Hiking the Columbia River Gorge – PDX’s Backyard Hikes
Only a short jaunt from the hip happenings of Portland, Oregon the Columbia River Gorge hides some epic hikes that you need to see to believe! From waterfall wanders to more strenuous strolls, the Columbia River Gorge has hiking opportunities for all ages and abilities.
The waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge are the obvious draw to the area. They make up some of the better short and simple hikes. But with over 100 established trails across Washington and Oregon the 85 mile long, 4000′ deep Columbia River Gorge is so much more. Multi-day hikes along the PCT route, fields of flourishing wildflowers and back-country rain forest exploration are all on offer.
As we noted in our previous article about the gorge’s endless waterfalls, the area is immensely popular. Some of the more roadside attractions can be overrun by tourists and locals alike in the spring and summer. As such, its important to remember that Hiking in off-peak times is recommended and as always, help preserve our wild areas, practice leave-no-trace principals!
The hikes of the gorge are pretty evenly split between the Washington and Oregon sides of the Columbia River. In this post I’ll be focusing on hikes in the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge. I haven’t had enough time to fully explore the Washington side of the gorge but I’ve been told its easily equal to the Oregon half! Grab your hiking boots and lets hit the trails of the Columbia River Gorge!
7 Hidden Hikes in the Gorge You Don’t Want to Miss:
Angel Rest Lookout Hike:
Distance: 7Km (4.6 Miles) Return
Elevation Gain: 445m (1450 feet)
Time: 2-3 Hours
Angel’s Rest is an exposed rock bluff on the southern (Oregon) shore of the Columbia River. The hike draws people from near and far to experience the view from the top of the jagged bluff. The hike culminates at long rocky spine surrounded on three sides by cliffs with an impressive view over the gorge.
Leaving Highway 30 you’ll climb through the lush forest for nearly a kilometer before passing by Cooply Falls and glimpsing a birdseye view from the top. From the waterfalls follow the (well signed) trail another 3Km following switchbacks to reach the ridge crest.
At the Summit enjoy a welcome rest on the bench with one of the best views in the area. 270° panoramic views and the relative proximity to the river itself nearly give the impression you could perform a swan dive off the edge and land safely in the water below. Dont… While you’ll have enough room on the summit to easily avoid the cliff edges if may be worth keeping young children and pets from straying too far.
Multnomah Falls Loop Hike:
Distance: 7.5Km (5 Miles) Return
Elevation Gain: 488m (1600 feet)
Time: 3-4 Hours
This trail is a waterfall lovers paradise! Taking in at least six different waterfalls during the course of the hike including the famous Multnomah Falls. Even if you’ve never been here you’ve seen Multnomah Falls. One of the most photographed waterfalls in the United states it has made its way into mainstream advertising, movies, TV shows and magazines.
Starting from either the Multnomah falls or Wahkeena Falls parking lots this hike is best done in a counterclockwise loop, visiting Wahkeena falls first. From Wahkeena Creek the trail climbs in a single long switchback to the base of Wahkeena Falls and a beautiful stone bridge. Past the waterfall the trail steepens for a section passing steep rock walls and through thick forest. At the top of this climb you’re rewarded with a view from Lemmon’s Viewpoint, a plaque here commemorates a local firefighter who gave his life fighting fires in the gorge.
Further up the trail enters the very narrow Wahkeena Canyon. Only just wide enough at the base for the creek and the trail this is a gorgeous and rewarding section. Take your time and enjoy every step as the river tumbles past. Soon you’ll cross the creek and make your way up another section of switchbacks to Fairy Falls. Continuing uphill past multiple trail junctions you’ll find the Angels Rest Trail Junction, a short 100m side trip here will land you at Wahkeena Spring, a great spot to refill your water after that grueling climb.
Back on the Wahkeena trail continue climbing to a four way junction. Congrats! you’re done going uphill! Follow the Wahkeena as it traverses the rugged ridgeline before dropping down after nearly 1.5Km to join the Larch Mountain Trail.
Hang a left at the larch mountain trail and enjoy the relaxing flat and downhill stroll alongside Multnomah Creek. Cascade after cascade great you throughout this section of trail. The trail passes right next to the lip of Ecola falls with a side trip scramble down to creek level for those of us brave or stupid enough to undertake it. Further down the trail Weisendanger (or little Multnomah) Falls has better access trails and is quite beautiful in its own right, though not to the scale of Multnomah or Wahkeena. Next you’ll pass by upper, middle and lower dutchman falls before crossing Multnomah creek and descending into Oregon’s tourist hotspot.
When the trail changes and you feel pavement under your boots rather than the familiar gravel look for the side trail to visit the Upper Multnomah Falls viewpoint to take the falls in from above. Finished at the viewpoint you’ll climb for a moment before starting the 1.5KM knee jarring descent to the Benson footbridge separating upper and lower multnomah falls. Reaching the bottom treat yourself to a cold drink or frozen treat at the Multnomah Falls Lodge and take in the view that made this spot famous!
Oneonta Falls/Horsetail Falls Loop Hike:
Distance: 4.8Km (3 Miles) Return
Elevation Gain: 200m (650 feet)
Time: 3 Hours
A stunning, low-elevation, waterfall packed hike through narrow canyons and behind waterfalls the Oneonta/Horsetail Falls loop is a real crowd pleaser!
Our hike starts at one of the most picturesque trail-heads in the gorge, Horsetail Falls. Make sure you’ve planned a bit of time prior to or following your hike to enjoy and photograph these falls! I’d bet you’d have never guess that Horsetail falls is named as such because it resembles the flowing tail of a horse? Neat hey!? at just over 200 feet tall its also notable as being one of the tallest waterfalls in the gorge (there are only a handful that break the 200′ mark)
From the trail head this hike begins by climbing 5 or 6 gently graded switchbacks before leveling out. once you reach the top a short walk will drop you into a small valley that contains another waterfall. Conveniently sticking with the theme this set of falls is known as PonyTail falls…
The best part?
You Can walk behind them! Ponytail falls is undercut and the trail leads down to the base of the falls and then below the overhang and behind the falls! A pretty cool experience that I haven’t found anywhere else in the Columbia River Gorge!
From Ponytail falls you have the option to attempt a difficult, steep and unmaintained trail up the ridge line to the Rock of Ages Arch. I didn’t know about this trail during my visit, but from my research wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re quite comfortable with your abilities.
Continuing on our hike the trail meanders along the top off the bluff. Hiking through a maple and fern forest you’ll come to a side trail that accesses some rocky lookout points. Soon the trail starts to switchback down the side of Oneonta Gorge, with flirting views into the upper canyon, towards the Oneonta creek bridge.
Looking upstream from the Oneonta Creek bridge you’ll see Middle Oneonta Falls. Downstream, Oneonta creek seems to vanish as it plunges over the lip of Lower Oneonta Falls into the deep steep walled slot canyon below! Still fiending for waterfalls? A left after crossing the bridge will take you further up the canyon to see Upper Oneonta Falls or Triple falls while a right turn will take you downhill towards the bottom of the canyon and your vehicle.Once you reach the old Oneonta creek bridge and pass through the restored Oneonta Tunnel its a short walk on the edge of the highway to reach the Horsetail Falls trailhead once again.
Elowa Falls Hike:
Distance: 2Km (1.4 Miles) Return
Elevation Gain: 80m (260 feet)
Time: 1 Hour
At Elowah Falls McChord Creek crashes down 65m (215 feet) from a basalt overhang into a huge amphitheater created by the area’s volcanic past. The steep rugged cliffs flanking the falls are blanketed with colorful lichen, an atheistic unique to the gorge.
Along the trail to the falls evidence of the area past can be seen. Remnants of disintegrating wooden and cast iron penstocks that at one time fed pressurized water to the areas papermills can still be seen. An interesting look into the past of the gorge.
This easy hike is suited to beginners and is a great introduction to what hiking in the Columbia River Gorge is all about! If you get to the falls and are looking for a little more consider linking this hike with Upper McCord Creek Falls for a combined hiking length of 4.8Km (3 miles) and more aggressive 217m (712-ft) elevation gain.
Munra Point Hike:
Distance: 9.6Km (6 Miles) Return
Elevation Gain: 690m (2270 feet)
Time: 4 Hours
This trail earns its Moderate-Difficult rating due to steep drops and loose/falling rock. Caution is required, many hikers have been injured here due to simple slips and trips, watch your footing and know your surroundings! That said, the Munra Point hike is a fun, unmaintained trail leading to barren knife edged ridges. An easy but exposed scramble joins the ridges to the exposed summit pyramid of Munra Point.
Reaching the top of Munra Point guarantees epic views and high fives. Below you, the Bonyville Dam and locks and block the mighty Columbia River. In front of you in 360° views across the Columbia River Gorge and into the wilderness beyond beckon your attention.
Punchbowl Falls Hike:
Distance: 6Km (3.8 Miles) Return
Elevation Gain: 152m (500 feet)
Time: 2.5-3 Hours
Located along the popular Eagle Creek trail, Punchbowl falls is another enduring icon of the Pacific Northwest. As the name implies, punchbowl falls drops into a beautiful bowl shaped pool surrounded by lush rainforest greens. A picturesque scene. No doubt being off the highway a distance lends to a much less crowded location. Being able to enjoy a moment of solitude here isn’t out of the picture.
The trail to punchbowl falls is well maintained and gains elevation steadily. The trail runs along the edge of a cliff and caution is required. Especially if hiking with pets or young children and when passing other parties on the trail. A slip here would certainly result in injury so keep your wits about you!
Beacon Rock Hike:
Distance: 2.9Km (1.8 Miles) Return
Elevation Gain: 208m (680 feet)
Time: 2 Hours
Beacon rock is one of the most recognizable geologic landmarks in the Columbia River Gorge. The 258m (848 ft) spire is the remnant of an ice age volcano and It just so happens it also has an amazing little hike to its summit overtop of the mighty Columbia River. Located on the northern shore of the Gorge it’s one of the only hikes we’ve listed on the Washington state side. This isn’t for lack of good hiking but simply lack of exploration time. I’ll return here sometime soon with a plan to hike more of the Washington side.
Starting from Beacon Rock state park you’ll stroll through the woods for a while before slamming straight into the sheer cliffs of Beacon Rock. The hike begins here in earnest. Wooden bridges and trail blasted into the volcanic rock. Switchbacks are the name of the game here, nearly 50 if I remember correctly. Most less than 20′ long and blasted into the rock face. The trip back down the switchbacks will give your quads a break if not your knees!
A coat is required equipment here. The winds typically blow east or west making one side of the rock calm and the other fiercely windy. The result? Huge temperature swings. Don’t get out there and freeze, we told you so…
Getting to the Hikes:
Flying into PDX or visiting from Portland the hikes of the Columbia River Gorge are only a ~40 minute drive east along interstate 84. At the town of Corbet exit the interstate (Eastbound Exit 22) and travel a much more relaxed and scenic drive east on the Historic Columbia River Highway (State route 30). Traffic can be heavy in the summer months be on the lookout for campers & motor-homes that will be slowing and stopping randomly (gotta get that Insta-goodness you know).
Trail head parking is tough during peak periods. However parking roadside is only recommended in wide areas where you can get your vehicle fully off the road. On my trip I noticed three vehicles that had been sideswiped or had their mirrors taken off. Park at your own risk!