneonta Falls greets us, a simple 100 foot drop into a crystal clear pool made achingly beautiful by the vibrant gorge setting.

Oneonta Gorge (1) Oneonta Gorge (2)

After changing pants and shoes back at the car, we head to Thunder Island Brewing Co. in Cascade Locks, where we dine on Pacific Pie pasties in a beautiful riverside setting.

We get to Wyeth Campground well after dark and are quick to set up shelter and gather firewood. There’s no running water due to bacteria, but otherwise it’s a wonderful campground featuring spacious $10 wooded sites with lots of room between neighbors.

The next morning, it’s on to more waterfalls, this time along a long stretch of the Eagle Creek Trail. Even without all the falls, this flat and easy trail is interesting. Much of the path is carved into a cliff far above the creek. Chains are provided for acrophobes or slippery conditions.

We take the popular side trail two miles in to Punchbowl Falls and watch some happy dogs play in the water.

Punchbowl Falls (1)

Further along, we find that the signs warning against cliff jumping lead to the best views:

Punchbowl Falls (2)

At 3.3 miles, High Bridge crosses 120 feet above the creek, across the narrowest section of the gorge. I lean so far out that I risk losing my book out of the top of my pack.

Eagle Creek High Bridge

Next up: Loowit Falls.  I’m running out of anything to say about these waterfalls, so just enjoy the pictures.

Loowit Falls

Shortly after crossing the bridge, here’s the top of Skoonichuck Falls.

Skoonichuck

The next few miles are monotonous, with just a couple tiny cascades far below, but the payoff is worth it when we round the corner and see the 175-foot Tunnel Falls, so named because some engineers carved out a path in a horseshoe behind the falls. The steep dropoff and the proximity of the thundering falls make me giddy – this is my favorite waterfall of the hike.

Tunnel Falls (0) Tunnel Falls (2)

Tunnel Falls is the turnaround point for many, and while it is the highlight we push the extra half mile to Twister Falls.

Eagle Creek Vertigo Mile Twister Falls

Just beyond, the trail runs along a gentle section of the creek with plenty of flat spots to rest, eat, and read in solitude.  It’s hard to muster the motivation to head the 6.5 miles back the way we came.

Our final stop is a lookout to Metlako Falls, on a turnoff we passed up on the beginning of the hike. The distant, partially obscured falls are anticlimactic, but provide a ramp back down to normalcy.

Metlako Falls

The trip consensus? Chasing waterfalls is totally worth it.

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