By Doug Kenck-Crispin
One of the many joys of moving to Portland, Oregon, is the proximity of natural spaces, and the ease of traveling to them. A myriad of beach, desert, forest and riparian options are all within a few hours drive of the city, making many of these wild experiences achievable with a simple day trip. But one class of destinations cascades over and down upon all the rest. The state of Oregon is resplendent with waterfalls, and Oregonians celebrate them.
In our world of constant notifications and calendar reminders, texts, voice messages and needy emails, a jaunty to a splashing waterfall is quintessential forest bathing. And beyond the obvious, aforementioned reasons; if you need any further justification of much needed self-care, a hike around a waterfall is just plain mellow and groovy!
Tourists and new-comers to the city will gravitate to Multnomah Falls – and with good reason. The majestic and powerful 611-foot waterfall is picturesque and inspiring, and justifiably a symbol of our region. As a result, the laborious hike from the parking lot on noisy I-84 to the top of the falls is often crowded and noisy – not necessarily the “immersed in nature” experience you might be seeking. And once you’ve “done that,” then what? Take these tips from a local; there are plenty of other, less crowded watery and falling options in Oregon, and the list below will point you in the right direction. Some of these hikes are short, and others are more challenging than the res. All of them will provide you with a break from civilization. All of them will offer an opportunity to interact with some of our state’s cherished treasures.
Latourell Falls – This is the closest waterfall hike to Portland in the Columbia River Gorge, and thus, it can get crowded. Take a tip from a local and go early to avoid the crowd, or if your schedule affords, visit on a weekday. The hike is about two and a half miles, with 520 feet of elevation gain. Columns of basalt frame the 224-foot waterfall with lush green and dripping lichen and mosses. Continue further on the trail, passing over several bridges that cross Henderson Creek until you reach the Upper Falls, which flaunts a two-tiered drop. The trip will not disappoint!
Multnomah Falls – While locals may complain about the crowds at this most known waterfall of Oregon (more than 2 million visitors a year!), the splendor of Multnomah Falls cannot be understated. There is a reason why it is touted across the globe! The Multnomah people have a legend that the falls were born when a young woman sacrificed herself to save her people from plague. She jumped off the cliff, and the falls were born. The “locals only” secret to visiting the 611-foot waterfall is to visit early, and if possible, to visit on a Tuesday or Wednesday. The two-mile “there and back” trail will take you to a spot where you can look down over the waterfall to the parking lot below – not a good choice for hikers with vertigo! The views of the waterfall, famed Portland architect A.E. Doyle’s 1925 stone lodge, and of the expanse of the Columbia River Gorge, are one-of-a-kind. The trail is mostly paved and affords the hiker 870 feet of elevation gain.
Wahkeena Falls – “Wahkeena” is a Yakima word meaning “most beautiful,” which is certainly an appropriate label for this waterfall. Hike this 2.8 mile “there and back” trail and become surrounded in the greenery of Oregon. The 242-foot, tiered waterfall has been described as having a “subtle, cascading flow,” and it is a calming sensation to visit the falls. I like to think of it as luxurious and opulent. It is possible to take a trail to nearby Multnomah Falls from the Wahkeena Falls trail; the back-door entrance is a great way to experience this top tourist destination.
Horsetail Falls – This two-and-a-half-mile hike to the 176-foot waterfall pushes you deep into nature. Switchbacks take you through rock walls and viewpoints dot the journey, green with ferns and mosses along your route. Coniferous and deciduous trees prove shady cover, and the colors of the changing leaves are vivid in the Fall. And to top it all off, you have a chance to slide behind the waterfall! The trail has some steep locations and is not the best option for hiking children. The hike is regarded as an easy loop to undertake but be sure to check the status of the trail before you go – some sections may still be closed after the 2017 Eagle Creek fire.
Ramona Falls – A little further than our other selections, Ramona Falls is a bit more than an hour outside of Portland, but your destination is surrounded by the grand Mount Hood National Forest. This is forest bathing at its finest! The falls are a stunning 120-foot tower of cascades, and the columns of basalt that they slide down add drama to the setting. Sections of the hike follow Ramona Creek, and you are rewarded with verdant greenery and placidness; western red cedar, western hemlock and noble firs fill the forest. The hike is a little over eight miles, with almost 1,100 feet of elevation gain, so it can be challenging to some hikers.
Bridal Veil Falls – Just outside of Corbett, this stunning waterfall is only about a half an hour drive from the city, and the trip is well worth it! An “out and back” hike, the walk to the falls is really more of a stroll, at 0.6 mile in total. Paved, it is a good option for hikers with mobility issues or small children. Continue on the path to the top of the waterfall to enjoy expansive views of the Columbia River. This area was the former site of a lumber mill, and I particularly enjoy the location as a testament to the reclaiming powers of nature. Relish in the forest and the spray from the falls – it doesn’t get better than this!
Silver Falls – a little over an hour away from Portland, Silver Falls State Park (Oregon’s largest!) hosts canyons that display the waterfalls along this hike. While they are all noteworthy, the showstopper is the 177-foot South Falls. A 6.9-mile hike loop allows the walker to see all ten of the waterfalls, four of which you can walk behind to experience a silver, shimmering liquid curtain. The hike is a 700-foot gain in elevation, so not too strenuous for the experienced hiker. But if that sounds like too much of a commitment to take-in ten waterfalls, there is a shorter loop, about three miles in length, but less fall views. You will find a lodge and café at the park, as well as plenty of space to picnic or swim.
Obviously, this list should just serve as a jumping-off point for your further explorations of waterfalls. There are scores more waterfalls near the Portland metropolitan area, and further afield across Oregon and Southwestern Washington. Now is the time to explore your new haunts, and a waterfall adventure is a signature experience of the Pacific Northwest!