Length of stay: 1 day
Visited: April 2023
The Columbia River Gorge is an incredibly scenic canyon that has been carved by the Columbia River and features several waterfalls, viewpoints and hiking trails. It was designated a national scenic area and is the largest of its kind in the United States. It’s located just east of Portland and provides plenty of outdoor recreational activities and stunning views, including of the Cascade mountains.
Despite having a bit of a late night from the shenanigans at Champoeg State Heritage Area (there was the heat, a stink bug infestation and loud music from our noisy neighbours), we woke up feeling refreshed. We had no regrets about ditching our cabin to stay in a motel instead. It was the last day of our holidays and we figured we might as well make the most of it. We got an early start as we planned to spend the day at Columbia River Gorge. It was supposed to be another warm day of blue skies and sunshine, which always brings out the crowds, especially on the weekend.
We arrived at Columbia River Gorge mid-morning and headed straight towards Multnomah Falls, the most iconic waterfall in Oregon. But it turns out that from the Historic Columbia River Highway, you can’t make a left-hand turn to access the parking lot. Since there wasn’t a good spot to turn around along the narrow road, we figured we’d hit this up on the drive back. This turned out to be a bad decision, but more on that later. In turns out finding parking in general would be the common theme of the day.
We continued along the highway and passed a couple of trailheads that were already completely full. So when we found a spot that was free, we pulled over and didn’t even care what trail it was for. It turns out there were a few different hiking options here. We headed towards Triple Falls (5.5km round trip, rated moderate) as we liked the sound of the name.
The trail gets down to business right away and it’s a steady ascent up a ridge. The first portion was shaded and winds through the lush forest.
But after reaching a bend in the ridge, our shade coverage disappeared. While we were still technically hiking through the forest, most of the trees here were burnt and crispy from the Eagle Creek Fire in 2017. The fire was started by a teen playing with fireworks that ended up burning around 50,000 acres, causing damage to several hiking trails including to Triple Falls. There would be no protection from the sun for the rest of the hike.
We continued to wind our way up the ridge, which provided a nice view of the river below. We reached a turnoff for Horsetail Falls and figured we could hit that up on the return journey. The trail then reaches a small ledge with an overlook of the waterfall.
The trail continues onwards to more waterfalls. We decided to go a bit further to check out the bridge over Triple Falls before turning around.
On the way back we made a small detour to see another waterfall. It wasn’t too far out of the way, but we did have to hike further down (and then up) the ridge. The trail continues onwards to Horsetail Falls, but at this point we were starting to feel the sun and were worried we didn’t bring enough water with us.
Once we joined up with the main path again, it was all downhill from here. But the path is narrow and it was a bit tricky to pass people who were heading in the opposite direction. This gave us an opportunity to stop a few times and admire the views from between the trees.
We ate a quick bite to eat when we returned to the car and continued our drive along the Historic Columbia River Highway. It turns out we didn’t need to do much hiking to reach Horsetail Falls as it’s also accessible from the road. We battled our way through the parking lot and hopped out for a quick look.
We turned around and headed back towards Multnomah Falls. In retrospect we should have driven a bit further as the road connects with Route 84, which would have been much faster. The issue is that the Historic Columbia River Highway is a narrow road where it’s nearly impossible to pass or turn around, especially after a certain point. Since it seemed like everyone was travelling in our direction, progress was slow. It also didn’t help that the parking lot to Multnomah Falls is small. What should have been a less than ten minute drive ended up taking us just over an hour.
Multnomah Falls is nearly 190 meters (or 620 feet) in height, making it the tallest waterfall in the state of Oregon. At the base of the falls there’s a historic lodge that includes a restaurant, visitor center, gift shop and restrooms. There’s also a hiking trail that leads up to the top of the falls. Since it took forever to get here, we figured we might as well take our time. We hiked up to the bridge that separates the upper and lower falls before turning around. The path is paved but there are more than a few danger zones from the spray.
Before leaving the national scenic area we made one last detour to check out a viewpoint of the Columbia River.
From there we headed north towards Seattle. We planned to fly out early the next morning, but not before battling the traffic one last time.