Saturday, July 18, 2009

Columbia River Gorge

Lao Tzu was correct;
Waterfall is metaphor;
Never yielding.
-- Original haiku.

The one thing seemingly never in short supply on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge is water, whether it’s falling from the sky or over the gorge’s volcanic cliffs.

We went to the Columbia River Gorge prepared for the light drizzle that was falling when we set out from the trailhead at Multnomah Falls. Our itinerary for the day was a loop hike that would take us past some of the gorge’s best waterfalls.

Bedecked in full rain gear, my wife, Kathleen, and I set off undaunted. Once under the forest canopy, little of the rain actually reached us, and as we walked the rain stopped and started all day, rarely becoming more than a nuisance. It actually was a perfect match for the lush foliage and full waterfalls that surrounded us as we walked, but it made picture-taking trickier than usual.

We had started the day with Sunday brunch at Multnomah Falls Lodge, where we enjoyed a generous and delicious spread of everything from eggs benedict to smoked salmon to chocolate cheesecake. We ate secure in the knowledge that we’d be walking off all those calories as we hiked the nine-mile loop and climbed more than a thousand feet above the lodge.

Multnomah Falls is a popular destination for folks living in the Portland area, less than an hour west of this section of the Columbia River Gorge. Multnomah drops 620 feet and is the highlight of many visits to the Gorge, created by the stretch of the river that courses through the Cascade Mountains at the border between Oregon and Washington.

Too many folks, however, are satisfied with seeing Multnomah and the other waterfalls along the Historic Columbia River Highway that runs parallel to Interstate 84. The historic highway provides easy access to a half-dozen major waterfalls in its 24 miles from the Eagle Creek picnic area (I-84 exit #41, several miles east of Cascade Locks) to Troutdale (I-84 exit #17, about 25 minutes east of Portland). It also provides access to trailheads leading to other waterfalls, requiring hikes of as little as two miles and as long as more than 10. While this highway is an essential detour for anyone driving through the gorge, it leaves much unseen.

Kathleen and I passed more than a dozen waterfalls, both large and small, on our five-hour hike. By the time we returned to the lodge the sun was out and we were happily exhausted.

Mile for mile, the south side of the Columbia River Gorge from Hood River to the mouth of the gorge east of Portland has more waterfalls than perhaps any other area in North America. Some free fall hundreds of feet over the basalt cliffs that make up the gorge, while others cascade in foamy stairsteps down gentler hillsides. For a waterfall collector like me, it’s paradise.

The town of Cascade Locks is the most central base from which to visit the gorge, but its lodging and dining options are limited. Any of the small towns inside the gorge are close enough to give quick access to the hiking trails, or Portland is an easy drive of 45 minutes from Multnomah Falls.

Perhaps the most elegant place to stay in the region is the Columbia Gorge Hotel in Hood River, a stately old-style hotel built on a bluff above the Columbia River. The rates are pretty stately, too, starting at $159 a night. Hood River is the largest town near the waterfall area of the gorge with the largest selection of lodging and dining.

Another option is the Dolce Skamania Lodge across the river from Cascade Locks in Stevenson, Washington. The lodge specializes in conventions but is good place to stay on your own, with rates starting at $109 a night. Stevenson has a modest selection of restaurants.

Regardless of where you stay, the gorge, is really about hiking. On our trek, Kathleen and I hiked a slow, steady pace, peaking well above the spot where Multnomah Falls begins its enormous plunge. There’s a shorter hike of 2.5 miles that leads from the base of Multnomah Falls to the top of the falls. Despite its elevation climb of more than 600 feet, it’s a relatively easy hike on a mostly paved path that uses many switchbacks to ease the walk.

Another easy hike, very suitable for families, is the two-mile walk over relatively flat terrain to Wahclella Falls, which tumbles through basalt rock and boulders.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Columbia Gorge Trail, a 35-mile route that runs parallel to the Columbia River on the Oregon side of the gorge, with many opportunities for further exploration into various watersheds, each with a collection of waterfalls.

A happy medium might be the Eagle Creek Trail, which is more than 13 miles and climbs nearly 4,000 feet, a hefty hike by any standards. But some of the better waterfalls are midway through the hike, requiring a round trip of 10 miles or so. You can make the hike an all-downhill walk by leaving one vehicle at the trailhead and driving another to the Whatum Lake campsite at the end of the trail. The road to Whatum Lake is paved and clearly marked.

My favorite waterfall in the gorge is Elowah Falls. Reached by a short two-mile trail, Elowah plunges 290 feet in a single stream, framed by rock and dense foliage. Another favorite trail – and one that allows hikers to walk behind a waterfall – is the Horsetail Falls loop hike of about three miles. At one point, the trail passes behind Ponytail Falls.

Finally, a popular activity in mid-summer is to wade up the Oneonta Gorge, where Oneonta Creek carves a narrow gorge out of the volcanic rock. You can wade up to a mile upstream before the terrain gets too steep. A separate trail takes hikers above the gorge.

The best free resource on the Columbia River Gorge is the web site. Just go to the main web site and type Columbia River Gorge on the site’s search engine and you’ll find information on all the main trails. Another terrific web site is, where you can click on links to information about Multnomah Falls and the historic highway.

Because the base of the gorge and the Columbia River are essentially at sea level, you can hike the gorge pretty much any time of year, though it does snow occasionally and the falls sometimes briefly freeze, making a spectacular sight. The water runs highest during early spring snowmelt, and many of the falls are diminished in the fall, though not enough to spoil the view. It can get a little muggy in mid-summer making the hiking a little more difficult, but the dense foliage is the happy trade-off.

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