The Gorgeous Gorge
The Columbia River Gorge was carved out about 15,000 years ago during the last ice age when a glacier that held back an ancient lake melted and released its water into what is now Oregon and Washington. The pressure and high speed water flow from this event created the Gorge as we know it today. Over time, the geology of the area has produced an abundance of waterfalls and other scenic sites that are mainly situated along the Historic Columbia River Highway for about 15 miles. It is extremely popular with tourists, especially hikers who can enjoy an array of interconnecting trails and photographers like us. When possible, the old highway is the easiest way to visit the five main waterfalls out of some 77 falls that exist in the entire area. However, due to recent active landslides, about half of this route is closed. The much more modern Highway 84 runs parallel to the old highway and provides intermittent access to the various sites with exits that often exist on one side of the highway but not the other making it necessary to follow a somewhat convoluted course to get from “Point A to Point B” or rather, from waterfall to waterfall. You find yourself traveling west and then east to go just a few miles down the road. Nevertheless, it is totally worth the effort. First stop, the ‘big daddy” of them all.
Heralded as the most visited natural recreation site in the Pacific Northwest with over two million visitors each year, Multnomah Falls is constantly fed by underground springs, rainwater, and snowmelt creating a spectacular year-round attraction. We have been anxious to see it ever since we moved here so that’s where we began our exploration of the Gorge.
In order to get to Multnomah Falls from our cabin, we traveled back over the Columbia River this time crossing at the Bridge of the Gods. This is a toll bridge operated by the Cascade Locks and one of only three ways to cross the 75-mile Gorge. Fun Fact: In 2014, the bridge became ever more popular after the release of the film Wild, a biographical adventure drama about a young woman’s experience hiking the Pacific Crest Trail resulting in a toll increase to $2 each way. The Bridge of the Gods is the lowest point on this 2,653 mile trail that runs north-south from Canada to Mexico through Washington, Oregon, and California.
We arrived early at Multnomah Falls before the crowds and almost had the park to ourselves which is the key to success here. Reputedly the tallest waterfall in Oregon at 620 feet, the falls, named for the Multnomah tribe, did not disappoint. It’s a very short hike on a paved pathway to the base of the falls making it an experience everyone can enjoy. Farther up the trail at the division of the two-tiered falls, you reach Benson Bridge in honor of Simon Benson, lumber baron and benefactor who donated the land. At this point, the spray from the falls makes everything a bit slick and wet including the viewer, but we were prepared for that with rain jackets and camera covers. We had fun capturing some great images using our new CamRanger2 setup plus quite a few more both still and video using our phones.
Not satisfied experiencing just one waterfall, we decided to continue on to another… Latourell Falls, the second highest at 249 feet. We did, indeed, have to drive west then turn east to get to it. No loss since along the way there were some vista points to enjoy. The first was Chanticleer Point sponsored by the Portland Women’s Forum an organization active in preserving the beauty of the Gorge and providing for donation of the land. From there you can see the next landmark off in the distance — Vista House, originally constructed in 1918 as a rest stop and observatory of the Columbia River. It is essentially a small rotunda with an octagonal floor plan housing bathrooms and a gift shop and was considered by many at the time to be an over-priced outhouse. Unfortunately, due to COVID, it’s currently closed so we were unable to partake of the facilities. However, I loved seeing the Art Nouveau architectural style and, of course, the views.
Eventually arriving at Latourell Falls, we made another short hike to the pool at the base of the falls. Latourell is unique in that it drops straight down from an overhanging basalt cliff rather than tumbling over like most of the others. Accented by a wall of lichen, it’s just GORGEous!!
These huge waterfalls are really impressive, but it’s important not to miss the small things…
And this guy — hope he survived his slow trek across the trail!
We were slowing down ourselves so it was time to return to our cabin and prepare for Day 3. Homemade spaghetti and meatballs on the menu and more beautiful views of the Gorge from our deck made the end of a perfect day.