Tour 7 of Oregon’s roadside Columbia River Gorge waterfalls with this convenient 3 to 4 hour itinerary along the Historic Columbia River Highway.
PUBLIC NOTICE: As this post publishes, Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge waterfalls are closed to the public due to the ongoing Eagle Creek Fire. This wildfire, started on September 2, 2017, by teenagers using fireworks during a burn ban, has consumed more than 48,000 acres to date and is only 46% contained. Authorities predict that “trails impacted by the fire may not be safe for repair and maintenance until spring 2018 at the earliest.”
This post was scheduled next on the Backroad Planet editorial calendar, and I debated whether it should be published at this inconvenient time. Ultimately, because virtually all Backroad Planet content is evergreen and the gorge area will eventually reopen, I decided to publish it with full disclosure and links to help travelers verify conditions.
Before planning a trip to tour the Columbia River Gorge waterfalls, we recommend that you consult the following sites for updates:
Table of Contents
- 1 Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge Waterfalls
- 1.1 The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area
- 1.2 Bridge of the Gods
- 1.3 Historic Columbia River Highway
- 1.4 Horsetail Falls
- 1.5 Oneonta Gorge
- 1.6 Multnomah Falls
- 1.7 Wahkeena Falls
- 1.8 Bridal Veil Falls
- 1.9 Shepperd’s Dell Falls
- 1.10 Latourell Falls
- 1.11 Native Plants of the Columbia River Gorge
- 1.12 Finale
- 1.13 Map It!
- 1.14 We Would Love to Hear From You
- 1.15 Pin this Post!
- 1.16 Helpful Links
Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge Waterfalls
It was mid-afternoon on my last day in Oregon.
But I was not leaving the Greater Portland area without catching my first glimpse of the Columbia River Gorge waterfalls.
My afternoon drive through the gorge is the framework for this guide designed for travelers who have limited time to spend chasing waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge. Using this itinerary, you can comfortably see these seven roadside or short-hike waterfalls within the space of three to four hours.
This map provided by the U.S. Forest Service is a concise and easy-to-follow guide for efficiently planning and visiting the roadside waterfalls described in this post. You can download a PDF by clicking on the image above.
If you have a full day or more, Outdoor Project’s Waterfall Hikes in the Columbia River Gorge is an excellent resource for chasers hoping to plan additional hikes to the gorge’s 70+ waterfalls.
The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area
The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is a 292,500 acre tract of federally protected lands bordering the river between the states of Washington and Oregon. This 80-mile stretch of the Columbia River cuts through the Cascade Mountains on its westward journey to the Pacific Ocean.
Bridge of the Gods
Before beginning my afternoon tour of roadside waterfalls, I decided to take a quick detour across the Columbia River. The Bridge of the Gods was the closest river crossing, approximately ten miles east of the waterfall area on I-84. Although my visit was ever so brief, it was my way of adding Washington to my state count.
You may recognize this bridge from the book and movie “Wild.” It is the location where Cheryl Strayed completed her 1,100 mile hike along the Pacific Coast Trail.
If you are wondering why the 1926 steel cantilever bridge has such a mythological name, there is a reason. It took its name from a nearby natural bridge formed by a landslide that temporarily dammed the river several centuries earlier.
I paid the $2 toll, drove cautiously across the trembling bridge, and pulled into a small parking area on the Washington side. I noticed there were pedestrians crossing the bridge and thought I might venture out a ways myself.
A thought is about all it was.
After quickly snapping a couple of pictures, a combination of acrophobia and bouncing bridge syndrome sent me scurrying back to my car. I drove back across the bridge, paid the return $2 toll, and headed back west on I-85. I took Exit 35 to the Historic Columbia River Highway and begin my roadside waterfall drive.
Historic Columbia River Highway
The Historic Columbia River Highway is the oldest scenic byway in the nation. Completed in 1922, this lovely 75-mile roadway was dubbed “King of the Roads.”
While touring the roadside waterfalls of the Columbia River Gorge, you will drive a segment of the original Columbia River Highway, today an Oregon Scenic Byway and All-American Road.
As a completionist, I was disappointed to learn that it is no longer possible to drive the full length of the original scenic route. Segments have become part of the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail, open only to hikers, bicyclists, and other non-motorized forms of transportation. A few stretches of the earlier highway were overlapped by construction of I-84.
After exiting I-84, I continued west on the Historic Columbia River Highway. I had only traveled one mile when I came upon the first roadside waterfall of the drive. As I pulled into the parking area, it became immediately clear that I was not the only waterfall-chaser in Oregon on a Friday afternoon in April.
I promise to use this adjective only once in this post, but the view of Horsetail Falls was absolutely stunning.
Horsetail is not only the name of this 176 ft. high waterfall, but it is also a description given to this type of waterfall. I could have stayed here all day, but other roadside waterfalls were on the itinerary.
One mile up the road, I came upon Oneonta Gorge. Its location is marked by an iconic rock outcropping that towers above the highway.
Oneonta Gorge has four major waterfalls. The 100 ft. Lower Oneonta Falls is located less than .5 mile from the highway, but getting there is an adventure. There is no improved trail to reach the falls, so hikers must crawl over a precarious log jam and, depending on the season, perhaps wade through chest deep water to reach the falls. Water levels are lowest during the months of August and September.
I visited the gorge in April and did not know anything about the Oneonta waterfalls at the time of my visit. I definitely plan to do this hike when I return.
Driving two miles beyond Oneonta Gorge brings you to Multnomah Falls, the most famous roadside waterfall along the Historic Columbia River Highway. Due to its popularity, travelers moving both directions on I-84 can take Exit 31 to a large rest area that allows pedestrians to reach the falls by tunnel beneath the interstate and railroad.
Contrary to a popular claim, Multnomah Falls is not the second-highest waterfall in the United States. At 620 ft. it actually ranks 154th in height. You can read the full story in this article published by The Oregonian.
The 1925 Multnomah Falls Lodge does not offer overnight accommodations, but it houses a restaurant, snack bar, gift shop, public restrooms, and a visitor center staffed jointly by members of the U.S. Forest Service and Friends of Multnomah Falls. According to the official website, the lodge is temporarily closed, but it survived the Eagle Creek Fire, and the immediate area is “green and beautiful.”
A winding paved trail carries visitors up to the arched 1914 Benson Bridge that spans the lower falls. The steep trail continues on the other side to a viewing platform at the top of the upper falls.
Due to limited time, I was only able to hike as far as Benson Bridge. The panoramic view from the bridge encompasses the visitor section, the interstate parking area, the Columbia River, and Washington state on the north bank.
Wahkeena Falls is located .5 miles beyond Multnomah Falls. The flow of these 242 ft. tiered falls plunges at the upper levels and cascades down the mountain at the lower level.
The 4.9 mile Multnomah – Wahkeena Loop Trail connects the two falls and carries hikers past a lovely stone bridge, countless scenic vistas, and six additional major waterfalls. I will do this one on my next visit, as well.
Bridal Veil Falls
Continuing three miles along the highway, you will arrive at the Bridal Veil Falls State Scenic Viewpoint parking area and trailhead. This location also has picnic tables, restrooms, and a grassy field.
Bridal Veil Falls is technically a roadside waterfall based on its proximity to the roadway, but to properly view the falls requires a .6 mile hike down a steep trail. Because Bridal Veil Falls are the only major falls located below the Historic Columbia River Highway, you unwittingly cross a narrow bridge above the falls while on the drive.
The falls consist of two tiered horsetail cascades totaling 118 ft. in height.
Shepperd’s Dell Falls
Shepperd’s Dell State Natural Area, located 1.5 miles past the Bridal Veil Falls parking area, is totally unlike any of the other gorge scenic sites. This section is appealing not just for the falls, but also for its manmade structures. Visitors park at a roadside pullover, cross the highway, and take a paved pathway to the falls viewpoint. A lichen-covered concrete guardrail winds and curves snakelike along the trail, offering a panoramic view of the 1913 arched bridge that spans the gorge along the historical highway.
Shepperd’s Dell Falls is a series of tiered cascades and horsetails totaling 220 ft. in height. It Is impossible to see the entire falls from any one viewpoint, but visitors can take in most of the falls from the viewing area and from the bridge.
Latourell Falls, the last roadside waterfall on the itinerary, is located one mile beyond Shepperd’s Dell within Guy W. Talbot State Park. This waterfall plunges 224 ft. from a columnar basalt cliff. The neon yellow lichen on the cliff face and ambient forest vegetation make these falls perfect for photography, especially when the sun strikes them in summer. Visitors can enjoy the scenic beauty from the roadside viewing area or take trails to the base of the falls.
Native Plants of the Columbia River Gorge
When on scenic drives, I cannot resist taking snapshots of roadside wildflowers. This trip was no different. As with my Tillamook Coast article, I called upon the Oregon Native Plants Facebook Group to help me identify the plants captured in my photos.
Left column, from top to bottom: Salmonberry (rubus spectabilis), Chickweed Monkeyflower (mimulus alsinoides), Bleeding Hearts (dicentra formosa). Right column: Blue-eyed Mary (collinsia grandiflora).
Typical of the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, mosses and lichens abound in the gorge. Lace lichen (ramalina menziesii) (L) reminds me so much of the Spanish moss that hangs from the oak trees in my Central Florida yard. Prairie Star (lithophragma parviflorum) (R) makes its home among the lichens and mosses on a gorge rock face.
While touring the gorge, I also spotted a cobalt blue Steller’s jay and a scampering Townsend’s chipmunk, two species of wildlife not found in my home state.
I took the photo of the purple Money Plant (lunaria annua) later in the day at the Willamette Falls overlook in Oregon City. This naturalized wildflower is not native to Oregon and is considered moderately invasive.
According to the timestamp metadata on my photos, I took my first picture at Bridge of the Gods at 3:21 PM and my last photo at Latourell Falls at 6:15 PM, proving this roadside waterfall-chasing drive took me three hours. The next time I visit the Columbia River Gorge, I plan to devote at least one full day for waterfall hikes along the trails.
On this trip, I drove the Historic Columbia River Highway from east to west. The itinerary can easily be reversed to complete the drive from west to east.
Here’s hoping and praying the Eagle River Fire is quickly contained and the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area reopens to the public in 2018 . . . .
We Would Love to Hear From You
We enjoy dialogue with our readers, especially when they share off-the-beaten-path destinations and useful travel tips. Have you ever experienced the Columbia River Gorge waterfalls? If so, we would love to hear about your experience. We invite you to leave your comments and questions below, and we always respond!
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