Driving and Hiking Along the Historic Columbia River Highway: A Saga

historic columbia hwy

This wasn’t the first time on this trip I wandered into something unprepared. A week or two before my arrival I had been looking up geologically significant places in Oregon on the Internet and some website had mentioned the Columbia River Gorge and basalt fractures so I circled it in my atlas and put no more thought into it. Well, the morning comes when I’m driving that way and I see that the road I’m supposed to be taking is also named The Historic Columbia River Highway and is marked as a scenic route. Perfect, some scenery en route to some cool rocks. Within a few miles the road enters this lush forest and starts following the gorge overlooking the Columbia River. Eventually I come upon a lookout and then a second lookout with an octagonal stone building, whereupon I learn about the construction of this road in the early 20th century (which is still lined with stone retaining walls and has some original bridges) and which is pretty interesting and quite lovely.

Vista House at Crown Point Overlook, Oregon

Vista House at Crown Point Overlook, Oregon

I continue driving along this gorgeous byway and see a sign for Latourell Falls. I of course stop and walk towards the falls, which are a stunning straight 250 foot drop from overhanging basalt.

Latourell Falls from overlook, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon

Latourell Falls from overlook, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon

This is where the unprepared part comes in. I see a trail off to my left so I begin climbing, thinking it must go to the top of the falls. Well, I finally reach the level of the falls and I start to pass the tributary creek but I’ve already passed the falls and the trail is continuing so I just keep going. And about a mile later I reach what I later learned is the Upper Latourell Falls.

Upper Latourell Falls, Latourell Falls Loop Trail, Oregon

Upper Latourell Falls, Latourell Falls Loop Trail, Oregon

I hike the mile back and then find a loop down to the base of the original (lower) falls – so I go

Latourell Falls from the bottom (notice the basalt columns!), Oregon

Latourell Falls from the bottom (notice the basalt columns!), Oregon

Truly exquisite, I’m thinking. At this point I’m also thinking I should have worn anything other than the one hiking-inappropriate shirt I brought on this trip. But I get back in the car and travel on – but not far at all because I see a sign for Bridal Veil Falls. So I park and take the trail and within ten minutes, wow, another really gorgeous waterfall:

Bridal Veil Falls from trail, Oregon

Bridal Veil Falls from trail, Oregon

I return to the car and then not even a few minutes later come upon a sign for Wahkeena Falls. There is a lovely picnic area across the road from the trailhead and at this point I’m hungry so I stop and make some pasta and kale for lunch and then set off on a less than half mile climb to… a 242 foot cascading waterfall surrounded by pillowy, electric green mosses.

Top cascade of Wahkeena Falls, Oregon

Top cascade of Wahkeena Falls, Oregon

The lush and vibrant green moss of Wahkeena Falls, Oregon

The lush and vibrant green moss of Wahkeena Falls, Oregon

I return to the trailhead and then take the other branch towards Multnomah Falls, which I remember seeing marked in my atlas. I roughly parallel the road for about half a mile, coming upon some amazing overhanging fractured basalt and also these hanging plants:

Hanging plants along trail to Multnomah Falls trailhead, Oregon

Hanging plants along trail to Multnomah Falls trailhead, Oregon

Then the trail opens into a rather large parking area and I get a glimpse of the 620 foot Multnomah Falls. As you can see in the picture, there is a footbridge crossing the lower span so I marched up there as well. Ah, but then the trail continues for a mile and a quarter and 700 feet to the top. So after hiking up a ridiculous number of switchbacks and descending a bit back down, you can just see the very top of the falls, right before it goes over the edge. What would have otherwise been a nice view of the Columbia River however was marred by the parking lot, so I’ll spare you that picture.

Multnomah Falls viewed from the bottom, Oregon

Multnomah Falls viewed from the bottom, Oregon

Top cascade of Multnomah Falls from footbridge, Oregon

Top cascade of Multnomah Falls from footbridge, Oregon

So I hiked back down, took the return trail to the Wahkeena Trailhead, and continued on. Soon I see another sign for Oneonta Falls (with the parking area full of emergency rescue teams and news reporters – more on that in a bit) so I park down the road a way and hike back to what the trailhead claims is a 0.8 mile trip to Horsetail Falls. So I’m hiking… and hiking… and it’s been about 45 minutes (which is 30 minutes too long) and I’m a bit worried that I might have taken the wrong trail at a juncture, but then I come upon the lovely Horsetail Falls:

Horsetail Falls - or so I thought.  This may be Upper Horsetail Falls, Oregon

Horsetail Falls – or so I thought. This may be Upper Horsetail Falls, Oregon

Except it doesn’t really resemble a horsetail and I feel like I hiked too long to get there so I ask the two hikers that are coming from the other direction if there are other falls to which I get an affirmative. Note, I probably should have asked where I was or what I was looking at but I start climbing again and hike for about another 30 minutes before finally reaching the other falls, which I think is actually Ponytail Falls. Yet another waterfall you can walk behind!

Ponytail Falls, Oregon

Ponytail Falls, Oregon

View from behind Ponytail Falls, Oregon

View from behind Ponytail Falls, Oregon

Ponytail Falls: you can walk behind it AND pretty much get under it.

Ponytail Falls: you can walk behind it AND pretty much get under it.

Well, I turn around even though the trail continues because it was already after 5 o’clock and I knew that there were multiple unmarked and indistinctive junctions in the trail that I might get confused about. Let’s just say that was a very good decision because I did in fact take the wrong trail at one point and at a second point I could hear people on the trail above me also wondering where they were (sadly, I could not help them with this). After the navigational challenges I encountered, coupled with the parking lot full of mountain rescue teams and news vans, I Googled the trailhead name the next day and came to find out that a church leader and a bunch of teenagers had become stranded on the mountain after getting lost and then trying to go off trail to descend back to the road. Apparently they got stuck on a cliff so steep they could neither climb back up nor keep descending. So I think perhaps the State of Oregon should update their trailhead signs with accurate distances and consider marking the junctions. Just a suggestion.

I found my way back to the trailhead eventually and started driving only to see the sign for Horsetail Falls and the falls themselves, easily visible from the road. So, I give you the real Horsetail Falls:

Horsetail Falls, Oregon

Horsetail Falls, Oregon

And after that, I returned to I-84 East and exited the forest, returning to the dry woodlands and then grasslands in the Cascade Mountain rainshadow. So it isn’t inaccurate to say that I saw a lot of cool basalt formations – most of which I neglected to actually show you – but it would be very misleading to say that it is the main attraction in the Columbia River Gorge. And next time I am most certainly going to wear a breathable shirt and something other than denim shorts.

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