Doing the Columbia River Gorge

By on June 1, 2016

By Carol Lovegren Miller–

If hiking the iconic Eagle Creek trail out of the Columbia River Gorge is not on your “bucket list”, add it now! Because much of this phenomenally beautiful, waterfall-lined trail clings to the canyon wall high above rushing Eagle Creek, my husband, Kyle, compared it to walking a catwalk on a skyscraper. Personally, I was too busy admiring the wildflowers to notice the cliffs; Kyle was too busy noticing the cliffs to admire the wildflowers.

Be advised, it is critical to your enjoyment to not expect solitude while hiking popular trails in the Columbia Gorge near Portland, Oregon, especially on a sunny spring weekend. On the flip side, busy trails do provide some highly entertaining people watching.

Along lengthy sections of slippery trail blasted out of the basalt cliff, a steel cable handrail is bolted along the wall.  My husband gets vertigo (a.k.a. pathetically dizzy) from heights. Undoubtedly, we were the ones providing entertainment when people encountered Kyle hiking along holding the steel cable with one hand and blocking his eyes from the sheer drop-off with his hat in the other hand. 

Shortly before we left for our 32nd wedding anniversary camping trip in the Columbia Gorge on April 1st, the Forest Service posted a warning that winter storms had obliterated a bridge only two miles down Eagle Creek trail and that the crossing was dangerous due to a 15-foot waterfall below the bridge. For two miles we eyed the rushing river far below us uneasily, picturing the danger ahead. Upon reaching the ruined bridge, we stared in humorous disbelief at the “dangerous creek crossing.” Ten foot wide Tish Creek is a whopping foot and a half deep. Even so, in front of us an inexperienced hiker’s legs were shaking so badly she barely made it across the narrow logs.

yacht 1Pick your distance on this trail. Any length hike is worthwhile, but the effort to get in shape for the 13.2 mile round trip to Tunnel Falls yields rich rewards. In the early 1900’s, builders blasted Eagle Creek trail out of a basalt cliff to maximize waterfall views and maintain an easy 5 percent slope. To get around 130-foot Tunnel Falls they blasted a 25-foot tunnel through solid rock directly behind the falls. The tunnel is the thundering highlight of this spectacular hike. A short distance farther at Twisted Falls, the trail calls like a Siren; with great effort we resisted her allure and turned around.

If Tunnel Falls is too far for a day hike, consider hiking 6.4 miles round trip to High Bridge. High Bridge crosses 120 feet above Eagle Creek over a mesmerizing, slot-like chasm of racing water.

Another option is to backpack in – if establishing a backpacking camp along a path that resembles a busy ant trail appeals. Interestingly, we noticed that no one seemed inclined to camp in one previously well-used backpackers’ campsite. Perhaps it was the five, still green, niftily stacked, four-foot diameter trees lying over the top of the campsite that discouraged intrepid campers.

Knowing the popularity of the Eagle Creek trail we heeded warnings to arrive at the trailhead before 9:00 a.m. This precaution saved us an extra mile or two of hiking since the parking lot fills early and people are forced to park up to a mile from the trailhead.  Shattered glass from car break-ins glitters on the pavement with distressing frequency.  Clearly this trailhead, located just off I-84’s exit 40, is easily accessible to urban ruffians. 

Due to our early start, most of our trail companions were fit young couples gingerly passing us. During our return late in the day, we were flabbergasted at the vast cross section of humanity approaching us. Shockingly, there were small children running loose on the perilous trail. From the disproportionate number of rescues in Eagle Creek Canyon, maybe heedless adults shouldn’t be running loose on this trail either. We gasped in dread when one trail runner broke stride to leap a puddle – then stumbled at a particularly hazardous stretch. Whew! He regained his footing.

We watched with interest as another gazelle-like trail runner bounded up the path – with a winded, bulkier-shaped husband struggling after her. When we encountered them again on their return trip the guy shot us an agonized look. Kyle pointed out that guys like him should garner our full admiration – as he glanced significantly from my lean form to his own stockier build.

Not far from the trailhead is a creek crossing that requires picking a path over rocks. Because there is only one good crossing spot, we were astounded to find ourselves caught in a freeway-like people jam on our return trip. Dozens of people were backed up along the trail.

Finding a campsite in the crowded Columbia Gorge can be a challenge, so we crossed the Columbia River at Cascade Locks, over Bridge of the Gods, into Washington. Because my scribbled directions were decidedly sketchy, we were astonished when we actually found the diminutive two-campsite campground at Beacon Rock State Park next to the boat launch. Although we were impressed that the tiny campground boasted showers, we had no idea just how high class our miniature campground was until we noticed yachts moored next door. Included in our ritzy campground’s amenities were trains thundering by on both sides of the river all day… and all night. We hit the jackpot when trains thundered by on both sides simultaneously. 

Because a trip along the scenic Columbia Gorge Highway would not be complete without a foray to the top of famed 542-foot Multnomah Falls, we next set out to hike the 5.4 mile Multnomah Falls loop. Panting people of all varieties stream up and down the switch-backed trail to the top of magnificent Multnomah Falls. Providentially, there are numerous places where “I am just stopping to enjoy the Columbia Gorge view,” provides a great excuse for rest.

Diverging off the “freeway” onto the quieter Larch Mountain leg of the trail we discovered that most people are so focused on getting to the top of the big falls that they miss the nicest part of the trail – where it winds along delightful Multnomah Creek up past three lovely waterfalls.destroyed bridge

Our only disappointment with these hikes was to discover that many people seem to think that tossing brightly colored plastic bags filled with doggie doo along the trail is acceptable trail etiquette. (We may never ask for a “doggie bag” at a restaurant again.)

Our lunch stop at enchanting Fairy Falls was amusing (no, our lunch was not packaged in a brightly colored plastic bag).  Watching folks stagger up from the Wahkeena Falls trailhead below was endlessly entertaining.  One little boy slipped and splattered on the slippery split log bridge below Fairy Falls. When he wiped futilely at his liberally mud smeared-clothes without even a tear, we rewarded his bravery with a cookie.

Kyle seemed to think he should be rewarded with a cookie too after his bravery on two days of dazzling but often dizzying trails. We were out of cookies, but there is a coffee stand at the base of Multnomah Falls…. Clearly one does not have to be alone in a wilderness for some first-rate hiking.

 

Carol Lovegren Miller, Married to Kyle for 32 years and mother of 3 children, is currently planning summer trips and gearing up for canning season as she finishes the school year as a substitute teacher.

Carol Lovegren-Miller

About Carol Lovegren-Miller

Carol Lovegren Miller has been married to Kyle for 32 years and has three grown children. She bakes, cans, organizes church events, and substitute teaches in between her adventures and writing." Carol can be reached at [email protected]

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Doing the Columbia River Gorge