Waterfalls, Rivers and Rainforests oh my!
We’ve all seen the photos. Those stunning waterfalls surrounded by the Pacific Northwest’s verdant greens. The waterfalls just dripping with instagram gold. You know the ones I’m talking about… Wahkeena falls and Multnomah Falls are likely some of the most photographed in the United States and the Columbia River Gorge of Oregon State is where you’ll find them.
The Columbia River Gorge:
The Columbia River gorge is a gigantic geologic feature that straddles the borders of Washington and Oregon State. The gorge is over 80 miles (130KM) long, up to 4000’ (1200M) deep. Home to world famous waterfalls (like Multnomah Falls), epic hiking and panoramic views its popularity is a given. Only an hour from Portland, Oregon the area draws hundreds of thousands of tourists each year.
As a travel and landscape photographer the Columbia River Gorge and in particular Multnomah Falls holds a special place in my heart. I’ve Explored many of its secret spots but consistently find more. The Columbia River gorge is a massive spot. Weeks could be spent exploring it without finding an end to the perfect PNW trails and awesome photo locations. Around every corner there’s a new viewpoint, waterfall or trail worth taking the time to explore!
Faced by a week off of work without concrete plans, a three day trip to the region in the spring was a simple decision to make! I packed my Camera Bag, my camping gear and jumped on the motorcycle for a photographic pilgrimage.
Ten hours, one ferry and one international border crossing later I pulled into a campsite just outside the Columbia Gorge and set camp for the evening. Being after sunset and with the weather not looking promising I quickly ruled out any night shooting or adventures. Hot drinks, a cup of soup and my playlist on shuffle I set to work. Blog posts wait for no man.
My morning alarm comes too quickly -as usual-, the rest of the campground is still silent. Poking my head out of the tent, the low dense cloud tells me a sunrise shoot isn’t in the cards. Looking on the bright side, I reminded myself, waterfalls are easier to shoot in flat light! And with that rolled over to the sounds of spring birds to grab another glorious hour of sleep.
As the sun rose behind the blanket of coastal cloud I had a relaxed breakfast and some much needed coffee from the Jetboil & Aeropress -I might be a coffee snob- and watched the other campers awaken. I packed my day bag and valuables onto the motorcycle and headed off in search of Oregon’s fabled waterfalls of the Columbia River Gorge.
Up and down the steep banks of the gorge, twisting and turning through the lush green hills the Historic Columbia River Gorge Highway is the gateway to the waterfalls and hiking along the columbia river. Set back from the river and away from the hustle and bustle of I-84 this road takes you from waterfalls to viewpoints and back. I nearly missed my first waterfall because I was having too much fun on the motorcycle!
Where to go when visiting the Columbia River Gorge:
Here are some of the best roadside stops in the gorge! If you’re looking to go for a longer or more involved hike check out my post on Hiking in the Columbia River Gorge.
Vista House Overlook
One of the first locations you’ll see on your way into the gorge from Portland is Vista House. This scenic viewpoint & rest stop sits ~220m (725′) above the Columbia River. Overlooking the expanse of the Columbia River Gorge it was built in 1918. Made of local sandstone, in an octagonal shape with opalescent glass and an elevated viewing platform it’s a beautiful building. With its marble interior and brass fixtures, some Oregonians at the time of construction derided it as the “$100,000 Outhouse“.
The elevated roadway twists and turns around this lookout in a feat of (semi-)modern engineering. Insid you’ll find a visitors centre with all the information you’ll need for your upcoming adventures and some of the most gorgeous public washrooms I’ve ever seen… The views from this location are grand but just past the vista house you’ll find some trails with danger signs that provide even more stunning shots. Remember you’re responsible for your own safety, use caution on the cliffs and steep trails!
We’re all familiar with Multnomah Falls, even if you don’t know it. Multnomah is one of the most photographed waterfalls in the United States. While it doesn’t have the highest flow or the largest drop Multnomah Falls is famous for its breathtaking double drop and the picturesque Benson footbridge.
Fed by snowmelt, rainwater and underground springs from nearby Larch mountain, Multnomah Falls drops in two distinct steps, the upper falls drop an astounding ~540 feet (~165M) of vertical. While the lower falls drop a more reasonable 69 feet (21M). The falls are credited as the tallest waterfalls in the state of Oregon and the 2nd tallest year round waterfall in the continental united states.
Multnomah falls is one of the most accessible waterfalls in the area, with pullouts and access trails from both the Historical Columbia River Gorge Highway and Interstate I-84. Being so accessible it is also the most crowded of any of the waterfalls in the gorge. Photographers should be prepared to jockey for position and room for your tripod if you’re planning to take anything more than a snapshot of the area.
At the base of the falls a Historic lodge, built in the 1920’s to serve the railway and auto traffic along this route, now serves as a visitors centre, restaurant, cafe, gift shop and ranger station. The base of the falls proves to be the classic view of the area. Be warned though, stay on the marked trails and paths. In an effort to capture something different I started hiking up the river only to be intercepted by an unapologetic park ranger and told, in no uncertain terms, to leave before I got myself hurt. Welcome to the United States of Litigation.
Crowds & Calendars – The Classic Multnomah View
A short paved trail leads away from the crowded base of the falls and through the lush forest towards the Benson Footbridge above the lower falls. The benson footbridge is one of the better views of the upper falls. If you continue up the path you’ll eventually reach a viewing platform above the upper falls giving a bird’s eye perspective of the area.
Photographers rejoice. Facing north, Multnomah Falls is only briefly, at summer solstice, directly illuminated making photography easy for most of the year! Use a tripod, a small aperture and a long shutter speed to capture the motion and feeling of the falls, edit and then print that sucker big and put it on your wall!
The Columbia River Gorge just keeps on giving. Latourell Falls is unique to the gorge in the way it drops off on overhanging basalt cliff. Four Kilometers of well maintained, accessible, paved and well packed gravel trail lead along the steep banks of the ravine sneaking quick glimpses of the waterfalls ahead. A final few switchbacks drop you to the base of the falls and a pedestrian bridge across the creek.
From the bottom of the falls you’ll be treated to a feast for the senses. Thundering waterfalls drown out everything but the sounds of the birds in the trees beside you. Rich yellow green lichen clings to the edges of the basalt cliffs existing where nothing else can. The scent of thriving wildflowers at the base of the waterfall wafts past.
I enjoyed the fact that during my couple hours discovering this place I only came across about ten other people. I guess not being able to see the falls from the road keeps many away. It’s a much more peaceful spot to relax and take it all in than at Multnomah Falls!
I found the best photographic composition to be right of the footbridge using a wide lens. Make sure to include the amazing columnar basalt formations for texture and the green lichen for color. By cropping out most of the sky you’ll cut down on the required dynamic range and be able to expose for the deep shadows you’ll encounter!
Wahkeena translated from native american reportedly means “most beautiful”. The falls at Wahkeena fit this name well. Unlike the nearby Multnomah Falls, Wahkeena falls doesn’t drop straight down, it has more of a cascading flow. These cascades create a beautiful image and the area is popular with photographers.
A 400m walk from the parking lot on well maintained trails brings you to a stone bridge at the base of the falls. From here you’ll be able to see (or shoot) the multiple cascades that make up Wahkeena falls. Following this trail east will take you on a beautiful but moderate (8KM, 550m elevation gain) hike to the famous Multnomah Falls. Passing by overlooks and unnamed waterfalls this is a great way to avoid some of the crowds and the crazy parking situation at Multnomah.
Below Wahkeena falls there are endless photo possibilities. The cascades and boulders backed by the falls make for beautiful compositions even in the dappled light of mid afternoon.
A deep basalt rift leading away from the Columbia River Gorge, Oneonta Gorge easily warrants it very own blog post. This eye-popping chasm is lined with lichen, mosses, ferns and dripping with runoff.
There are four major waterfalls Oneonta creek as it runs through Oneonta Gorge. Middle Oneonta Falls is easily viewed from the footpaths in the area. It is usually mistaken as The upper or lower falls. The lower portion of Oneonta gorge has been preserved as a nature conservancy. Due to the crowds that’s where you’ll want to head as a photographer. Indeed, that’s where you’ll get the amazing shots found in local advertising and magazines.
Prepare to get wet! The picturesque lower falls can be reached only by hiking up the gorge from its outlet at the Columbia River. Walking up the stream bed is simple but affected greatly by the time of year you visit and recent weather. During my trip in the late spring/early summer I ended up having to wade through sections of water chest deep while holding my camera bag above my head hoping not to trip & fall.
If you’re looking to visit the lower falls I’d suggest going later in the summer as water levels fall. The tradeoff to a later visit being that you’ll have less flow over the falls. A waterproof camera bag would be advisable! A sturdy tripod and an adventurous spirit are a must!
No photo’s here, I’m saving those for the Oneonta Gorge post coming soon 😉
When to visit
Late spring and early summer are the best times in the Columbia River Gorge. High levels of runoff and meltwater have the waterfalls flowing at their best and everything looking beautifully green. Wildflowers dot the hillsides and clear warm weather is abundant. Abundant too are tourists. Nevertheless take the time to explore some of the lesser known spots around the gorge for a reprieve.
That’s all for now! I hope you get out to explore.create.educate in the Columbia river gorge. Let me know about your favorite spots. Or share any questions you might have about the waterfalls of the Columbia river gorge in a comment below and I’ll do my best to answer! Look for an upcoming blog post about hiking in the gorge and another dedicated to photography in the Oneonta Gorge soon!