I’ve always lived in California so every time I visit Oregon I am in awe of how wonderfully green it is. One of my favorite spots in Oregon is the Columbia River Gorge. The Columbia River Gorge is the gorgeous area around the Columbia River which separates Oregon and Washington. When you are in the midst of all the trees and waterfalls you would never guess that you are only half an hour away from downtown Portland. Whenever I visit family in Oregon, I make it a point to have a hiking day in the area. It is always a big highlight of my trip. These are my favorite hikes in the Columbia Gorge area. There are endless possibilities of which waterfalls and hikes to choose from. All of these hikes are right off the Historic Columbia River Highway (which is a gorgeous drive itself.)
I love the Horsetail Falls hike because you can see two waterfalls in less than a mile. Horsetail Falls hike starts out with an amazing waterfall you can see right away – even from the parking lot!
The trail starts to the left of the first waterfall and begins with a bit of a steep incline. After about ten minutes it levels out and you get amazing views of the Columbia Gorge.
Continue walking to see Ponytail Falls. (Side note: Ponytail Falls is also called Upper Horsetail Falls – the trail sign calls it Upper Horsetail Falls.) Ponytail Falls is very scenic because you can walk behind the fall! This is also a place where some (brave souls) can wade in the water or at least dip your feet in. I didn’t get in the water so I can’t comment on how strong the current is.
I turned around here but if you want to continue, the trail leads on to Oneonta Falls and even farther to Triple Falls.
- Round trip mileage: .8 miles (to and from Ponytail Falls)
- Difficulty: Moderate – steep incline at the beginning that levels out. Children will be able to hike but beware of the steep edges of the cliff.
- Parking: There is a small lot right in front of Horsetail Falls. If you can’t get a spot there, try (safely) parking along the street.
- Address: There is no exact address for the waterfalls, but it will pop up if you type “Horsetail Falls Trailhead” into Google Maps. From the 84 freeway, take exit 35 towards Historic Hwy/Anisworth/State Park and turn right onto Historic Columbia River Hwy then make a left to stay on Historic Columbia River Hwy. You will see the waterfall from the highway in about 3 minutes.
I was extremely excited to hike Oneonta Gorge after gazing at magical photos of the hike online. This place looks like a dream. To reach Oneonta Falls, you walk along a creek in the middle of a chasm. I felt like an explorer discovering a hidden place. I had high expectations and Oneonta Gorge did not disappoint.
This trail is different from the rest of the trails because there is no “trail”. The trail is actually just the creek itself. It’s a more challenging trail because you have many obstacles along the way. First you have to crawl over a huge log jam. Please be careful because the logs can be wet and slippery. After the logs you have to wade waist deep in VERY cold water. It is all worth it though! And sometimes I think that the harder something is to reach, the more you appreciate the beauty! But PLEASE use caution and common sense when hiking this trail. If the water is too high or the logs are not sturdy, then don’t continue hiking. The water levels and log positions change all the time and you don’t want to risk anything!
Something I didn’t think of when I went was how the time of day will affect the photography. Since you are in a narrow gorge the sun will only come through at mid-day when the sun is directly above the gorge. I went in the afternoon and by then the gorge was a bit darker and it was much harder to take good photos. So just know that this is much prettier than my photos show!
Don’t forget to dress in proper “wading” clothes for this hike. Also make sure to bring a change of clothes (especially shoes and socks) if you want to continue hiking after this trail. I made the mistake of making this my first hike of the day and had to wear wet clothes the rest of the day! Also, how deep the water will be depends on what time of year you visit. I went in mid-October and the water went to my waist. I have read that during the summer the water is much lower.
The trailhead is not quite as obvious as other trail locations. It is not a paved area with directional signs like most of the other trails in the area. Park along the highway and walk to the pedestrian bridge. If you are looking at the Oneonta Gorge Tunnel from the south side, the rocky creek area to your right is actually the start of the trail. There are steps down the side of the bridge.
- Round trip mileage: 0.8 mile
- Difficulty: Difficult – not because of elevation, but because of the obstacles, not suitable for children
- Parking: Park along the highway
- Address: 48636 Historic Columbia River Hwy, Corbett, OR 97019
Multnomah Falls is one of the most well known waterfalls in Oregon (and maybe even in the country). Towering at 611 feet, it is one of the tallest waterfalls in the United States (there are many different factors to determine how “tall” a waterfall is, so it’s exact ranking is unknown). Multnomah Falls is a fun spot because with just a few minutes hike you can access a bridge that crosses halfway up the waterfall and essentially stand in the middle of the fall. The other great thing about Multnomah Falls is that there is a cute lodge restaurant at the base of the falls and they also have a snack bar with coffee and treats. I love getting a warm coffee and seeing some beautiful waterfalls!
Multnomah Falls is the easiest waterfall to access in the area, which makes it very popular. Crowds of people flock to take their picture in front of this gorgeous spot. I enjoy stopping by to look at the waterfall and then continuing on to smaller falls for hiking. If you do decide to hike Multnomah, one cool thing is you can hike to the top! To hike to the top of Multnomah, just cross the bridge and continue up the steep path. I have never done this hike since it is always very crowded when I visit. However, I do know that this is a very popular trail and for good reason. After reaching the viewpoint of Multnomah you can choose to turn around here or to continue on to the Wahkeena Trail to see even more waterfalls.
There is a large parking lot right in front of the falls, but at busy times it will quickly fill up. They also have a parking lot across the freeway with a paved short walk to the fall. If you are going on a weekend or a busy time, I would suggest starting with the farther parking lot. I visited on a Saturday in October and the traffic just getting off the freeway towards the closer lot was insane.
- Round trip mileage: 2.6 miles to the top of Multnomah Falls or around 5 miles to Wahkeena Falls
- Difficulty: Moderate (some steep inclines)
- Parking: If you are going on a weekday, try parking in the lot in front of the lodge. If you are going on a weekend or any day in the summer, try the lot across the highway first since the closer lot fills quickly.
- Address: To the lodge and closer parking: 53000 Historic Columbia River Hwy, Corbett, OR 97019
- To the farther parking lot: Take the left hand exit 31 to Multnomah Falls. The freeway exit ends at the parking lot. (There is no exact address.)
Elowah Falls might just be my favorite of the group. It has the perfect combo of a gorgeous, peaceful hike and an enchanting waterfall. I went one time on a busy Saturday and while there were hundreds of people at Multnomah Falls, there were only about 3 at Elowah Falls. Having a waterfall all to yourself is an amazing feeling! The hike to Elowah starts out with a bit of an incline (like most of these waterfall hikes) and then declines back to the waterfall. You are on a steep edge so make sure to be careful! The hike itself is just gorgeous so enjoy the whole experience! I had to make an effort to look up while I was walking because the scenery around is breathtaking. (It’s easy to get too focused on not tripping on rocks that you miss the beauty around you.)
I love this waterfall because you could spend forever staring at the way it hits the rocks and the magical way the mist falls over the creek. I couldn’t stop taking pictures! This is also the perfect spot to sit on a rock and eat a snack.
- Round trip mileage: 1.4 miles
- Difficulty: Moderate, children will be able to come along but watch the cliff edges
- Parking: There are a few spots at the trailhead or spots along the highway.
- Address: Once again, there is no physical address since directions are just based on trail numbers, The trail is on NE Frontage Rd, Cascade Locks, OR 97014 and is 2 miles north of the Historic Hwy/Anisworth/State Park exit. I suggest dropping a pin on Google Maps and routing it that way.
Getting to the Columbia River Gorge
The Columbia River Gorge begins about half an hour outside of downtown Portland and runs along the 84 freeway (most falls are about a 45 minute drive). All of the hikes are located on the Historic Columbia River Highway which runs adjacent to the freeway. To get there, you will have to rent a car. I am a big fan of public transportation in cities, but I would suggest having a car in Portland in general because there are so many great things outside the city. (Just watch out for high parking rates at hotels though!)
There is a new service called the Columbia Gorge Express that gives you transportation between Portland and Multnomah Falls. This route is brand new (its first ride departs today) but hopefully this concept will catch on and there will be more options for those who don’t have a rental car.
There are so many hikes in this area that it can be hard to choose! In addition to the ones I have here, there is also Triple Falls, Fairy Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, and the list goes on. Do some more research and find your own favorite spot! A good resource to check out is Oregonhikers.com. I used this site frequently when deciding on my hikes!