Waterfall Wonderland – The Columbia River Gorge

Wahclella Falls

No trip to Oregon would be complete without a visit to the Columbia River Gorge.  The gorge is a deep canyon, formed by the Columbia River, which extends over 80 miles from the Cascade Range in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west.  Most visitors choose to visit the roughly 60-mile stretch between Portland and Hood River, which also encompasses the Historic Columbia River Highway.  One of the main attractions in the gorge is the sheer volume of waterfalls (more than 90 on the Oregon side alone), many of which are easily accessible to visitors.   For most visitors, a visit to the Gorge begins and ends in Portland, and the trip is often a day trip which includes a stop at Mt. Hood and a drive through the famous Hood River Fruit Loop.  However, to really do justice to the area, at least one full day is recommended in order to have time for a few short hikes and not feel rushed while visiting the Gorge’s many attractions.  This suggested route begins in Hood River and ends in Portland, but can easily be adapted to reverse direction or as part of a single-day trip.

Hood River Fruit Loop

Not to be overlooked while in Hood River, even if for a short time, be sure to drive through at least part of the Hood River Fruit Loop.  A brochure is readily available in Hood River which will direct you to the many fruit stands and wineries in the region.  Traveling off the main road will bring you to gorgeous orchard vistas, and you’ll never be far from a glimpse of Mt. Hood.  Stop by a couple of fruit stands and wineries (pinot noir is very popular) to get a good feel for the area.  There are also a couple of beautiful lavender farms in this region; Hood River Lavender Farms has an especially picturesque landscape and a great gift shop.

Bonneville Dam

Start your tour of the Gorge by heading west on I-84 from Hood River.  Cascade Locks is about 20 miles west of Hood River and (if you have the time) you may want to consider a cruise on the Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler.  Cruises depart from Marine Park in Cascade Locks.  The Bonneville Dam and Fish Hatchery are at exit 40 and should be your next stop.  Be prepared for a checkpoint on your way into the dam.  The visitor’s center is approximately one mile from the checkpoint, and visitors are directed not to stop on the way in.  The visitor’s center has a wealth of information about the dam and lock.  The dam is actually two dams, one constructed in the 1930s and a second dam which was constructed by widening the Columbia River in the 1970s.  Visitors must be accompanied by a guide to visit the powerhouse (18 generators operate between the two dams), but may wander freely around the rest of the area.  An attraction in itself, the famous fish ladder has both above-water viewing, as well as additional underwater viewing areas.  The ladder was constructed to allow salmon and other fish to journey upstream and avoid getting caught in the powerhouses.  Visitors can also observe the dam’s official “fish counters”, who devote hours a day to counting each individual fish as it makes its way through the fish ladder.

Just under the I-84 overpass, you will find the trailhead for Wahclella Falls, one of the most picturesque waterfalls in the Gorge.  A relatively easy 1 mile trail leads to the base of the falls.  The lower falls are fully visible from the base, while the upper falls are partly hidden by the rocky outcroppings surrounding the falls.  Walking close to the falls feels like entering another world, as the cliffs block the sun for most of the day, and there is a mist surrounding the falls.  After returning to your car, head back east on I-84 just one exit to the turnoff for Eagle Creek Recreation Area (access is only from the eastbound side).  At the end of the road, you will find a parking lot for the trail to Punch Bowl Falls (the trail actually continues for several miles and passes many other waterfalls, but Punch Bowl Falls is the main attraction here).  The 2 mile (one way) trail to Lower Punch Bowl Falls is not for the faint of heart.  In several sections, the trail has been blasted out of the rock wall, and support cables have been added to assist in the narrow sections.  But for those willing to venture in, a beautiful waterfall awaits.  In about 1.5 miles, you’ll come to Metlako Falls (a beauty in its own right!) before reaching the spur trail to Lower Punch Bowl Falls.  The spur trail involves a fairly steep elevation drop to get to the base of the falls.  Once down in the canyon, the trail opens to a rocky beach, a favorite of swimmers and waders in the summer months.  Punch Bowl Falls gets its name because the water cascades over rocks into what looks just like a punch bowl.  Actually seeing the falls involves a little wading, or carefully stepping on exposed rocks, as the waterfall is partially hidden behind a rock wall.

Elowah Falls

After making your way back to your car, you’ll need to travel one exit east again on I-84 to get back to I-84 West.  Travel west to Exit 37, which is the start of the Historic Columbia River Highway.  Just after getting onto Rte. 30, turn left (as if getting onto I-84 eastbound).  Just before merging onto the highway, you’ll see Frontage Road on the right.  Take this approximately 2 miles to the John B. Yeon State Park/Elowah Falls trailhead.  This 1.4 mile (round trip) hike will take you to another beautiful waterfall.  Elowah Falls plunges 289 feet over a sheer rock face along McCord Creek.  This waterfall is a little off the beaten path, so you’ll find more solitude on this trail than on many of the others.

Multnomah Falls

Continuing your journey west, you will find many waterfalls within a few steps of the main road along the Historic Columbia River Highway.  The first, Horsetail Falls, is a wispy waterfall, aptly named as it looks like a long horse’s tail.  The next major stop on your journey should be Multnomah Falls.  This is perhaps the iconic waterfall in the gorge, and has been featured on many a postcard and brochure promoting the area.  One of the most memorable parts of this waterfall is the bridge that has been constructed between the lower and upper falls.  A short (.25 mile) hike will take you to the bridge and another perspective from which to view the falls.  Adjacent to the falls is the Multnomah Falls Lodge, a perfect place to stop for lunch or dinner while in the Gorge area.  Past Multnomah Falls, you will come to Bridal Veil Falls, again right next to the road, and again aptly named as the falls are reminiscent of a bride’s veil.  The final falls of note on this portion of the scenic highway are Latourell Falls.  Unfortunately, construction on the road in this section of the highway has made Latourell Falls inaccessible at this time.

Before heading back to Portland, there are two stops worthy of your time.  The first is Crown Point, home to the famous Vista House, an observatory originally built in 1918.  From the roof of Vista House, you’ll have views as far as Portland and Vancouver (WA) to the west.  About a mile further west, you will come to perhaps the most beautiful view of the Columbia River Gorge at the Portland Women’s Forum.  From this vantage point, you will have a clear view looking east through the Gorge, with Crown Point and Vista House in the distance.

Crown Point from the Portland Women’s Forum

With so many waterfalls in such a small space, it’s easy to see why so many people enjoy spending time in the Columbia River Gorge.  Though one could easily spend days and not experience everything the Gorge has to offer, a visit to even a few of the gorgeous waterfalls will make a lasting impression and leave you looking forward to your next visit!