Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

One of Oregon's most beautiful areas to visit is the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. As the name would suggest, it's the result of the mighty Columbia River sculpting its path through the Cascade Mountain Range, forming an 80 mile long gorge lined with some of the most beautiful waterfalls you will see.

The most popular and widely recognized of these waterfalls is Multnomah Falls with its mid-level span bridge forming an arch directly above Multnomah's lower tier.

But there are many, many other waterfalls to enjoy as well.

Latourell Falls are located within Guy W. Talbot State Park. It falls 249 feet from the lip of a basalt cliff, making it a very unique waterfall in the area.

Being the western most of the waterfalls, this was my starting point one recent morning. A short 1/4 mile paved trail leads from the parking lot to the falls, reaching a bridge below the falls and an unobstructed view.

Latourell Falls has always been one of my favorite waterfalls in the area. It's a plunge falls, making it stand out from most other falls that tend to tumble.

I skipped both Bridal Veil Falls and Wahkena Falls, both very beautiful, in hopes of beating the crowds to Multnomah Falls.

As mentioned above, there is a reason that Multnomah Falls is one of the most photographed waterfalls in the world. It's truly a fantastic sight to behold! It can be viewed from the road, while a short walk of only a couple hundred feet or so takes you to the famous viewpoint of the falls. Walk 0.8 miles further and you are standing on the bridge above the lower tier, with an up-close view of the pool below the upper falls.

It's for this reason that photographers will want to arrive early to avoid the crowds on the bridge, as well as protect their tripod legs from being bumped while at the main viewpoint. Even by mid-morning only a little patience was required.

My next stop was at the trailhead to Ponytail Falls, which happens to be located the viewpoint for Horsetail Falls (in fact, Ponytail Falls is also commonly referred to as Upper Horsetail Falls).

Horsetail Falls is viewed directly from the parking lot as it plunges 176 feet into a pool next to the road. As its name would imply, it is shaped like a horse tail.

The trail to Ponytail Falls is a short 0.5 mile, but gains 1,000' as it climbs to this fantastic feature of Horsetail Creek. Again, as you would imagine, the waterfall looks just like a pony tail!

Ponytail Falls sits in a scenic bowl. Unlike Latourell Falls which simply drops from the lip of a cliff, the force of Horestail Creek "shoots" outward as it plunges Ponytail Falls and into the pool below. Its appearance is very unique and quite striking.

Ponytail Falls is a popular destination, so don't expect to have it all to yourself unless arriving very early in the morning. Still, it offers no where near the crowds as Horsetail Falls back at the roadside!

Again, make sure you view the falls from both sides, as the perspective is quite different. For photography, its also fun to carefully descend down to the creek to add some foreground to your compostition.

One thing that really stood out to me during my visit were the abundance of greens in the forest around the falls. I couldn't help but throw the wide angle on for a larger perspective of the area, making the waterfall simply a part of the scene rather than the primary subject.

Like many of the waterfalls in the area, Ponytail Falls is a fun place to stay a while and play with different things.

Next up was Elowah Falls, a beautiful 289 foot waterfall located in John B. Yeon State Park.

This waterfall requires a misleading 0.7 mile hike in, or should I say hike out? The trail climbs from the parking lot to a junction, then spends the final 0.4 miles descending steeply down into the basin holding Elowah Falls.

The setting of Elowah Falls is very beautiful, with lots of vantage points and various different perspectives. The first view of the falls includes the bridge spanning McChord Creek.

This waterfall is very similar to Latourell Falls in the way that it falls freely from the lip of a basalt cliff. It also can be quite breezy in the area below the falls. For photographers, this means spray on the lens! I had numerous compositions I was quite proud of find their way to the computer Recycle Bin as a result of this!

Elowah Falls was fun because of all the different elements available to play with. Again, lots of green available in the meadows around the falls and stream. But the stream is also very accessible in many different areas, and the bridge makes a pretty good vantage point as well (or slightly above it on the east side). Of course, many times I found myself simply admiring the beauty of the falls.

I spent about 1-1/2 hours here before begining the climb back out to the junction, where I turned left and continued the climb up to Upper McChord Creek Falls. After several switchbacks, the trail reaches a section where it has been blasted out of the side of a cliff and views open up out to the Columbia River and into Washington, the ground below you falls abruptly to the valley below! Though a railing is in place, I would not recommend this section with little kids - a fall would be fatal.

The trail traverses around a corner and soon you are looking straight down to Elowah Falls and the bridge crossing McChord Creek oh so far below! During my visit of Elowah Falls, I had no idea of this trail traversing far above me. With all my focus on the falls before me, I never thought to look up.

The trail continues along until finally leaving the exposed section and coming to a view of Upper McChord Creek Falls.

The falls are nice, but somewhat anticlimatic in my mind. I don't know if it was due to visiting Elowah Falls first, or having walked the exposed section of trail with the amazing views out over the gorge enroute.

The falls aren't approachable from the trail - there is no viewpoint other than through a window in the trees from the trail. So photography is rather limited.

Still the falls were worth the hike and I'm glad I checked them out.

Beyond Upper McChord Creek Falls, the trail became quite grown over and I didn't venture much further.

This hike ended a fun day of re-visiting some of my favorite sights of the area, as well the introduction of new ones. I certainly have reason to go back. I made some choices to pass up Bridal Veil, Wahkeena and Wahclella Falls so as to visit new ones. But they will definitely be on my list next time!

Now is a great time to visit this wonderful area. My personal preference is for cloudy and even drizzly days to help bring out the greens in the vegetation and avoid harsh light on the falls. I also recommend arriving early to avoid the crowds.

Please go and enjoy!


  1. Wow, that was a great day Don - nice!! I certainly have it high on my list to finally start getting down there next year. Funny how having grown up in Oregon I now find myself wanting to get there more and more often to re-appreciate all of the things I took for granted as a kid w/o a camera! Thanks for sharing!

  2. I think we should consider visiting The Gorge together this fall, truth be told.