The Columbia River Gorge

The Columbia River Gorge is an outstandingly beautiful area of high cliffs, cascading waterfalls, and wandering trails that follows the Columbia River as it passes through the Cascade Mountains. The Gorge, as it is called by the residents of Washington, Oregon and Idaho is an ancient river canyon that cuts the only sea level route through Cascades. The Gorge was cut into the landscape by the Columbia River as it flowed over the Columbia River Plateau which was created by a series of basalt flows 14 to 16 million years ago. The flows covered 164,000 square kilometers over portions of what are now northeast Oregon, southwest Washington and western Idaho.

Columnar Basaltic Rock Formations

Cliffs in the region have a spectacular columnar formation that dominate the landscape within the Gorge. One particularly stupendous example is known as Beacon Rock.

Lewis and Clark wrote about it during their travels through the Gorge in 1805. Clark wrote in his journal: "... a remarkable high detached rock Stands in a bottom on the Stard Side near the lower point of this Island on the Stard. Side about 800 feet high and 400 paces around, we call the Beaten rock. ...". Lewis, on the return trip in 1806 wrote: " ... the river is here about 1 1/2 miles wide; it's general width from the beacon rock which may be esteemed the head of tide water, to the marshey islands is from one to 2 miles tho' in many places it is still wider. it is only in the fall of the year when the river is low that the tides are persceptable as high as the beacon rock. this remarkable rock which stands on the North shore of the river is unconnected with the hills and rises to the hight of seven hundred feet; it has some pine or reather fir timber on it's northern side, the southern is a precipice of it's whole hight. it rises to a very sharp point and is visible for 20 miles below on the river. ..."

At over eighty miles long and up to 4000 feet deep, the Gorge creates a photographer's playground. The canyon walls form high cliffs on both the Oregon and Washington sides of the river with many interesting rock formations and steep trails leading to the top of the canyon. Many of these trails lead to hidden waterfalls and deep pools which can't be seen from the river below. Old growth trees provide cover throughout the canyon, and wildlife abounds. The gorge also contains the greatest concentration of waterfalls in the Pacific Northwest, with over 77 waterfalls on the Oregon side of the gorge alone.

The strong winds that funnel through the Gorge, along with the wide expanse of the Columbia River, provide ideal conditions for wind surfers and sailing enthusiasts. It's arguably the boardsailing capital of the world—it functions like a wind tunnel, generating 30-knot winds as pressure differentials in weather east and west of the Cascades find an outlet in the deep cut of the Gorge.

Looking West from Rooster Rock

Fishermen enjoy the annual salmon runs, and many tour boats ply the waters almost year round. At any given time, you can see heavily loaded barges moving up and down river with large loads of timber, grain, and other agricultural and industrial products. Large transit locks at the dam provide access between the upper and lower Columbia. There are popular dinner cruises that share these waters and provide passengers with dinner, dancing and spectacular views of the region from their decks. These cruises are the most popular during the usually clear summer months when the sunsets are particularly gorgeous.

Rooster Rock State Park is a famous gathering place for boaters and sun-loving naturists who anchor off the sandy beaches or hike down from the highway during the summer months to enjoy the beautiful scenery, three miles of wide beaches, and cool water. Rooster Rock State Park contains one of only two state designated nude recreation areas. By design, the nude beach area is completely separate and not visible from the clothing-required area of the large park. The two areas coexist in harmony.

Rooster Rock State Park as seen from Crown Point

Congress formally recognized the unique beauty of the Columbia River Gorge in 1986 when the Gorge was designated as the first National Scenic Area (a federally protected area of natural beauty). Although the area is federally protected with strict requirements for land use, the Gorge still furnishes the only navigable route through the Cascades. Shipping was greatly simplified after Bonneville Dam and The Dalles Dam submerged the gorge's major rapids.

Recreational activities abound on both sides of the river as well as on the water itself. On the Washington side of the Gorge, Skamania Lodge and Bonneville Hot Springs and Resort offer fine dining and lodging, and Dog Mountain and other hiking trails offer gorgeous views, especially in the spring when the wildflowers are blooming in the alpine meadows. Hardy Falls, a 120 foot high fall near near Beacon Rock off State Road (SR) 14 allows for a nice hike and a scenic view.

The vast majority of the waterfalls are on the Oregon side of the Gorge due to the topography of the area. Many of these beautiful cascades are accessible via short, easy hikes from the Columbia River National Scenic Highway which runs 70 miles through the Gorge on the Oregon side. To access this highway, travel east from Portland on Interstate 84 for about 17 miles then take the Troutdale Exit and follow the signs. Along the route you'll find the following:

Chanticleer Point, also known as the Portland Women's Forum State Scenic Viewpoint. This is the view looking east from there.
Vista House at Crown Point located on a 733 foot sheer cliff.

The Waterfalls

Lower Latourell Falls

Once past Vista House and Crown Point, the highway curves around and follows the contours of the canyon walls. At this point, it's a pretty good bet that there's a waterfall ahead if you see a moss covered stone bridge in your path. About three miles down the road, you'll come to one of the stone bridges with a parking area off to the right and a sign for Latourell Falls. Once you park, you can take a short hike down to the base of the falls.

Lower Latourell Falls drops 249 feet from the cliff about and cascades on to the rocks in the shallow pool below. If you examine the cliff closely, your notice the distinctive pattern of the joints in the cliff wall. This is called entablature jointing. It's a distinctive pattern found in the Columbia River basalt flows. When the lava cooled, so many millions of years ago, stress occurred which caused the joints to form.

As you gaze at the falls, you'll also note large patches of green lichen growing on the rock face above you. This is one of the distinctive features of this waterfall. A small wooden bridge spans the small stream which runs from the base of the falls, and the trail leads under the bridge across the highway and a spur off the trail leads to upper Latourell Falls. Upper Latourell Falls plunges 100 feet, and it is possible to walk behind the upper falls.

Underneath the Bridge

The improved dirt trail loops around and descends beneath the Scenic Highway and passes through the struts of the large bridge above. In the spring and summer this provides a lovely walk through a small forested glen before opening up into a camping area.

From the camping area, a series of steps climb back up to the highway on the west side of the bridge which then leads back to the parking area where the trail started. It's a relatively easy loop and those who enjoy wooded walks in dappled sunlight should definitely follow the trail through the loop. Be careful, however, when walking back across the bridge since it is narrow, and in the summer months there's quite a bit of traffic passing along the highway through the gorge.

By the way, the falls were named for Joseph Latourell, a prominent Columbia River Gorge settler, who established a homestead near the site in 1859. His homestead claim also included the area around Rooster Rock. Guy Talbot, a Portland business man bought the land in 1911 and three years later he gave the falls to the State of Oregon for a park and recreation area.

Sheppard's Dell - the falls as
seen from the stairway,

Continuing east down the highway, the next point of interest is Sheppard's Dell. This is a very easy spot to miss. The trail and falls are nestled deep into the crevices of the gorge, and there isn't a clearly visible sign indicating the stop when traveling east on the highway. There is a small turnout area on either side of the road just past the bridge. If you miss it, turn around at the Bridal Veil Falls parking lot, and go back west and you should see a sign on the north side of the highway.

The falls are part of the Sheppard's Dell Natural Area, a 519 acre park. In 1915 the area was donated as a parkland by the owner, George Sheppard, in memory of his wife. Lewis and Clark actually used the area as a base camp for hunting on their travels through the Gorge in 1806.

A very steep and narrow set of concrete stairs provide access to the short trail that leads to the falls from the highway. Located at the east end of Sheppard's Dell Bridge, the stairs provide the best overall view of the falls, as when you get to the end of the trail to the railings, you can really only see two of the smaller tiers of the falls. The large set of tiers, seen to the left, actually fall from below the tiered falls at the handrails. Overall, the falls actually of 5 tiered drops, nearly 300 feet in total length, which feed into Young's Creek, which itself feeds directly into the mighty Columbia River below.

Upper Tiers of Young's Creek Falls

The upper tier of Young's Creek Falls has a solid concrete platform with metal handrails. This places the observer very close to the falls, and provides a hard, stable platform on which to stage a tripod. This is nice if you want to shoot with a long shutter speed in order to smooth out the water flow for that clichéd silky look. This area is usually indirectly lit during the early part of the day, so it become fairly easy to photograph the falls without having to worry about blowing out the detail in the highlights. It's also a nice place for portraits as the soft light and the falls in the background contribute to an ethereal feel.

The Sheppard's Dell Bridge is also quite photogenic. Built in 1914, it features a reinforced concrete deck with a main arch span of 100 feet. In 1914, it only cost $10, 800 to build the bridge. The bridge spans a chasm 150 feet wide and 140 feet deep.

Bridal Veil Falls

Just a few miles down the highway from Sheppard's Dell, the parking lot for Bridal Falls lies to the left of the highway, directly across from the Bridal Veil lodge. This is another tiered falls with the upper falls dropping about 100 feet and the lower falls dropping about 60 feet. The parking area has a restroom and picnic area, and the improved lower trail with handrails and benches allows for a short, hike down to the creek and the falls themselves (about a one mile round trip). Parking is free, as is the park area (some Oregon parks charge day use fees).

The trail is steep with several switchbacks and stairs and is definitely not wheelchair accessible. Poison ivy and other nasty plants sometimes encroach along the edges of the trail, so it's best to stay on the path. A small bridge spans the creek at the base of the trail and a large viewing platform on the far side of the creek provides an excellent and stable area from which to view the falls. There is a large rock outcropping in the middle of the creek north of the falls and often people climb onto the outcropping for a picnic while viewing the falls. As it's rather high, and it spoils the view for other visitors, I don't recommend this.

Wahkeena Falls seen from the west portion of the trail.

The next stop down the highway is Wahkeena Falls. Simon Benson, who was one of the main contributors for the National Scenic Highway, donated the 400 acres that included these falls in 1915. The site includes an improved trail, and stone bridge that goes across the water near the base of the falls (so close that the bridge is constantly bathed in spray), as well as picnic tables and a wood pavilion. There is parking on both sides of the highway at this stop with a large picnic area/park on the side of the highway opposite the falls.

The falls were once known as Gordon Falls, named for F. E. Gordon, a early pioneer and landowner. This lead to some confusion as there was a nearby Gorton Creek, as well as a Gordon Creek near the Sandy River. So, in 1915, a committee changed the name of the falls and the creek to Wahkeena, the Yakama Indian word that means "most beautiful."

These falls are quite lovely, and the stone bridge adds greatly to their appeal making it one of the more photogenic falls in the Gorge. The base of the falls is about 100 feet above the highway below, and the falls boast a significant alluvial fan in both size and elevation which make it distinctive from the remaining Columbia River Gorge waterfalls.

Wahkeena Falls seen from the east portion of the trail.

Shooting the falls can be great fun, but if you shoot from the bridge, you're going to get wet, so protect your equipment accordingly. The gap through which Wahkeena Creek flows down to the Columbia River is quite low, so during most of the day the falls are bathed in direct sunlight, so you'll what to shoot early in the morning or later in the evening, especially if you plan to use slow shutter speeds.

The trail here is part of a loop that leads to the top of the Gorge. From Wahkeena Falls it's an easy hike on a lovely trail over to Multnomah Falls and the facilities and parking lot there. The wooded trail wends its way above the highway through the forest that climbs to up the steep sides of the gorge. The trail is wide, and fairly even. It passes beneath a very interesting basalt outcropping which will require a duck of the head for taller hikers.

Be aware that the trails in the Gorge are heavily wooded and mosquitoes and ticks abound in the warmer months, so be prepared with the proper insect repellant. The trails are well maintained, but it's not unusual for them to be closed at times during the winter months due to mudslides, falling trees, and rock falls. The teams that maintain the trails do a great job of getting them back in shape for the spring and summer rush, but even during those months an unexpected rock slide can close a trail.

Multnomah Falls

The lower trail leads directly to the Multnomah Falls area. You can also drive down the highway and park at the falls, but in the summer months, Multnomah falls is a very popular area and parking is at a premium. The area includes a restaurant, a ice cream and snack bar, a souvenir shop and the Multnomah Falls Lodge which was built in 1925.

Multnomah Falls has two major steps. The upper falls plunges 542 feet from the top of Larch Mountain into a boulder strewn pool below. The lower falls drops an additional 69 feet and there is a 9 foot drop in elevation between the two falls so the total height of the falls is reported as 620 feet. These falls are the 2nd tallest year-round waterfall in the US - only Yosemite Falls is higher.

From the Lodge area at the base of the falls, a trail leads up to Benson Footbridge (see in the picture to the right). This bridge allows visitors to the upper falls pool and the trail continues up the mountain to the top of the upper falls where hikers can get a great view of Columbia River Gorge. Once at the top of the falls, hikers will also see "Little Multnomah" which is a small cascade just upstream of the upper falls. The footbridge was named for Simon Benson, a Portland business man, who donated the land around Multnomah and, as noted above, Wahkeena Falls. Benson had the footbridge built in 1914, a year before he donated the land.

View from Benson Footbridge

The land at the base of the falls was donated by the Oregon-Washington Railroad and Navigation Company. The donation was contingent on an agreement that Portland would build a lodge at the site. The city commissioned the lodge and construction was completed in 1925. The lodge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The falls are very photogenic and may be the most photographed set of falls in the Gorge. They are certainly the most popular. This is helped by the easy access from Interstate 84 which runs quite close to the falls and provides travelers a great view of the falls before they get to the exit for the Multnomah Falls Parking area. On any given summer day, you will see hundreds of tourists with their cameras, many crowded onto the footbridge between the falls, as well as any number of local and visiting artists painting or sketching the falls from the lower viewing platforms.

Upper Multnomah Falls

The hike up to the Larch Mountain Lookout platform at the top of the falls is moderately steep with a number of switchbacks, but it's well worth the hike for the stupendous view at the top of the trail. Few visitors take this hike, but the trail is still pretty full during the summer months.

Multnomah Falls has an interesting story regarding its origin. The Native American legends tells the tale of a tribe infected with a disease so deadly that the entire tribe was in danger of being wiped out. According to the legend, the Chief's daughter climbed to the top of the cliff and prayed to the Great Spirit to save her people. She was told by the Spirit that if she sacrificed herself by jumping to the rocks below, the epidemic would stop and her people would be saved.

The next morning, the Chief found his daughter's lifeless body at the base of the cliff. Realizing what she had done, the Chief cried out to the Great Spirit to give him a sign that her sacrifice was true and not in vain. Immediately, water sprang from the top of the cliff and formed the falls now known as Multnomah. Under the right conditions it is said that the daughter's face can be seen in the falling waters.

Horsetail Falls

The last of the easily accessible waterfalls along the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic highway is just a few miles west of Multnomah Falls. These falls are a classic example of a horsetail formation, hence the name, and the name of Horsetail Creek. These falls are 176 feet high with a very large pool forming at the base of the falls. In the summer time, people love to wade in the icy cold waters which quickly numb the feet and legs.

Surrounding the falls is a well developed picnic area and viewing platform. Concrete steps provide easy access to the pool below the falls, and the adventurous can hike through the shallow pool to the east side of the falls for a different view.

Horsetail Falls is also the starting point for the Oneonta Gorge trail which leads to Ponytail and Triple Falls, as well as the small Oneonta Gorge. I have not yet hiked this trail and photographed these falls, but it is on my list of things to do in the Summer of 2008. Once I can accurately describe and provide photographs of this trail and falls, I will update this article.

This article covers only a few of the many waterfalls in the Gorge. Punchbow Falls, located along the Eagle Creek Trail in another beautiful and classic waterfall located in the Columbia River Gorge, but it will be covered in a separate article about the Eagle Creek trail and hike. As mentioned above, addition information about Ponytail and Triple Falls, as well as the Oneonta Gorge will be added as well.


2008 Mark Cohran, All Rights Reserved
Latest Revision: Thursday, January 24, 2008