Nature In Your Face: Hiking the Columbia Gorge
By Michael Lanza
Horsetail Falls slices a thin, glowing white, 176-foot-tall incision down a cliff of black rock wallpapered with moss and ferns, crashing into a shallow, chilly wading pool at its base. To see it, today’s first waterfall, we had to hike all the way across the road from the parking lot.
My son, Nate, and daughter, Alex, give Horsetail the once-over without much comment or enthusiasm. It’s not easy to impress elementary-school-age kids with nature, not even when it roars louder and looms larger than their favorite video games. I understand why: To kids, nature’s no good if it’s no better than a picture on the wall—they want to immerse themselves in it, get dirty and wet and throw stuff. And that water’s too chilly on this overcast, cool, June day to wade into that pool. But I know they’ll be more impressed with the next falls awaiting us. And sure enough, a little while later, when we turn a corner on the trail through dense, dripping rainforest and see Ponytail Falls, they pick up the pace and gush, “That’s cool!”
Eighty feet tall, Ponytail (aka Upper Horsetail Falls) pours a column of freefalling water over a cliff of dark basalt. But the cool part is that the trail cuts behind the waterfall: We walk through a deep, cave-like recess beneath an overhanging basalt ledge, close enough to Ponytail’s backside to feel its spray.
We’re hiking a 4.5-mile tour of three of the prettiest waterfalls on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area: Horsetail, Ponytail, and Triple Falls. We’ve come here to spend four days hiking some of the classic trails on both sides of the Columbia Gorge, while staying in a rental home outside Hood River, Oregon (with a killer view of Mt. Hood from our living room).
Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area
Cleaved by the Columbia River, the Columbia Gorge forms an 80-mile-long trough up to 4,000 feet deep separating Washington from Oregon, extending from the Sandy River to the Deschutes River. With more than 200 miles of trails and scores of waterfalls in the 292,500-acre Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, it’s a major center for hiking and backpacking less than an hour from Portland. One of the best spots in the Pacific Northwest for seeing waterfalls and wildflowers, it’s also a great destination for hiking with kids—because here, nature is more interactive than a touch screen.
The waterfalls fascinate our kids, and they edge up to the brink of precipitous, moss-covered cliffs overlooking the Gorge. And I’m with them every physical and emotional step of the way. Sure, I love big, grand vistas. But hiking in the Gorge is all about appreciating landscape at a micro level, more close-up and intimately than we’re used to in many of our most beloved Western wild lands—in other words, the way kids like to enjoy nature. Children have little use for distant scenery: You can’t manipulate and interact with it; you can’t throw rocks at it or hit it with a stick. Beauty within reach is the only kind of beauty to a young kid.
In the Columbia Gorge, environment is destiny. Go to the Oregon side for waterfalls and an intensity of greenery you just can’t find in many other places; it reminds me of parts of the temperate rainforest around Mt. Rainier and in Olympic National Park. On the Washington side in May and June, you’ll find vast fields of wildflowers to rival the sub-alpine parklands around Mt. Rainier and in the Colorado Rockies, including more than a dozen endemic species—wildflowers that grow nowhere else.
We’ve come to the Gorge on a mission to see some very cool waterfalls, wildflowers, and a big eyeful of photosynthesis.
Ponytail Falls, Triple Falls
From Ponytail Falls, we follow a winding trail into Oneonta Gorge, passing smaller waterfalls and cascades. Ferns and leafy plants carpet the ground so thickly that we can’t even glimpse the dirt beneath them. Tree limbs wear Spanish moss like tinsel on a Christmas tree, the branches stacking upward, ladder rungs in a multi-tiered forest canopy that blocks out the sky. We hike up a footpath that hugs cliffs sprouting thick beards of ferns, mosses, and big trees.
Here on the Oregon side of the Gorge, gravity is king and water his obedient servant. More than 90 waterfalls tumble down through the dense temperate rainforest on this southern side of the Gorge, owing their existence to steep topography forged in violent origins.
The Gorge was carved out of volcanic rock by several cataclysmic floods that occurred 13,000 to 15,000 years, near the end of the last Ice Age, when the ice dam that created Lake Missoula burst. The largest of the floods that coursed down the Columbia River discharged a volume of water estimated at 13 times that of the Amazon River. The waterfalls draw their generous flows today from a spigot that opens frequently: While the eastern end of the Gorge is much drier, 75 to 100 inches of rain falls annually on much of this landscape—more than twice as much as received by famously soggy Seattle.
We reach the overlook above Triple Falls, which plunges in three neat, parallel columns over a lushly green cliff. Unfortunately, you can’t get close to Triple Falls, and I suspect my kids are wondering what it would be like to ride the gushing water in one of those three channels over the edge.
Later that afternoon, we stop at the best-known waterfall in the Gorge, Multnomah Falls. Visible from the road and a two-minute walk from the parking log, 620-foot-tall Multnomah consequently receives almost two million visitors a year. In spite of the crowds there today, we make the two-minute walk up to Benson Bridge, which spans the stream between Multnomah’s upper and lower drops.
Eagle Creek Trail
We’re less than two miles up the Eagle Creek Trail when my plan to hike our three-generation, extended-family group of nine adults and kids 12 miles round-trip hits a snag. We’ve just visited Punch Bowl Falls, where Eagle Creek pours like milk from a wide-mouth jug into an almost perfectly round bowl of stone draped with dense, emerald vegetation—and just the first of several waterfalls along this trail. I’ve been hoping to coax everyone all the way up this trail to arguably the most majestic waterfall in the Gorge.
But that’s not going to happen today.
Some of our group have had enough hiking for today; they’re turning back. That’s okay; it’s important to know when to not push people farther than they want to go. But Nate, who’s 10, hankers to hike his biggest day ever, which 12 miles will be for him. My brother-in-law, Franco, and his 14-year-old daughter, Anna, have no intention of turning around. And my mom, Joanne, who’s older than I’m allowed to tell, is determined to go as far as she can, though she’s skeptical about knocking off 12 miles. So the group splits and we push on.
Eagle Creek drops steeply and carves a tight, deep gorge into bedrock, a topographical breeding ground for waterfalls. We pass several and cross High Bridge—where Nate drops stones and counts four seconds before they hit the water. A few hours into our hike, rounding a turn in the trail, we hear a steady roar through the dense forest. Then we see it.
Tunnel Falls drops a sheer 160 feet over a cliff thick with greenery. We pass through a tunnel maybe 20 feet long through solid rock behind the waterfall, emerging into the waterfall’s spray on the other side. Then we all—even my mom has made it this far—follow the trail, a narrow ledge carved into the cliff face, a short distance farther for a look back at the waterfall, eliciting oohs and aahs and comments of “this is awesome!”
On our fourth day in Hood River, almost everyone wants to visit Portland and local wineries. But my indefatigable, septuagenarian mom is here to hike, and apparently I haven’t worn her out yet. So as a good son, I feel obliged to abide her wishes. We head for one of the most popular hikes in the Columbia Gorge, Dog Mountain, on the Washington side.
We had all actually hiked up Dog on our first day here. But it was raw, windy, cold, and wet that day, so we had turned around right after we broke out above the trees—not really seeing the sprawling wildflower meadows on the upper mountain that make hiking Dog such a treat. Today, though, my mom and I set out under bluebird skies.
Despite the parade of hikers, I love going up Dog. The relentlessly steep trail switches back and forth dozens of times on an ascent of nearly 3,000 vertical feet in 3.3 miles—a terrific workout. Much of the way, you ascend through shady forest of oak and pine dripping with Spanish moss. But within about a half-mile of the summit, the trail emerges on an open mountainside so densely carpeted with wildflowers that it looks landscaped.
This hike also brings back a fond personal memory: My wife, Penny, and I climbed Dog once before this week, with the kids when Nate was two and Alex two months old. At one point that day, I had Alex in a chest pack and Nate in a child-carrier pack on my back; it was hot and I sweated profusely chugging up that steep trail. But we made it to those wildflower meadows, even though we let Nate hike on his own—at his two-year-old’s pace—as much as he wanted, which was a pretty good part of the ascent.
While she again started out unsure how far she would get, my mom reaches the meadows. Arrowleaf balsamroot, phlox, lupine, paintbrush, lilies, and other flowers bloom in a riot of primary colors. As we near Dog’s summit, Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens both come into view, their snows gleaming in the bright sunshine. We descend the Augspurger Trail, looking down a vertical half-mile on the long, wide swath of the Columbia River framed by steep hills that conceal a lot of foaming water under those dense forest canopies.
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR hikers of all levels, including families. Difficulty varies with the length and net elevation gain of each hike (see The Itinerary, below). Trails are generally very good and well marked. Winds can be very strong in exposed areas like the broad meadows of Dog Mountain, as well as in the bottom of the Gorge, but trails in the woods are more protected.
Make It Happen
Season The best time of year for viewing wildflowers and waterfalls is May and June. It’s possible to hike year-round at lower elevations in the Columbia Gorge, though it rains frequently from October into June. Higher trails become snow-free by early summer.
• Horsetail Falls, Ponytail Falls, Oneonta Gorge, and Triple Falls are seen on a 4.5-mile loop from the Horsetail Falls Trailhead, with less than 1,000 feet of elevation gain and loss.
• Eagle Creek Trail to Tunnel Falls is a 12-mile, 1,100-foot, round-trip hike from the Eagle Creek Trailhead.
• Dog Mountain Trail is a 7.3-mile loop with nearly 3,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. Go up the newer Dog Mountain Trail (bear right at 0.6 mile), which is slightly less direct and slightly less steep than the old trail, with better views; and descend from the Augspurger Trail, which is less steep and easier on your knees.
• Horsetail Falls Trailhead: Take I-84 to exit 35, then follow the Historic Columbia River Highway 1.5 miles west to a large trailhead parking lot.
• Multnomah Falls: Take exit 31 off I-84; the waterfall is right off the exit.
• Eagle Creek Trailhead: From exit 41 (Eagle Creek, Fish Hatchery) on I-84, turn right, bear right again after 0.1 mile, then drive another 0.4 mile to the trailhead.
• Dog Mountain Trailhead: From exit 44 (Cascade Locks) on I-84, cross the Bridge of the Gods (toll) to WA 14; turn right and continue 12 miles to the trailhead. Or from exit 64 (Hood River) on I-84, cross the toll bridge, then turn left onto WA 14 and continue 12.2 miles to the trailhead.
Maps U.S. Forest Service “Columbia River Gorge” map WA-18, $8, (406) 329-3024, nationalforeststore.com. Or Green Trails maps Columbia River Gorge-West no. 428S (Horesetail, Ponytail, Triple Falls hike), Bonneville Dam no. 429 (Eagle Creek hike), and Hood River no. 430 (Dog Mountain hike), $8 each, greentrailsmaps.com.
Guidebook Dayhiking Columbia River Gorge, by Craig Romano, $18.95, The Mountaineers Books, (800) 553-4453, mountaineersbooks.org.