Visiting the Columbia Gorge is a highlight of just about any drive between Utah and Portland. Located off Interstate 84, 25 miles east of Portland, the Columbia Gorge Scenic Highway takes you through a natural waterfall park south of the Columbia River, 775 miles from Salt Lake City.You can conveniently walk from paved parking lots to the bottom of a half-dozen waterfalls. Moderate hikes along well-maintained trails will get you to the top of the waterfalls (and beyond).
In essence, you can get "gorged" on the excellent hiking here. Probably one visitor in 20 takes the time and effort to walk beyond the base of the waterfalls - even though there is a huge difference between visiting the gorge and experiencing it with hikes as brief as 30 minutes.
Unlike hiking in mountains along the Wasatch Front, walking in the gorge seems much easier. Not only are you near sea level (easier breathing), but the climate is cooler and most of the paths are shaded by lush foliage as they climb gradually upward alongside pleasant streams.
If you hike near Salt Lake City, you may see two waterfalls at best, but here they're everywhere. Most trails interconnect with the ultimate destination usually being Larch Mountain. Larch Mountain Highway (a paved mountain road traveling eastward from the city of Corbette) makes it possible to drive to the top of the trailhead at Larch Mountain, be dropped off and hike down to the gorge to be picked up. That way there's NO uphill climbing.
"Forest Trails of the Columbia," published by the U.S. Forest Service, can be purchased in nearby gift shops and stores for $1.25. The guide not only has an excellent map, but also lists the mileage to various scenic attractions on all the trails.
Visitors who only have time to head off the Interstate for a few hours can take short hikes. Motels are available in nearby Troutdale, west of the scenic highway.
I've been to the Columbia Gorge three times, twice in June and once in September. It has been raining during
all but my most recent visit in mid-June of this year. Plan for rain (take an umbrella) and hope for sun.
Also, there has been a wave of thefts from cars parked along the scenic highway this year. Don't leave valuable items in your automobile.
Here's a brief synopsis of two short hikes in the gorge:
Multnomah is the most visited spot in the gorge. It's only a 200-foot walk from a large parking area to the base of the 620-foot waterfall and even less to the lodge.
A paved, three-foot wide trail takes visitors 100 feet above the base of the falls to an observation bridge. The trail to the top of Multnomah (and to Larch Mountain) continues beyond that point, although few people proceed past the bridge.
The trail is gradual and paved all the way to the Multnomah overlook. It offers vistas of the Columbia River en route to the overlook one mile away and 620 feet up. The overlook is well-fenced and offers clear views of the lodge and parking areas below.
Plan on at least a 30-minute walk to reach the top.
The Larch Mountain Trail breaks off the main trail 200 yards before the Multnomah overlook. It is not paved, crosses Multnomah Creek twice and passes several un-named waterfalls - with the highest being probably 80 feet - on the way to Larch Mountain.
Side trails are well-marked and there are several good picnic areas. The trail ends at Larch Mountain Picnic area, 6.8 miles from Multnomah Lodge.
It's not necessary to go all the way to Larch Mountain (a 4,000 foot gain in elevation) since the trail is scenic everywhere. Larch Mountain itself would be a good all-day hike, but you can reach Multnomah Basin Road (2.8-miles one way) in less than three hours.
Alternate routes involve interconnections with the trail to/or from Wahkeena Falls, a distance of 4.6 miles for the long version or 2.7 for a shorter route.
**Oneonta Narrows Hike:
Oneonta is east of Multnomah and is the second-to-the-last stop (heading east) on the scenic highway. Although there is actually an official Oneonta Trail that starts just west of the narrows, it takes a steep route that travels 1.7 miles before reaching Oneonta Creek. I prefer to wear old shoes and shorts and make my own trail up the narrows themselves. I started at the Oneonta Bridge, near the Botanical Gardens sign.
Wading in the water is the key here, but be aware that the river may be too deep and swift in the early spring for a safe passage. The water is cold, but not that bad in the summer.
If you don't want to get wet you can walk a few hundred yards up the gorge (and still catch some of its flavor) by stepping from rock to rock and along the side of the stream.
It's about 600 yards up the river to a narrow 100-foot waterfall. Although this distance is small, walking in the water, to get solid footing (and also to enjoy the botanical view), is slow. It takes about 40 minutes to reach the waterfall and return.
The water is so clear that you can see small fish. The narrows are reminiscent of those in Zion National Park, but these are completely covered with plants and vegetation. Water drips down from rocks above in the most narrow places.
The tricky part comes 100 feet before you reach the waterfall when the gorge narrows to eight feet in width. Here the water gets waist deep, though it is not swift in the summer. At this point some prefer to negotiate above the water, on the right side, by clinging to rocks and choosing careful spots to step and get a hand hold.
The narrows offer an unusual and unforgettable hiking experience. This hike/wade is a must, especially for outdoor lovers with little spare time to spend in the gorge.
* Other trails:
The Columbia Gorge trail system offers 36 different trails, ranging in length from .6 miles (Buck Point Trail) to 21.1 miles with the Pacific Crest Trail.
Bridal Veil and Wahkeena Falls also have separate trails that are easy walks but may be muddy.