Water-Logged, Part II: Falling for Waterfalls - The Columbia River Gorge

Multhnomah Falls
The Columbia River Gorge separates Oregon from Washington and this glacially cut, volcanic rock is home to amazing, verdant green forests, trees covered with thick vibrant moss like they were wearing sweaters, and plenty of waterfalls. Why does water, falling from any height illicit a near spiritual response in us? Is it the allure and beauty of cascading water like angel’s wings? Is it the sheer massive force of something far greater then us tumbling to the earth without restriction? Whatever the reason, waterfalls are an integral part of the travel experience.

Waterfalls along the Oregon side of the Gorge are best viewed by a National Scenic Highway 30 and are as ubiquitous as pine tress here, so bring your camera. There is a peculiar sensation of driving from falls to falls, perhaps the radio blaring sequestered in your car, and then that moment you step outside and the artificial noise of the car is stunningly contrasted by the thunderous roar of the water, rather like an extreme punctuation mark. There are about 90 waterfalls along the Gorge most of which you’ll need to hike to, but there is a concentration near the mother of Gorge waterfalls, Multnomah Falls. This heavily visited falls has a 611 foot drop making it the second tallest continuously running waterfall in the U.S. Multnomah is really two falls, a 542 foot drop into a basalt rock pool, then the water passes under the beautiful Benson Bridge (built in 1914), a stone bridge which affords terrific up-close views, then plunges another 69 feet down towards the Columbia River. There is an easy half mile hike to Benson Bridge though it is all uphill. The setting of Multnomah is nearly cathedral-like, massive, grand, basalt rock forming a half moon shape towers above you, forcing you to look up. At the lip of the falls, pine trees ring the outcropping like saints looking down to the faithful. At the base there is a gift shop, which has free maps of the waterfalls, a restaurant, restrooms and plenty of parking.

From the roadway you can’t see Sheppards Dell, only a sign. The parking lot leads to a paved path and only a few steps in you see the waterfall through the dense foliage. The path is about 1/8th mile and a stone moss covered pony wall built in 1915 directs you to a small viewing area, meaning you are now halfway between the falls. You can see to your left, the water falling from further up the mountain; to your right it drops down to the floor of the dell. I found that the best views are not here at the end, but just under half way down, which allows you to see the falls through the moss laden trees and also gives you a better visual of the actual dell itself. You only get truncated views here, but the heavily forested dell is stunning.

Wahkeena Falls is perhaps my favorite, though many people pass it by since it’s not tall, forceful or well-known. But it has a certain charm all its own. It’s an easily accessible falls with a large picnic area across the road. There is a paved trail until about the last 100 feet before you reach the falls, and a small stone bridge crosses the water which gets plenty of overspray, causing moss to cover the bridge, making the whole thing look like it belongs in medieval England. There is a cool simplicity to Wahkeena.


Horsetail Falls is one of the few where you can scramble down a short dirt embankment and actually wade into a shallow pool of water. There is the ever popular Bridal Veil Falls with its wide cascading waterfall and rushing stream below it which takes just under a ½ mile walk to get there, but they have built a wooden viewing platform for postcard perfect views. There is also the aptly named thin and wispy Ponytail Falls, but definitely consider Latourell Falls, which is a straight drop, 24 stories down, and if you don’t mind getting wet you can hike behind the falls and see up close the fascinating and way cool geometric-shaped basalt rock, augmented by the overspray from the falls directly in front of you. Cross over the small wooden bridge and you’ll see a rudimentary path to your left and that will take you behind the waterfall. It’s slippery, wet and gusty from the force of the water, so please use caution, but it really gets you up close and personal with waterfalls in ways you can’t with the others. And there's really nothing like standing underneath a waterfall.

Latourell from the front
Latourell from behind the falls

Though tour companies will drive you to various falls for a price, you can access them all for free with a downloadable map and enjoy them on your own terms. Summer time gets crowded, and I feel spring and fall are the best times to visit. Fall is naturally cooler, but the occasional misty weather adds a dimension to the trip, a moody and beautiful enhancement. All these falls listed here are directly off Highway 30, and though a brief walk is necessary for some, most are visible from the road. Not listed here are the falls above these, which require a several mile hike. Worth noting, make certain to spend some time hiking around. The falls are all unique and different and need time to appreciate for their individual characteristics, so don’t just rush through them as if this were a task list. Download a concentrated map, or get a local guidebook to further explore the area. This is meant as a leisurely tour, not a race to see as many falls as you can within a short time.
Whichever falls you visit in the Gorge, make sure you give yourself plenty of time
For my 2 Minute Travel video recorded at Multnomah Falls, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q1zi37XKU1Q&feature=plcp

You can get maps here: www.ColumbiaRiverHighway.com   

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